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Pilgrim’s Progress


It was a difficult hike right from the beginning. One follows a well-worn path, the kind that looks easy, but grinds against your encased feet and ankles that stumble in their hiking shoes.

It is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday of July, and at Croagh Patrick in Mayo twenty to thirty thousand people journey to the top of the mountain. Most pilgrims begin at the statue of St. Patrick located at the base of the mountain and nearly all of those who start the pilgrimage also complete it. Near St. Patrick (Padraig, pronounced Porrig in Ireland) a few people sell parking spaces and walking sticks. The sticks are straight and uniform and prove to be much needed, especially on the way down. The Society of Mary hands out leaflets. However, there is surprisingly little hawking or consumerism involved in what is regarded as a religious undertaking.

Conscious that this hike is believed to be a religious pilgrimage performed for a thousand, some say more than a few thousand years; you note the local folks and a few initiated souls come up the ancient way of the old highway, the traditional route of St. Patrick. This path starts out from the little stone church at Aughagower, or beyond back to Ballintubber and even Roscommon. Most pilgrims ascend at the foot of the mountain in Murrisk, where the statue of St. Patrick blesses their endeavor. It is here that I begin to go forward and upward, stumbling on small four to six inch granite rocks, rakishly scattered about at inconvenient haphazard angles.

I’d purchased what an acquaintance said were sensible ‘Reek’ shoes in Galway city. I couldn’t afford hikers, so my shoes resembled high-top desert boots. I had tried to break them in ahead of time but they’d only given me sores, so I was wearing my elaborate sneakers, which I’d been told was the mark of a Yank. At times I crave anonymity. However, I noticed many other pilgrims wore sneakers and assumed I was Irish.

There is shared experience for those climbing Croagh Patrick and I determined to follow tradition. I would say stations and walk seven times around St. Patrick’s bed. My friend Tess, who had grown up in the shadow of Croagh Patrick and done all the religious customs, did not share my enthusiasm for observing them. But I reasoned, if we were in India or Tibet wouldn’t we follow the customs if we knew them?

The year I went up Croagh Patrick a brief and soaking rain began as I passed the statue of St. Patrick. This deluge was greeted with wan smiles by those around the foot of the mountain and about to begin the climb. It served to remind us of the serious nature of our determined undertaking. Already wearing a ‘rainproof’ jacket, Tess smiled and pulled out a poncho which she handed to me. She knew the Reek.

The first ridge was an unexpectedly hard climb, even with the walking sticks. But there was a dramatic and beautiful panoramic view on the other side. The sun came out and it began to feel hot and muggy. I returned the poncho to Tess and it vanished into her backpack.

You have reached the long midsection climb at the first concession. Compared to the beginning of the climb, it is relatively easy progress in this section. There are not too many of the small rocks, the path seems flat and the walking stick is helpful. Those coming down the mountain appear happy, albeit moving at breakneck speed.

With shy friendly demeanors our fellow pilgrims were cheerful and excited. I was struck by the ordinary nature of the little groups. Old and young, weak and strong, fast and slow, they were families with children, boys from the pubs, and people still in their Mass clothes, women in nylons and pumps carrying hand pocketbooks, men in suits. I saw a few people on their knees. There were the occasional tourists; smiling Japanese carrying cameras, blond Scandinavians in vibrant sweaters, swift Germans wearing enviably sensible shoes and occasional Yanks in sweatshirts.  Also, there were those who climbed the Reek in the old way, with their bare feet. This was one tradition to which I did not aspire.

Public bathrooms, at intervals along the path, were marked Mna and Fir (Women and Men) and except at the top, there were no lines. Most concession stalls had been assembled the night before. Concession stalls are located along the path to the summit, but there are several at the top. They are run by local people and church affiliated organizations and are not commercial. They all sell the same items.

However, there was the occasional sure footed donkey that steadily progressed up the Reek. The donkey bolstered the day’s necessities; coffee, tea, soup, toilet paper, and religious articles.   

In this mid section one perceives from another world. The town of Murrisk is far below where you left the car. That unreal world slips away in the distance toward a northern infinity. On the other side of the path is Lough Nacorra near where Patrick is said to have chased away the serpents. But now its environs shine in various degrees of light and shadow. The earth under your feet is solid, it’s mass tangible. Your lower body feels heavier than your upper body. Your breath seems different, and this awareness is the first prayer.

