As St. Patrick’s Day approaches once more, Know Thy Place take a look at one of the sites that is most associated with the Irish patron saint- Croagh Patrick, in Co. Mayo.
Croagh Patrick or ‘The Reek’ is one of the most famous places in Ireland. Rising to 2507 feet, it is an imposing feature on the landscape and visible for miles in all directions. It is reputedly the location of Saint Patrick’s 40 day fast, and it remains a major centre of pilgrimage to this day. On the last Sunday of July every year,thousands of pilgrims climb the mountain- many in bare feet- in commemoration and adoration of Ireland’s most famous saint. Archaeological excavations on the summit in 1994 and 1995 identified the buried foundations of a dry stone oratory which was radiocarbon dated to AD 430-890- a time not too distant from St. Patrick’s life.
There is also some archaeological evidence indicating that the mountain was an important site prior to Patrick’s arrival, and was possibly a Celtic Hillfort, although further research is needed to confirm this. Tradition has it that the mountain was sacred to a Celtic deity Crom Dubh and was the location of a festival related to the harvest festival of Lugnasa. This pre-Christian Croagh Patrick was known as Cruchan Aigli. Certainly it was common for early Christian missionaries to Ireland to make good use of pre-existing traditions and beliefs to sell their own brand of religion! Indeed it has been claimed that until relatively recently some Irish-speaking locals murmured ‘In ainm Crom’ (in the name of Crom) instead of the normal Christian ‘In ainm De’ (In the name of God).
Undoubtedly the impressive profile of Croagh Patrick overlooking Clew Bay was always an imposing sight and legends and rituals grew around it for as long as people lived in the surrounding area. As for its association with Ireland’s patron saint, Patrick is reputed to have climbed Croagh Patrick and fasted there for 40 days and 40 nights during Lent, following the example of Christ. It is during this time that he is supposed to have banished the snakes from Ireland after they attacked him during his fast. This is a story told in every class room in Ireland. The reference to snakes is highly symbolic and one wonders if they in fact refer to the Pagan Gods. The location of Patrick’s fast, in the lair of the Pagan deities, may have been designed to indicate his imperviousness to fear of the old Gods and his victory over their powers. Whatever the truth, the story stuck and the result is now one of the most iconic images in Irish culture: pilgrims climbing the Reek holding rosary beads while deep in prayer, many in bare feet and some on their knees. One would wonder what rituals took place there before the advent of Christianity….