• Reek Sunday – the Lughnasa pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo

    It is generally well-known throughout the west of Ireland that the last Sunday in July is called Reek Sunday, a day when many thousands of people from all over the west, and beyond, travel to Croagh Patrrick to walk, sometimes barefooted, to the summit of the mountain and back.

    However, what is not so well-known is that Reek Sunday is in fact the largest Lughnasa event anywhere in the world.

    The ancient Irish festival of Lughnasa, celebrating the pre-Christian deity Lugh, was one of the most important times in the Irish calendar, and essentially originated as a harvest festival. The festival survived the coming of St Patrick and Christianity, but by the end of the 19th century it had almost died out in most parts of the country. However, one place where the Lughnasa festival never died away is the annual pilgrimage to the summit of the Reek. Indeed, today, despite the fact that it had to be cancelled this year due to weather conditions, the annual pilgrimage to the Reek is as strong as it ever was.

    In the early 19th century the pilgrimage took place on the last Friday of July, rather than a Sunday, and this day was known as Garland Friday. At that time, after people had climbed to the summit, people gathered at at Murrisk, at the foot of the mountain, where the festivities continued. The English travel writer William Thackeray, in his Irish Sketch-Book (1843), provides an interesting account of the climbing of the Reek on Garland Friday, 1842. Thackeray’s view of these Catholic Irish proceedings was generally not a sympathetic one and his sarcasm is easily detected in his writings. He found 50 tents in a field in the pouring rain and he described the scene:

    ‘Stalls were spread about, whereof the owners were shrieking out the praises of their wares - great, coarse, damp-looking bannocks of bread for the most part, or mayhap, a dirty collection of pigs’ feet, and such refreshments. Several of the booths professed to belong to “confectioners” from Westport or Castlebar, the confectionery consisting of huge biscuits and doubtful-looking ginger-beer - ginger-ale, or gingeretta, it is called in this country, by a fanciful people, who love the finest titles. Add to these, caldrons containing water for tay at the door of the booths, other pots full of masses of pale legs of mutton (the owner “prodding” every now and then for a bit, and holding it up and asking the passenger to buy). In the booths, it was impossible to stand upright, or to see much, on account of smoke. Men and women were crowded in these rude tents, huddled together, and disappearing in the darkness. Owners came bustling out to replenish the emptied water-jugs, and land ladies stood outside in the rain calling strenuously upon all passersby to enter.…

    Meanwhile, high up on the invisible mountain, the people were dragging their bleeding knees from altar to altar, flinging stones, and muttering some endless litanies, with the priests standing by.’

    The earliest historical reference to Croagh Patrick was made by Tírechán, writing a life of St Patrick around AD 700. Tírechán, bishop of Armagh, belonged to the northern branch of the Uí Fiachrach of north Mayo. According to Tírechán, after founding a church at Aghagower,

    “Patrick proceeded to Mons Aigli, intending to fast there for forty days and forty nights, following the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ. And his charioteer died at Muiresc Aigli, that is, the plain between the sea and Mons Aigli, and there Patrick buried his charioteer Totmáel, and gathered stones for his burial-place …… And Patrick proceeded to the summit of the mountain, climbing Cruachán Aigli, and stayed there forty days and forty nights, and birds were troublesome to him and he could not see the face of the sky and land and sea (…) because to all the holy men of Ireland, past present, and future, God said: ‘Climb, o holy men, to the top of the mountain which towers above, and is higher than all the mountains to the west of the sun in order to bless the people of Ireland’, so that Patrick might see the fruit of his labours, because the choir of all the holy men of the Irish came to him to visit their father; and he established a church in Mag Humail (Bieler 1979, 151-3).

