The sun is bright for late September and the breeze drifting across Clew Bay is teasingly summery. This may be one of the last truly lovely days of the season, and we’re going to make the most of it.
“It’s not a bad climb,” we’re told, “But the last bit is quite steep.”
A and I are four days into our week-long hiking trip through the west and north of Ireland. Our legs are feeling stronger, more solid than they did after Monday’s climb up Diamond Hill in Connemara National Park, when they felt more like unset gelatin than limbs. Whether it was the ride up from Clifden or a temporary lapse in memory, we’re eager to get moving. This is what we’ve come for. Croagh Patrick.
At 762 metres, Croagh Patrick isn’t the highest mountain in Ireland — that would be Carrauntoohil, at 1,038 metres — or even in County Mayo, home to 814-metre Mweelrea. But it may be the island’s most storied elevation, the site of harvest-time pilgrimages since 3,000 B.C. Its sharp, ever-shifting shale draws the devoted even today. Each year, on the last Sunday in July, thousands climb the mountain in honour of St. Patrick — often barefoot.
A and I will be doing this in hiking boots. It is a Wednesday in September after all.
We file out of the van and make the final preparations for our hike. We’re a small group, but a companionable one. Four Canadians — A and I, and the sixtysomething married couple from Halifax, Allen and Carolyn, who’ve joined our tour group for the Connacht leg of our trip — and our guide, a Dubliner named Niall. Unable navigate the precipitous final section of the path to Croagh Patrick’s summit, the rest of our rag-tag band is spending the day in Westport.
“Take lots of pictures,” they encourage as the van pulls away.
We shoulder our packs, pass the visitor centre, and begin our ascent.
At this altitude, the path is rocky but easy to navigate, and the ground only metres away is lush with purple heather and hardy grasses. A stream wends its way over rocks with the same purple and green cast as the vegetation. It’s beautiful. Without checking my camera’s panel, I already know my pictures won’t do this justice. I vow to be mindful instead, to commit as many stones and streams and bends as I can to memory.
On this day, despite the fine weather, Croagh Patrick feels like Ireland’s best-kept secret. A few bright, distant specks move away from us toward the summit, but the mountain feels deserted, secluded, compared to the streets of Dublin or Cork. Between the rush of stream water and the rhythms of my companions’ footfalls, I fall easily into contemplation.
I’m beginning to understand why Croagh Patrick is so popular a pilgrimage, and I almost say as much when Niall turns partly toward us and nods discreetly but deliberately. A middle-aged man, hugging the rock face, is inching along the path toward us, shoes in hand. Here be the limit of my understanding.
“I figure you’ve either done something really bad, or are planning to do something really bad,” Niall chuckles quietly. Niall’s climbed Croagh Patrick a handful of times, and always properly shod.
The terrain is getting rougher, the rocks more jagged. That the passing pilgrim’s feet are mottled with blood is no surprise. What is surprising, though, is his lack of complaint. We hear no whimpering or sucking of breath, and if it weren’t for his snail pace and shuffling gait, there’d be no indication he was even a little uncomfortable.
When the pilgrim’s out of earshot, we share our wonder, and it’s as a dam opening. Where the first part of our climb was contemplative, this next stage is expressive. Carolyn falls into step beside me, and our conversation is easy. Carolyn is more experienced hiker than I am, having taken up the pass time years earlier after her doctor insisted it was time to give up running. She had run marathons up until her 60 birthday. I can’t hide my admiration. She’s inspiring. She’s positive and fit and clearly still very much in love with her husband, who took up hiking himself so he could have something to do with her. I vow secretly that A and I will follow Carolyn and Allen’s example. That we’ll always be that mobile. That we’ll always enjoy taking trips like this together.
Off the stony path to our left is a grassy oasis, a small pool of water at its centre. That pilgrims before us have found it an irresistible reprieve from the relentless climb is apparent. On the grass around the pool, cobbled together from small stones, are names. Jude. Aiden. Frank. How long ago did they pass this way? What drew them up the hill? Did they pause off the path for lunch? To nurse cut feet? To enjoy the view? All seems possible from my vantage point.
We pause to take photos, but we don’t leave the path. Our group presses on. From here, our steep, final ascent is coming into view. A slope that didn’t look so steep from the visitor centre looks far more treacherous once it’s almost upon you. Unlike Diamond Hill, which has well-maintained stone pathways to the summit, the terrain this high on Croagh Patrick is ragged, with loose, easily shifted shale. It’s too bad it’s not really safe to take photographs here, I think as I plant myself for one final, quick photo. The views are incredible.
Our progress slows. Here, we are scrabbling. Each step requires thought, and I test the ground with the toe of my boot before shifting my weight to a new stone. Up ahead, A and Niall suggest a safe path, the stones that had held their own weights. I try to follow, but that path is narrow and bottle-necked with descending pilgrims. I pause for the traffic to clear.
Two barefooted men, no more than 25, inch along single file, laughing.
“Somebody stole our shoes — didja see him?” the front one says in a lilting west-coast accent.
“We’re chasing him!” the second one laughs.
Ever quick-witted, Niall smirks and jerks a thumb over his left shoulder. “Yeah, I think he went that way.”
The pair continues their descent, laughing and joking for as long as I can hear. Proof, perhaps, that good craic can be had as long as the company’s right.
The summit’s less than six metres ahead. Whether it’s the nearness of the end or the high spirits of those two pilgrims, my energy and confidence surge, and before I know it, I’m there. On top. Staring into the bright eyes of a wooly black-faced sheep. I can’t help but laugh. It seems appropriate. It’s been a hike of serendipities. It doesn’t matter that the mountain-top church is closed or the sky’s now clouding over. The views are spectacular, and I feel lucky to have gotten to know my fellow hikers a bit better.
I won’t overstate things by saying that the journey up Croagh Patrick was a religious experience for me, but it was quite special. A and I had booked this hiking trip to challenge ourselves — to leave behind our comfort zones and our assumptions about ourselves and others. And in climbing Croagh Patrick and chatting so freely with strangers like Allen, Carolyn, and Niall, we did just that. We got what we came for. And more.