Having driven beneath the slopes of Ireland’s holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick, a dozen or more times with little more than an upward glance toward the summit, I harbored for years a longing to see for myself what the pilgrimage to the peak was all about. I had read that octogenarians often climb the slopes in bare feet; surely I would have no trouble as a 60-year old male in fine health and sensible shoes.
So, in September 2015, one gray Saturday morning between rainstorms, I determined it was time to be my best pilgrim, grabbed a bottle of water and a chocolate bar, and blithely announced to my dearest I’d meet her back in our rented flat in a couple hours.
I was not raised Catholic–or Pagan for that matter–though my family of origin would argue that I had been left on their doorstep and could have been from either lineage. Which is to say that the notion of a “pilgrimage”–though it has a familiar ring–has not been part of what motivates me. That stated, as I began the ascent I was struck by the certainty that millions of people before me–with or without shoes–had been compelled since the 5th century to reach the top of this peak where St. Patrick allegedly spent forty days and forty nights casting out serpents and converting the Irish to Catholicism. And where for centuries prior to St. Patrick the indigenous Irish observed rituals from the summit hailing the return of summer. This path is not the one less travelled.
Thinking about eighty-year olds traipsing up and down the rugged trail in bare feet would have left me breathless, had I not been gasping already from the steep and challenging terrain a few dozen meters into the climb. Over eons of use the trail has become as wide as R335 which runs below the mountain, but unlike the smooth tarmac of the road, the trail up “The Reek” is strewn with jagged, craggy, rough rocks ranging in size from fist to skull and then some. Add to this a slope at times greater than 45 degrees and a pleasant day hike up a small mountain promptly takes on the look and feel of a bonafide pilgrimage. Was I doing penance? If so, I was delighted to find myself clambering the route along with Swiss, Portuguese, French, Russians, Japanese, Germans and–thank St. Patrick–several shoe-clad Irish.
It took a little under two hours to summit and about the same to stumble back down. I was not aware of any traditional ritual or prayer or other observance to make on the summit other than to take the only Selfie on my cell phone I have done to date…standing happily and gratefully in front of the mist-enshrouded sign declaring that I had completed my pilgrimage to reach the top of Croagh Patrick.