    Subsequent versions of St Patrick’s life include more elaborate accounts of Patrick’s visit to west Mayo. These appear to be based on Tírechán’s version of Patrick’s itinerary. There is also a refinement of Patrick’s visits to Croagh Patrick, and a continuation of the explicit Biblical comparisons between Patrick on the Reek and Moses on Mount Sinai. The pre-Christian sacred mountain was now brought firmly into Biblical traditions. The story of the bell as a weapon against the evil forces is also introduced at this time. This is clearly illustrated in the eighth-century Vita Quarta:

    climbing to the summit of the mountain which is called Cruachanus, he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Then most wretched demons, enemies of the human race, came to the blessed Patrick in the form of the blackest birds so that he could see neither sky nor sea nor earth. The most blessed Patrick having faith in God’s mercy fought alone against the crowd of demons, and finally angered threw his bell at them, which falling down was broken in pieces. However, an angel of the Lord put the bell back together and brought it over to the blessed Patrick. This bell is honoured in Ireland to this day.

    Moreover the merciful Lord comforted his soldier, bringing a host of angels before him in the form of white birds, who comforted the most blessed Patrick with great modulation of singing ….. coming down from the mountain he founded a church on the plain beside the mountain (Byrne & Francis 1994, 54).

    The Tripartite Life of Patrick, compiled c. 900 (Bieler 1979, 30), is more elaborate:

    Then Patrick went unto Cruachan Aigle on Saturday of Whitsuntide. The angel came to commune with him, and said to him: ‘God gives thee not what thou demandest, because it seems to him excessive and obstinate, and great are the requests’. ‘Is that His pleasure?’ saith Patrick. ‘It is’, saith the angel. ‘Then this is my pleasure (saith Patrick), I will not go from this Rick till I am dead or till all the requests are granted to me’.

    Then Patrick abode in Cruachan in much displeasure, without drink, without food, from Shrove Saturday to Easter Saturday, after the manner of Moses son of Amra …..

    Now at the end of those forty days and forty nights the mountain was filled with black birds, so that he knew not heaven nor earth. He sang maledictive psalms at them. They left him not because of this. Then his anger grew against them. He strikes his bell at them, so that the men of Ireland heard its voice, and he flung it at them, so that its gap broke out of it, and that (bell) is ‘Brigit’s Gapling’. Then Patrick weeps till his face and his chasuble in front of him were wet. …. Then the angel went to console Patrick, and cleansed the chasuble, and brought white birds around the Rick, and they used to sing sweet melodies for him ….. (Stokes 1887, I, 113-21).

    Finally, almost as an addendum: ‘So Patrick’s charioteer died and was buried between the Rick and the sea’ (ibid., 121). This detail appears to have been taken from Tírechán, though the chronology is different. The way in which this final detail is added on would appear to suggest that its original meaning had become unclear.

    Apart from the Lives, there are occasional references in the Annals that indicate the importance of Croagh Patrick as a place of pilgrimage and the significance of that pilgrimage within the wider Patrician pantheon. According to the Annals of Ulster in 1113 ‘a ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick on Cruachain Aighle, and destroyed thirty of those fasting’ (MacAirt & MacNiocaill 1983, 553). This is probably the same event described in the Chronicum Scotorum; ‘Ua Longain, Airchinnech of Ard-Patrick, was burned by lightening on Cruach Padraig’ (Hennessy 1866, 315). Clearly this illustrates the significance of the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick at the beginning of the twelfth century. Furthermore, the fact that among those killed was the erenagh of Ardpatrick, Co. Limerick, is highly significant. Clearly it illustrates that Croagh Patrick at the beginning of the twelfth century was firmly linked to the Patrician matrix, and that formal links had been established and were being maintained between the various Patrician foundations. It is also worth noting that the pilgrimage in question took place on the Saint’s feast day (i.e., March 17).

