- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 1: Errigal
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 2: Muckish
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 3: Slieve Binnian
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 4: Slievemore
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 5: Croaghaun
- Walking Ireland’s Iconic Mountains – Number 6: Croagh Patrick
The last two stops on our Iconic Mountains of Ireland tour were on Achill Island as we took in the magnificent Slievemore and the mighty Croaghaun, the two highest mountains on the island. We’re staying in County Mayo and paying a visit to a mountain which is visible from the summit of both Slievemore and Croaghaun and is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most climbed of Ireland’s mountains.
Croagh Patrick, known locally as ‘The Reek’ and nicknamed ‘Ireland’s Holy Mountain’, is believed to have been a site of pilgrimage for at least 5000 years. It’s association with Saint Patrick who reputedly fasted atop the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights whilst battling pagan gods has seen it become an important place of Christian pilgrimage. Each year, up to 30,000 pilgrims climb the mountain on ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July.
I had heard many varied opinions on Croagh Patrick, many avid hill walkers choose to give it a wide berth citing the commercialisation of the mountain and its problems with erosion and over-crowding. Other people see a climb of the mountain as one of life’s essential experiences, be it for spiritual or religious reasons or simply to tick off another entry on their ‘bucket-list’. Despite having climbed several mountains in the West of Ireland, I had never ventured up Croagh Patrick previously so was arriving with an open mind.
There are certain mountains that captivate people from first glimpse such as Errigal and Muckish in Donegal, the unmistakable Ben Bulben in Sligo and the mythical Paps in Kerry. The pure and simple beauty of Croagh Patrick sees it fall into this same category.
Standing guard over the peaceful waters of Clew Bay in a genuinely breath-taking area, the mountain dominates the landscape for miles and looms large over the busy and quaint town of Westport. It is easy to see why its dazzling quartzite pyramid and sheer presence has drawn pilgrims for thousands of years and why so many people feel compelled to climb its steep scree-covered slopes. There can be few more impressive and arresting sights than that of the face of Croagh Patrick rearing up in front of you when travelling the R335 road from Westport to Murrisk. Viewed from any direction, this is a mountain that simply demands to be climbed and on any given day, that attraction is turned into a seemingly endless line of people clambering up its steep profile.
Most people will visit Croagh Patrick from Westport from where the mountain is well signposted and a short drive of about 8km on the R335. Westport itself is served by both bus and train from Dublin and Galway. Parking is available at the information centre car park situated at the foot of the mountain. Note that there is a charge for this which is a source of some controversy, the current rate being one euro for the first hour and fifty cent per hour thereafter. If you get there early, you might be lucky and find some roadside parking for which there is no charge.
Check out the accommodation section of our website contains a list of partner accommodations in County Mayo.
Each of the premises listed in the accommodation directory is walker-friendly and approved by Walking & Hiking Ireland.
There are a number of routes up the mountain but by far the most popular is the traditional Pilgrim route which starts at the car park. Signs point you to the start of the trail and the huge path, chiselled out by the feet of generations who have climbed Croagh Patrick’s slopes, guides the way from there. After passing by a white statue of Saint Patrick, you enter the open mountainside through a creaking gate and the climb begins in earnest.
The climb of Croagh Patrick can be broken roughly into three sections, section 1 leads from the car-park to the shoulder of the mountain. This section starts off gradually but gets very steep in places with superb views across Clew Bay opening up with each step. The end of this section is marked with what must be Ireland’s highest shop, a fragile looking wooden enclosure anchored to the mountain by massive lumps of concrete and stones. Although closed on my ascent of the mountain, it was open on the way down with the shopkeeper revelling in his monopoly and doing a roaring trade in Tayto crisps, Snack Bars, cans of Coke and bottles of Lucozade.
Section 2, the shortest and easiest of the climb, provides some pleasant walking along the shoulder of the mountain. At this point, views open up to the south across to the Sheefry Mountains and the rugged Mweelrea uprising. The track passes a stone cairn which forms a ‘station’ where prayers are said by pilgrims. As you move along the shoulder, the final part of the climb comes into view with the massive pyramid of grey rock looking impossibly yet impressively steep. It is hard to know if the loose scree or the bare dust-covered ground provides the best foothold but whatever the path, the going is tough on this final section and the gable-end of the church marking the summit of the mountain forms a welcome sight as you approach the top.
The summit area is not as big as I had envisaged and is dominated by the small church which was built and dedicated in 1905. The materials to construct the church were brought up the mountain by local men using donkeys in a project that took a year to complete. The summit also hosts toilets and a stone structure called St. Patrick’s Bed which forms another ‘station’ for pilgrims along with the church. The various buildings at the summit are not to everyone’s liking but no-one can dispute the beauty in their surroundings.
The views are dominated by Clew Bay and its stunning myriad of green drumlin islands. I hadn’t time to count these islands but the local marketing gurus would have you believe that they number 365, one for every day of the year! Further out is Clare Island, dominated by shapely Knockmore and home to legendary Granuaile, followed by the unmistakable outline of the cliffs at Achill Head leading onto Achill Island. To the North lies the vast wilderness of the Nephin Beg mountain range, probably Ireland’s most remote landscape, with mighty Nephin standing alone and aloof to the North-East. With the aforementioned Mweelrea and Sheefry mountains to the south, there are stunning panoramic vistas in practically every direction making this possibly one of the finest viewpoints in Ireland.
The church walls offer shelter in which to enjoy a snack before retracing your steps back down the mountain. Depending on the time of day, you will most likely meet a stream of climbers asking how far they are from the top. Again, care is needed on the descent especially on the two steep sections.
“The wonderful panoramic views of the fantastic Mayo landscape add to the experience but this is a mountain on which the social journey uphill is a magical and worthwhile experience”
I really hadn’t know what to expect from Croagh Patrick. As someone who enjoys the solitude of hill-walking, the stories of over-crowding had concerned me. What I found however was a mountain that stands testament to the strength of human spirit. It is a mountain on which I met two elderly women, certainly in their eighties, spending a day climbing the mountain together to preserve a tradition that had gone back a number of years. It was a mountain on which I was in a constant state of transient discussion with strangers as we shared a few fleeting moments together struggling with the famous slopes of this magnificent mountain. The wonderful panoramic views of the fantastic Mayo landscape add to the experience but this is a mountain on which the social journey uphill is a magical and worthwhile experience.
On the way back down, I was told that you are guaranteed a place in heaven if you climb Croagh Patrick 3 times. If I’m honest, I don’t need an excuse to make a return to Ireland’s Holy Mountain!