Croagh Patrick: the holiest mountain in Ireland

Croagh Patrick, County Mayo

Stand where St Patrick himself once stood, as you take a spiritual journey like no other...

"By the time you reach the top you feel connected not just to the people around you, but to all the others back across the centuries who have stood where you stand. It's a dizzying feeling and it changes you” – Vanessa Harris, who found herself in awe of the effect climbing Croagh Patrick had on her, and on other pilgrims. But what exactly is this pilgrimage?

A pilgrim’s tale

Martin Sheen's starring role in The Way tells the story of a man who feels compelled to walk one of the great routes in Europe, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, after the death of his son. In This Must Be The Place, Sean Penn is drawn from exile in Dublin to cross America and "understand" his family.

The physical challenge also drew me in. Pilgrimage is supposed to be arduous. The tougher the trip, goes the thinking, the greater the spiritual affirmation.

Vanessa Harriss, travel writer

It seems that while the idea of a religious pilgrimage is old-fashioned, the idea of a journey that brings insight runs deep. According to Vanessa Harriss, that journey is more than fulfilled with a trip up Ireland’s holiest mountain: Croagh Patrick.

On the trail of St Patrick

Just outside the Wild Atlantic Way town of Westport in County Mayo stands the scree-covered peak of Croagh Patrick. Known locally as “the Reek”, it’s scaled by thousands each year on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, with some of the more devout tackling the 7km pilgrim trail and 750m climb barefoot. Mass is then held in the summit’s chapel, which sits on a spot that has been a place of worship since the 5th century. 

The experience is made by the people you encounter on the way. When I set off, I thought only of the effort ahead.

Vanessa Harriss, travel writer

Named in honour of Ireland’s patron saint, it was on this mountain in 441AD that St Patrick spent the 40 days of Lent fasting. The arduous climb is now a tradition that is handed down through generations. And despite many arriving on Reek Sunday, this is certainly not a journey that’s reserved for one day a year…

A shared experience

A pilgrimage here might start out personal, but it ends up communal. The physical challenge will draw you in. A pilgrimage is supposed to be arduous. The tougher the trip, goes the thinking, the greater the spiritual affirmation.

How did Croagh Patrick change me? I confess I felt more open-hearted, fulfilled and, yes, strangely, at peace.

Vanessa Harriss, travel writer

But slowly you climb, you chat, you stumble. Hands steady you, people nod and offer a kind word as you pass. Then from above, someone turns and gasps in silent wonder. That’s it, you’re sharing with strangers the heart-stopping view over Clew Bay.

Be prepared

As you can guess, this is no easy stroll up a hill. The journey tends to take around three and a half hours – two hours to reach the summit and an hour and a half to descend. While it is true that some people do the climb barefoot, we would advise you to wear sturdy footwear, preferably good hiking boots.

The best time to climb would be from April to September, when the weather tends to be warmer, brighter and more settled. That being said, this is Ireland, and the West coast can be wild and unpredictable! So it would be wise to bring a raincoat, wear layers and pop some sun lotion in your backpack.

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