Five Facts About Croagh Patrick You May Not Know
Croagh Patrick - Amayo Photography

Five Facts About Croagh Patrick You May Not Know

Fun Facts To Know Before You Climb

Okay, so we all know that Saint Patrick spent 40 days fasting on Croagh Patrick, that it’s a special place of pilgrimage and that its impossibly symmetrical ‘cone’ looks like a big purplish pyramid guarding Clew Bay.

But did you know that it has witnessed gory Indiana Jones-like rituals? Or that it had a different name before the Christians moved in? Or that it holds hidden treasure?

No? Well, prepare to be amazed.

The name ‘Croagh Patrick’ comes from the Irish ‘Cruach Phádraig’ meaning ‘Patrick’s Stack’. The mountain is known locally as The Reek, from ‘rick’ or ‘stack’. (Turf and hay are traditionally stacked in open-air ricks similar to the mountain’s shape.)

In pre-Christian times, Croagh Patrick was known as Cruachán Aigle. Some believe the older name is connected to a pagan harvest deity, the dark god Cromm Crúaich, later known as Crom Dubh. Others go with the literal translation – Eagle Mountain or Mount Eagle.

Perhaps backing up the latter theory, the Marquesses of Sligo (of nearby Westport House) also hold the title Baron Mount Eagle, and an eagle is represented in the family’s crest.

Mayo was once home to huge numbers of Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles, but sadly they were hunted to extinction by the early 20th century. However, with reintroduction programmes now underway, these majestic birds could soon glide over Cruachán Aigle once more. Wouldn’t that be fitting?

2. Rituals old and new

The Reek was a sacred place long before 441 AD, when St Patrick scaled its slopes without so much as a hang sandwich to keep him going for 40 days. In fact, it was a site of worship as far back as 3000 BC.

The ‘Cairn of Stones’ lies at the base of the mountain’s cone, and it is here that ancient peoples are believed to have gathered at Lughnasa, the start of the harvest season. It is said that they would appease their pagan deities, such as Lugh and Danu, by performing primal rituals – including human sacrifice. Grisly.

The cairn is now called Leacht Beanain, after St Patrick’s disciple Benignus, and it is the first of Croagh Patrick’s three prayer stations. Christian pilgrims walk around Leacht Beanain seven times and recite seven Our Fathers, seven Hail Marys and one Creed, before starting the most arduous part of the climb. The most devout complete this journey barefoot – no mean feat considering the conical ascent is covered in sharp shards of shale that would challenge the nimblest mountain goat.

The chapel that sits on Croagh Patrick’s summit was built in 1905 by 12 local men, using local stone and cement that was hauled up the mountain’s steep sides by donkey. In a nice nod to the past, donkeys are still used on the annual pilgrimage day, Reek Sunday. Today, their loads are lighter: they carry refreshments to the summit for the pilgrims – and in true Tidy Towns style, they also bring the resulting rubbish back down.

On a clear day, the chapel at the summit of The Reek shines like a tiny white beacon, reminding all of the extraordinary efforts of man and beast. However, it turns out that it is not the first church to be built up there. In 1994, archaeological excavations discovered the remains of the foundations of a much older chapel at the summit. Called Teampall Phádraig, it dates back to the 5th century.

Every year, on two dates only, a strange and mesmerising phenomenon takes place on The Reek. On April 18 and August 24 the setting sun appears to roll down Croagh Patrick’s north-western flank when viewed from a very specific and very ancient vantage point: the ancient Boheh Stone.

Lying four miles south of Westport, the mysterious Boheh Stone is one of the finest examples of neolithic rock art in the country. Believed to have been carved as early as 3,800 BC, its surface is covered in many ‘cup and ring’ marks, as well as ‘keyhole’ motifs – about 250 engravings in total. It is thought that the ‘Rolling Sun’ phenomenon may have inspired the prehistoric artists to decorate the stone.

Date-specific sun alignment and prehistoric rock art? Take that Newgrange!

The Boheh Stone is also known locally as St Patrick’s Chair. Maybe the saint took a load off here twice a year, and watched in awe as the bi-annual sundown spectacular unfolded before him, while supping a beer made by his own personal brewer, Mescan.

5. There’s gold in them thar hills

During the 1980s, a seam of gold was discovered in the mountain, and as sure as night follows day, the find led to dollar signs appearing in the eyes of some. Towards the end of the decade, plans to mine the holy mountain were announced – and all manner of hell broke loose.

The plans drew massive opposition from the local community, who launched a campaign to save their sacred mountain. With an estimated 770,000 tons of the precious metal – worth over €360 million – at stake, the battle was not to be an easy one.

Westport man Paddy Hopkins, who had grown up at the foothills of The Reek in what is now The Sheebeen pub, headed the campaign to stop the mining. He set up The Mayo Environmental Group, organised a huge public rally and persuaded celebrity British botanist and environmentalist David Bellamy to come over and show his support for the anti-mine movement.

True to form, Bellamy gave an impassioned speech, arguing persuasively that Croagh Patrick and its scenic hinterland ought to be designated a world heritage site, and describing the act of putting the area ‘up for grabs’ for prospecting licences as ‘rank vandalism’.

In an interview on the national RTÉ News, a spokesperson for Burmin, a Tipperary-based company that hoped to excavate the mountain, admitted they were getting ‘browned-off with people jumping up and down’ about the potential impacts.

Eventually, Mayo County Council listened to the chorus of opposition within the local community and did not allow the mining to go ahead, deciding that the gold is ‘fine where it is’.

And so the long-running saga came to an end, confirming what most people knew all along: You just can’t put a price on a mountain like Croagh Patrick.