But here in this middle passage you begin to observe ominous signs more closely. You notice the shifting skies and winds, the falling rocks and areas of moisture, the fast moving hikers descending in heavy breathing and thudded footsteps, smiles frozen on their faces. You now observe the stretchers borne by the Order of Malta, which carry those unable to ascend to the summit only an hour ahead, and yet also unable to descend to the foot of the mountain. What could be ahead?

“Well, they used to say that if you made the pilgrimage to the top of the Reek the gods would grant you any wish. Of course now it’s God.”

I began to consider what my wish would be. One has to be careful with wishes and how they come to pass. There were also so many wish possibilities.

Abruptly we were at the last stage of the ascent to the top and about two hours from the base. As far as one could see above us there was an unbroken field of small rocks which vanished at an acute angle upward. The people I could see in the fog were caught in varying degrees of struggle, those going up and coming down. Those paused for a moment of rest.

To my right in this slippery meadow of rocks was a small woman dressed in her church clothing and pumps struggling to reach the top.  Tess and I navigated our way over and tried assist her but she was unable to put one foot above the other and move forward, yet she steadfastly refused to turn around and she told us to go on.

This was a treacherous and difficult climb. Little over a half hour, it was a very long and arduous half hour. This environment was dark and gray with falling rocks clattering all around. One had the vague sensation that you were in a little pillow and were being cast relentlessly against the rocks. It was here that I began to use the walking stick in earnest. Although I had to test each little rock to make sure that it was not going to slip below. Many people had fallen and were resting. I had no idea how they would get enough traction to rise.

Close to the summit was a small area where some people walked in a circle seven times while saying prayers. I decided not to follow this particular custom and break my climbing rhythm. I noticed the group, all people in their twenties. I don’t know why this surprised me.

I continued upward into the fog. The area was little over one half  hour from the summit, yet a very long half hour. My upper thighs felt like hot jelly and my sore feet oddly could not be discerned walking on the rocks. After a while we neared the top of Croagh Patrick, where there was a packed crowd attending Mass. I could not get near enough to see or hear and was amazed that there were that many people on the mountain.

To my left was a row of concession stalls. I wished I could afford a soup. We had tea. Tess pointed out the sights to me and told me of other days on the mountain.

“When my father was a boy they walked up here from Lankill and Aughagower with their donkeys. A lot of people were in their bare feet then, it was how they were comfortable.”

“When I was a girl we would come after Mass. Oh it was a big day.”

“Over there was Grainne the pirate, Grace O’Mally’s, castle. She was told to get herself to Queen Elizabeth I, but she said Queen Elizabeth could come to her. That’s Clew Bay and  back there are the Nephins.”

Slightly behind to my left was St. Patrick’s bed where there were people circling, I went over and joined them for the proscribed seven

revolutions and recited the prayers from my childhood, although not seven times each. We sifted our way around to the west of the mountain where I took a rock as a keepsake, placing it in my sweatshirt muff with my water.

As we went round to the southern exposure with its glistening lakes and mountains I paused and made my wish.

We took a last look around at the summit activities and began our descent over the rock field. I wondered what other people had crossed over them through time. It was now that the true usefulness of the walking sticks became apparent as gravity and angle propelled us downward. The sticks became an extension of our prehensile arms steadying our absent leaden bodies, with their invisible leaden feet.

Half way down the rock field we saw the lady in her church clothes being brought down by the Order of Malta emergency service. Without taking our eyes off the rocks beneath our feet we smiled at those climbing upward.

When we left the rock field behind we breathed the aroma of moist soil for the first time in two hours. It seemed amazing that we had passed through it earlier without noting its properties. I felt urgent twinges at my left temple, and took a migraine pill.

The long midsection hike slipped away so quickly I could hardly keep pace with myself. My gel thighs and hamstrings were overstretched on wobbly ankles. I felt like a slow moving cannonball. I thought about a hot whiskey at the base pub.

As we traversed last ridge the scattered rocks reemerged in force to trip us. A man spoke to me in Irish. I smiled hoping he would think I understood. He repeated his words.

“I’m sorry. I can’t speak Irish.” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I said may God keep you.”

“May God keep you.” I answered.

We were at the bottom. We went straight to the pub, but there were only men in there and everyone was standing. We left and headed for Westport and two hot whiskeys.

And now years later my wish still holds. I am thinking about flying over and climbing the Reek this July. I have another important wish.

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