    Many legends attempt to confirm the historic associations of St Patrick to the area, especially in relation to Croagh Patrick. Legends tell of how, when St Patrick visited the mountain, he was supposed to have been tormented by Caorthannach, the devil’s mother assuming the shape of a serpent. Patrick banished this demon into the lake immediately south of Croagh Patrick, which was named Lough Nacorra after the serpent (MacNeill 1962, 74). According to another legend recorded by John O’Donovan, before ‘Patrick’s conflict with the demons there was no lake there, but he drove Corra, the fiercest of them, into this hollow with so much violence that he caused the lake to spring forth’ (O’Flanagan 1926, vol. 1, 218). According to local tradition the Corra was female (ibid.), and is supposed to have escaped to Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, where she was finally defeated by Patrick (MacNeill, ibid.). In 1838 Caesar Otway was told by a local guide that there was a terrifying serpent fastened alive to the bottom of the lake (Otway 1839, 314-5). Other traditions claim that Patrick banished the demons into a hollow in the mountainside known as Lug na nDeamhan (‘the hollow of the devils’) (MacNeill, ibid.). These legends are clearly an attempt to link Lough Nacorra with the historical accounts of St Patrick’s visit to Croagh Patrick when he was tormented by the black birds (Bieler 1979, 153) or demons (Stokes 1887, vol. 1, 115).

    Linked to these legends of Patrick’s torment by birds or serpents is the tradition that one of his followers, Meeiune, was killed by serpents, or devils in their form, on the summit of the Reek (MacNeill 1962, 502-3). One story tells of how Patrick was accompanied to the mountain by Benen, who was unable to climb the final ascent. Patrick continued and when he descended he found Benen’s skeleton, as the vultures driven from the summit by Patrick had devoured him. Patrick then raised a leacht in his honour (MacNeill 1962, 546-7). Here folklore corresponds with Tírechán’s claim that a stone cairn was raised over the body of Totmáel who died before Patrick’s ascent of the mountain. According to the Tripartite Life of Patrick, Patrick’s unnamed charioteer died and was buried between the mountain and the sea (Stokes 1887, vol. 1, 121). Folklore consistently refers to Meeiune or Benen, and O’Donovan has argued that Mionnain derives from Mo-Bhionnáin, ‘my Benan’ (O’Flanagan 1926, vol. 1, 216-7). Indeed, the first station of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage is Leacht Mionnain, and consists of a small cairn of stones situated on the eastern shoulder of Croagh Patrick.

    The story of St Patrick being attacked by serpents is inextricably linked with legends surrounding The Black Bell of St Patrick. For example, when Walker visited the mountain in 1825 he recorded the local tradition that:

    it was by virtue of this bell that St. Patrick banished the infidels off the top of the rick. It was it that awoke St. Finnan [presumably a misidentification of Meeiune/Benan], who was asleep at the foot of the hill when the infidels, with Kiraghna (she is said to be the devil’s mother) at their head, attacked St Patrick one morning. Finnan being awoke, ran straightway to the assistance of St Patrick, and advised him to cast the bell at them: this he did, and knocked down the first, and the bell returned to him every time till he had the last of them beaten. The old mother by chance looked at the bell, and though it was silver she turned it black, and at last it turned into iron (quoted in Page 1836, 75).

    According to O’Donovan:

    The Bell was manufactured in Heaven and when sent down to St Patrick was as white as snow and brighter than polished silver; but by the continual pelting of it at the Demons of the Reek it was gradually blackened, from which circumstance it received its present appellation of Clog Dubh or the Black Bell. During Saint Patrick’s struggle (conflict) with the demons, in which this bell was shot against them like a thunderbolt, he broke the Heaven sent Cymbalum or Tintinnabulum, which was originally called Clog Geal or the White Bell, and an angel was directly sent from Heaven to repair it, and the piece is still shewn which this celestial tinker rivetted to it (O’Flanagan 1926, vol. 2, 81-2).

    These stories clearly represent attempts to link this bell to the Life accounts of St Patrick using a bell by either striking it or throwing it at the demon birds, and thereby scattering them. Indeed, the folk explanation that the bell became damaged or corroded as a direct result of its contact with the ‘demons’ also finds validity in the early sources, for example the Tripartite Life of Patrick (Stokes 1887, vol. 1, 115) and also the Lebar Brecc which relates that Patrick “strikes his bell, until a gap broke in it” (ibid., vol. 2, 477).

