The Croagh, ab initio

A Sobering Dose of What’s Necessary

A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.

James Joyce, Ulysses

There is a small gate that marks the official beginning of the traditional route for climbing Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland. It is a point of transition, just a few yards from the shamrock blessing of its most celebrated saint and the initial introduction of this unruly and rocky Reek (the Irish name for a “small hill” and the given name of this summit by the locals).

From the Parking Lot, you climb a wide staircase leading to the statue of St. Patrick, then a brief stony and bumpy incline, and next the gate. Taken together they offer a silent word of caution : “Be aware brave traveler, there is far more of this and worse beyond this entrance. Now, off you go, with a blessing and a little taste of what’s ahead.”

“I have done it a couple of times,” forewarned one of these locals, a woman I guessed to be near my age of 60 years gone. “It will be intense.” I expected her to say it would be “challenging,” “difficult,” or maybe, “extreme.” But she had chosen her word carefully and wisely. The exactitude of her on-point and clear description would return to me again and again in the hours spent beyond the gate.

The Reek will be intense and it has earned the right to be so. In 1994, Archeologist Gerry Walsh discovered glass beads dating from the 3rd Century B.C.E. and other pre-Christian evidences of the ancient and sacred significance of this holy mountain. Near the summit are indications of a Celtic hill fort, where settlers living in the Bronze and Iron Ages constructed thatched roof homes and carved-out ridges on elevated slopes as a means of protection and defense from outside threats.

St. Patrick at the base of the Croagh bearing his name

It was the fabled Maewyn Succat, a former slave living in the later 4th or early 5th Century who would make this mountain famous. Taken from Roman Britain by Irish pirates at the age of 16, Succat would eventually escape his captors after working 6 years on Irish farms. Newly liberated and upon returning to his native land, he devoted himself more deeply into his Catholic faith, taking on a new name for himself, perhaps as a means to acknowledge his hard-won and elevated status, once a despised slave to become a respectable, noble and virtuous contributor to society.

But you can never completely leave your past behind, even those parts that shame and trouble you. The newly-named Patrick would hear the voice of his former captors in Ireland pleading for his return as God’s own claim and call upon his life. As immortalized on the columned statue bearing his name in the lovely and nearby town of Westport, it was those who had once abused and exploited him now pleading out, “We ask you boy, come and walk once more among us.”

Though never officially canonized as a “Saint,” the reputation of St. Patrick would grow to legendary proportions. Credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish, he is also remembered for spending 40 days and nights in fasting and prayer at the peak of Croagh Patrick.

Christian pilgrims have been flocking to scale its heights ever since. Twice a year, there are walking pilgrimages from Ballinrobe, also in County Mayo. This 40 kilometers trek culminates by scaling the south-side of the Reek and finishes with a service at the small chapel on the summit. On the last Sunday of July, you’ll find 25,000 on “Reek Sunday,” commemorating their Saint and his blessed mountain. Some even prepared to made the arduous climb barefooted or face down on hands and knees.

Onward On the Reek

Christian now went to the spring, and drank thereof, to refresh himself
[Isa. 49:10], and then began to go up the hill, saying— “The hill, though high, I covet to ascend, The difficulty will not me offend.”

John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

My decision to climb Croagh Patrick was planned in order to culminate my Sabbatical trip to Ireland. I had been introduced to the great city of Dublin and much of Ireland through the reading and studying of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But it was this Saint and his sacred mountain where I heard my name being called.

Ulysses is a complicated journey of one day in the life of busy urbanites. Climbing the Reek, is a challenging, most of the day (at least for me– some elite athletes have been known to finish the round trip in under 40 minutes) kind of commitment. It would be a journey of heavy-breathing, heart-beating, and hair-raising exhilaration.

“Could I do it, with a bum knee promised for a replacement?” spoke the quiet voice of doubt within me. Just last summer, I was laid up for a week from nothing more severe than a walk around my mostly flat, well-groomed, comfortably-paved and sidewalk lined neighborhood?” For six – months, the Reek was patiently waiting my answer. “I will be here, when you are ready, if you are ready.”

The Day is Young and The Croagh Waits in the Distance

One faith is bondage. Two are free. In the trust of old love.

Wendel Berry, Homecoming

OFundamental to any success I have every achieved is attributed to the supportive people who have helped me meet a challenging endeavor. For this adventure, I credit my wife, Donna. The day we had chosen for the climb began with overcast skies but held no promise of rain, which would have been an absolutely game-ending hazard for our plans. Though fog had settled upon the summit, the day was young. Even more erratic than our home state of Kentucky, the weather in Ireland can change in an instance. Perhaps it will clear up by the time we arrive to offer the stunning views we have heard so much about? Donna and I set out filled with excitement, optimism and a healthy appreciation for going as far as our legs, backs and common sense would allow.

