If you’re looking for a taste of the “real” Ireland, you just might find it in a lovely little corner of County Mayo, on St. Patrick’s mountain. Near the small town of Westport, Croagh Patrick, as the mountain is called in Ireland—also known locally as the Reek—is a far cry from the tourist-crowded streets or shops full of tacky Irish souvenirs in Dublin or Killarney. Instead, there's lovely scenery—the mountain overlooks island-dotted Clew Bay—brisk sea breezes, and quiet.
Traditionally, if you were a sinner, the priest might tell you to make your journey up the mountain as penance. Now, it’s still a place of pilgrimage—there’s even a sign that spells out all the steps to do it properly—with a chapel at the summit. Some of your tougher or penitent trekkers even make the hike barefoot.
|Famine Ship Memorial|
The June morning John and I visited Croagh Patrick, we took a look at the Famine memorial at the foot of the mountain. It’s a sad, even macabre sculpture, hard to look at, but harder still to look away from. I gazed at it for a long time, thinking of my own Irish ancestors who’d left their homeland. My mother once shared that her grandmother Anne, a McCormack from Cork, was told by her emigrant grandmother, “Don’t let them take you to the poorhouse.” It seemed likely that my great-great grandmother had gone hungry.
We left the memorial to experience the mountain. At 2,500 feet, it’s not immense—there are lots of foothills around where we live of similar elevation. But as I gazed up at Croagh Patrick, bare of trees, with a mist drifting along the upper reaches, I sensed a different, almost mystical vibe. And the summit seemed far too distant to make the journey in a few hours, as I’d heard people did. Still, I figured I’d hike up as far as I could before it was time to leave—and since I was wearing sturdy sneakers, it would be no problem.
|St. Patrick's shrine|
I began the short climb on a reasonably maintained pathway to the statue of St. Patrick. (Like most other religious sites and shrines in Ireland, there’s a sign asking for a donation, for maintenance.) I was game to climb higher, but the path became treacherous. Instead of gravel, you had to negotiate either smooth wet stone, or clamber over humps of rock, every surface littered with loose rocks of all sizes. I hiked up about 50 yards further, but found my sneakers and my sense of self-preservation were no match for that trail. Amazed that some people did it without shoes, back I turned—preferring to stay in one piece instead of being able to say I climbed even partway up Croagh Patrick!