The Bible lists several mountaintop experiences. Next month, on Aug. 6, we celebrate one of them: the Transfiguration of the Lord. In the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and the prophet Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
Mountaintops still color our faith experiences and one such generations-old tradition takes place this month in Ireland. Called “Reek Sunday,” this trek usually takes place on the last Sunday of July at Croagh Patrick (Cruach Phádraig). This conical hill, named for St. Patrick, overlooks Clew Bay in the North Atlantic Ocean. Croagh Patrick is 2,510 high, with a steep climb toward the top.
Every year, thousands climb Ireland’s “Holy Mountain” to remember Patrick who fasted and prayed there for 40 days in the year 441. Other legends say the Irish saint also battled demons, druids and even pagan chieftains on the mountain.
The tradition of climbing Croagh Patrick goes back at least to the 12th century, though the practice increased in the 20th century, when Ireland became independent. This part of Ireland lies in the Republic of Ireland.
Each year, several thousand people make the climb, stopping at three stations and at a tiny chapel on the peak. However, last year, due to COVID-19, Ireland’s bishops canceled the pilgrimage. This year, with the pandemic still a concern, they have extended the Reek Sunday tradition through July.
Croagh Patrick is in the Archdiocese of Tuam. Earlier this year, the archdiocese announced the extended pilgrimage. Fr. Charlie McDonnell, administrator of the closest parish — St. Mary of Westport — served as spokesperson and explained the change: “Pilgrimage has always been a strong vehicle for both petition and thanksgiving and, in 2021, above any year, we are delighted to offer and extended Reek Pilgrimage acknowledging and giving thanks for the fact that we journey very much under the protective hand of God.”
He added: “This year, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, it would be impossible to facilitate the pilgrimage on one day only.” So the archdiocese has asked priests around Ireland to volunteer to celebrate Mass and hear confessions each day in July. Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam will celebrate Mass on the summit on Sunday morning, July 25.
Reek Sunday gets its name from the local name for Croagh Patrick: “the Reek,” no doubt an abbreviation of “Patrick.”
The climb up begins in the village of Murrisk, at a small visitor center on the north side of the mountain. Entrepreneurs sell religious items and locally carved walking sticks. The start of the climb is gentle and leads to three successive stations. Pilgrims walk three times around each station, praying or reflecting. While it is discouraged, some walk at least part of the way to the top barefoot. Stone cairns mark each station. Another starting point lies about 22 miles away at Ballintubber Abbey, along a pilgrim path called Tóchar Phádraig.
- The first station is a large statue of St. Patrick, reached by a staircase. Since it is fairly easy to reach, this is where older people and children often finish their climb.
Halfway up the mountain, pilgrims reach “the ridge.” Here they find cairns marking older, now unused, stations. Many pilgrims stop to gather stones to spell out their names, or the names of someone they are making the pilgrimage for.
- The second station is at the top of the hill at a cordoned-off area known as “Patrick’s Bed” (Leaba Phádrag). The saint is said to have slept here during his pilgrimage. Back then, before the mountain was “Croagh Patrick,” it was “Cruachan Aigli.” Cruachan means a cone-shaped mountain. Aigli means “eagle.”
- The final station lies back at the bottom of the mountain, on its west side. It is “Our Lady’s Cemetery” (Reilig Mhuire). The graves there date back to the Bronze Age, long before Patrick and even before Christ’s birth. The Bronze Age lasted about 2,000 years and started when humans learned to smelt copper, around 3,300 B.C.
The chapel atop the mountain dates to 1905. It was built by local villagers who carried stones and other materials up the mountain on foot or with donkeys.
While the trek may seem a lovely climb, one should remember that the near presence of the North Atlantic can cause sudden rain and fog. In 2015, the weather caused the Reek Sunday trek to be canceled entirely.
Likewise, the loose and rugged stones on the path, especially on the nearly 45-degree angle near the top, make the walk tricky. Each year, pilgrims need to be rescued by the Mayo County’s Mountain Rescue. The rescue crew averages about 50 incidents a year, most of them on Croagh Patrick.
Julianne Stanz, director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, grew up in Ireland. She has climbed Croagh Patrick several times, though not on Reek Sunday. She calls the experience “pretty intense.”
“I remember seeing an elderly man, whom I learned later was in his early 80s, climbing the mountain barefoot,” she said. “He climbed ahead of me and I could see the sores and blisters breaking and leaving a blood trail behind. When we reached the mountain, I commented to him that he had just carried out a remarkable feat and he responded, ‘It is nothing compared to what Our Lord did for me,’ with tears in his eyes. To this day, it remains one of my favorite moments on pilgrimage.”
All pilgrimages reorient us to God. In 2020, even though the climb was canceled, Archbishop Neary celebrated a Reek Sunday Mass on July 26 at St. Mary in Westport. In his homily, he said, “Croagh Patrick … highlights our fragility, our vulnerability and, at the same time, it enables us to catch a glimpse of and appreciate the bigger world, its beauty and our responsibility as we support each other on our journey towards the summit and on our life’s journey.”