The walking sticks were as essential to our progress as our mutual encouragement to one another. Rented at the base of the climb (4 Euros each with 2 Euros back if returned), I chose my companion wisely and thought of Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant in Ulysses, and the spiritual and metaphorical significance it entails. I also wondered about my link with the shared partners, all strangers who had also depended upon its support in the past, as I was also certain to do in the long moments ahead. I would soon discover its necessity by providing a minimum of three points of contact to the steady incline at all times. I imagined the trinitarian-driven and committed St. Patrick would be pleased. Two is better than one. Three the perfect balance. Four, the absolute most before things become over-crowded.

After the first 30 minutes, things were pretty manageable. We were fresh upon our journey. Children skipped their way up with their siblings and parents. Older folks, like us, had pushed up, sometimes with our free hands upon hips and knees but moving steadily forward. Before the hour was out, we began to feel the strain to the thighs and calves as the temperatures begin to rise with the warming sun. While still overcast, we were amazed at the incredible scenery our measured pace of walking allowed us to relish.

Wild in that wilderness, we roam the distances of our faith, safe beyond the bounds of what we know.

Wendel Berry, A Homecoming

Climbing the Croagh Patrick is a metaphor for the pilgrimage of life. Sometimes the path is easy and we can breeze through it without many concerns. Sometimes the path is incredibly hard and can only be endured with careful steps, all planned out in un-hurried and manageable stages.

During these tough times, your focus is limited to your most immediate surroundings. On the Croagh, it was often no greater than the cautious planting of one foot in front of the other. For a while, you felt like a slug wobbling across a large pebble, inching your way along. Will this ever end? But after a while, if you take the time to stop and turn around, you are amazed at your actual progress. And by taking this little bit of time; and granting yourself some patience, some moments to sit and process, and rest rather than work, and breathe those desperate breaths of renewal, you can realize a few treasured seconds to finally look all around, and ponder the magnificence of your existence enveloped within the awesome beauty of life.

I could not be more appreciative of Donna. Not only had she endured an inexperienced driver (me) on the narrow and twisting roads of the Irish countryside, at times traveling with held-breath on the precarious passenger side of a car skimming within inches of the hedges and stone-walls that hugged the roads necessary to get there, but she had set off on this risky venture as well.

All of this in the context of the past three years of her managing chronic back pain, scoliosis, and degenerative disk disease. She had nearly reached the half way point, close to the 400 meter mark of the 763 meters required to reach the summit. It was time for clarity, for upon the Reek there is always a constant assessment being made.

We found a rock large enough for both of us to sit and deliberate. Once the decision was made to separate, we had been at it for an hour and a half and I had no idea of the difficulty ahead. As first-timers climbers to the Reek, our minds were always busy trying to guess beyond our limited horizon, working through each section bit by bit, and attempting to envision past the next ridge of what we were about to ask our bodies to do. I was going to try, at least, to make it to the level section between the two hills.

Donna also brought the mystery rosary. In 2001, she had run a marathon in Rome for the American Diabetics Association. On the way, she had taken four different rosaries from family and friends, each in their own individual plastic bags to be blessed by the Pope: John Paul II. Surprisingly, upon returning to the States there was an extra rosary in her baggage. None of her traveling companions had placed it there and its origin has remained a mystery ever since.

Leacht Beanain* facing East away from Croagh Patrick

This rosary, carried by Donna was given to me as I began to attempt the rest of the climb solo. After another 45 minutes, I had reached my goal. At 550 meters, the more leveled path is a most welcomed relief. And another area for some very serious evaluation. The hiker can look at the amazing views to the northeast and southeast of the ascent, before turning around to ponder the ominous and most arduous final section.

The calves were already on fire. I had moderated the knee pain with careful use of the walking stick. Breathing was being forced to the outside corners of the mouth. Watching my heart rate on the iWatch, I would rest whenever it peaked 160 bpm. I was alone. Cloud cover was still swirling around the summit. There was no promise of a more scenic view than the one I was now enjoying. What if I re-injured my leg or passed out or twisted an ankle or snapped my shin on the steep and rocky path going down? I was not coming off this mountain injured.

The View from Leacht Beanain*

I set the mystery rosary in front of me as I faced the summit and spent 15 precious minutes trying to make a crucial decision. Was this the end of my first and perhaps only experience upon the Croagh?

Read Part Two here.

*I believe this is Leacht Beanain (named after St. Patrick’s disciple, Benignus) and described in the Reek Sunday Station Guide as a small circular cairn of stones at the base of the cone.


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