Each year on the last Sunday of July between 15,000 and 30,000 brave souls flock to Croagh Patrick, one of the most dangerous mountains in Ireland, to imitate the spiritual ascent of Saint Patrick. On this day called “Reek Sunday” (Reek is the mountain’s official name) many of the pilgrims will climb the steep path barefoot to highlight their journey’s penitential character.
According to tradition, worn out and fatigued by his apostolic activities, Saint Patrick sought out a secluded place to fast and pray for the people of Ireland. He ascended the mountain and remained there the forty days of Lent, asking God to have mercy on the pagans below. It is believed that God gave Saint Patrick a glimpse of the many saints who would be formed in this country because of his efforts, giving strength to a weary missionary. Before descending the mountain, Patrick also stretched out his hands across Ireland and blessed it, casting out the many snakes present on the island.
On account of these stories the mountain is also called the “Sinai of Ireland,” recalling the story of Moses who ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God.
Pilgrims have followed Saint Patrick’s footsteps from the very beginning, making Croagh Patrick one of the oldest and most well-known pilgrimage sites. The reason why thousands flock on the last Sunday of July is because of a decree made by Pope Eugene IV in 1432. He gave the pilgrimage site an “indulgence” for all those who ascended the mountain with the intention of performing an act of penance for their sins.
“A relaxation of two years and two quarantines of enjoined penance, under the usual conditions, to those penitents who visit and give alms for the repair of the chapel of St. Patrick, on the mountain which is called Croagh Patrick whither resorts a great multitude of persons to venerate St. Patrick the Sunday before the feast of St. Peter’s Chains.”
The feast of St. Peter’s Chains is traditionally on August 1, and so the Sunday preceding that feast is always the last Sunday in July.
In recent years the increased erosion of the mountainside has prompted Mountaineering Ireland to commission a report on how they can preserve the mountain for years to come and increase safety on the rocky terrain. The typical path that pilgrims follow has been worn down over the years and rescue teams have been receiving an increase in emergency calls from the mountain over the past year.
The annual pilgrimage was even cancelled last year due to adverse weather conditions. However, the cancellation didn’t deter 5,000 pilgrims who tried to defy all odds. Many of them had to turn back and rescue teams were called in to save those who couldn’t make it down.
To prepare for this year’s Reek Sunday “a stakeholders’ group launched the first phase of measures to make the holy mountain safer. A dedicated map marking the pilgrimage route on the 764-meter high mountain, new signage and information boards, as well as the ‘counters.’” Pilgrims are being highly cautioned this year to be appropriately dressed and to bring a supply of snacks and water for the climb.
It is hoped that the increased safety measures that will be initiated in the next few years will maintain the sacred mountain for the annual pilgrimage. Croagh Patrick is not only a place revered by the Irish, it is a holy destination that inspires men and women from all over the world.