Rising to 764m to the east of Louisburgh, the cone of Croagh (pronounced “croak”) Patrick dominates Clew Bay and the Westport area. It was the pagan home of the mother goddess, now converted into the holiest mountain in Christian Ireland, and on a fine day offers an awesome panorama, stretching from the Twelve Bens in the south to Slieve League in the north.
The starting point for the ascent of Croagh Patrick is the excellent visitor centre on the R335 on the north side of the peak. Here you’ll find lockers, showers, advice about the climb and the weather, an excellent café and a DVD on the history of the mountain (on request). During his long missionary tour of the island, St Patrick is supposed to have passed the forty days of Lent in 441 alone on the mountain, finding time to hurl all of Ireland’s snakes to their deaths over the precipice of Lugnanarrib just to the south of the summit. This association with the saint has made Croagh Patrick the focus of major pilgrimages, which take place three times a year, on March 17 (St Patrick’s Day), August 15 (Assumption Day) and – the main event – on the last Sunday in July, Reek Day (which coincides with the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasa). On this day, tens of thousands of pilgrims still make the climb to attend Mass on the summit, some of them fasting and walking barefoot.
The climb itself, taking on average 3hr 30min return, is easy to follow though very steep in places – you’ll need good walking shoes and preferably a stick, available from the visitor centre. At the summit you’ll find a small chapel that took twelve men six months to construct in 1905, though archeologists have discovered evidence of much earlier building work up here, a massive rampart dating from pagan times.