    It has been argued that Croagh Patrick has been a sacred mountain throughout the prehistoric period, since at least the Neolithic period (Corlett 1996; 1997a). According to the Third Irish Life of St Kevin, Croagh Patrick was among the four chief places of pilgrimage in Ireland (the others being Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow and Monaincha, Co. Tipperary) (Plummer 1922, vol. 2, 156). Croagh Patrick is also listed in the Triads as one of the three heights of Ireland (Meyer 1906, 5). Today the pilgrimage is still an extremely important one, due in part to its revitalisation by Dr Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, who procured the funding for the construction of a church on the mountain summit in 1905. Apart from this recent building there are also the remains of a small rectangular building that may represent an early church, and an enclosure that appear to be of early medieval date.

    The earliest recorded pilgrimage here is on St Patrick’s feast day in the year AD 1113, when the Annals of Ulster record that;

    a ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick on Cruachain Aighle, and destroyed thirty of those fasting (MacAirt & MacNiocaill 1983, 553).

    However, according to O’Donovan writing in 1838, the most popular date for pilgrimage the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was on Garlic Friday, which he incorrectly suggested was about 15th August (O’Flanagan 1926, vol. 1, 217). Other records suggest a strong local tradition of performing the pilgrimage on Aoine Chrom Dubh, the last Friday in July (MacNeill 1962, 83). For example, Barrow (1836, 183), who visited the area in the autumn of 1835 noted that the principle day of pilgrimage was Garlic Friday. The current date on which the pilgrimage is performed is the last Sunday of July, perhaps reconciling the Christian values of the Sabbath and the pagan values of Lughnasa. Today the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick can be carried-out at any time of the year, and there is no reason to assume that this hasn’t always been a feature of the pilgrimage.

    The 1st-edtion Ordnance Survey maps indicate sections of a routeway traditionally called known as Tóchar Phádraig, Patrick’s Road, believed to be the formal routeway for pilgrims to Croagh Patrick. It is generally accepted that this route starts at Ballintubber Abbey some 12km to the east-south-east. This Augustinian Abbey was founded in 1216, though it may have been founded on the site of an earlier church. It seems likely that the Abbey took control of the pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick in order to bring the patronage and status of pilgrims to the Abbey. It is possible that this was based on some earlier claim of the site being the origin of the pilgrim road. This pilgrim route enters west Mayo at Toberrooaun. It then passes three early ecclesiastical foundations – Aghagower, Lankill and Boheh – before ascending Croagh Patrick. At Aghagower it is probably no coincidence that Croagh Patrick appears to have been visible from within the early church building looking out the west doorway. Aghagower was the most important church site along the pilgrimage route from Ballintubber. The features at Aghagower include a Round Tower, two holy wells, a Leaba Phádraig and perhaps a tooth shrine associated with St Patrick at Teampull na bhFiacal. The Black Bell of St Patrick may also have been kept at Aghagower at certain times, though there is no direct evidence to support this. All of these features illustrate that Aghagower assumed and established a primary role in the pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick. Indeed, it is likely that pilgrims were provided with overnight lodging at Aghagower before proceeding on the final leg of the pilgrimage route. According to tradition, the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was completed by the most devout pilgrims by continuing from the summit westward to Kilgeever and even a trip to Caher Island (MacNeill 1962, 82). Unfortunately, the traditions surrounding this are poorly documented, and it is not clear as to the antiquity of this aspect of the pilgrimage. It is also worth noting that up to 1970 the main pilgrimage on the last Sunday of July was carried out at night. Despite the lack of documentary evidence, this appears to of great antiquity.


    BARROW, J., 1836, A tour round Ireland, through the sea-coast counties, in the autumn of 1835. London.

    BIELER, L., 1971, Four Latin Lives of St Patrick. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

    BIELER, L., 1979, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin.

    BYRNE, F.J. & FRANCIS, P., 1994, ‘Two lives of Saint Patrick’. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 124, 5-117.

    CORLETT, C., 1996, ‘Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick’. Cathair na Mart 16, 54-61.

    CORLETT, C., 1997a, ‘Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick’. Archaeology Ireland 11(2), 8-11.

    CORLETT, C., 1998, ‘The prehistoric ritual landscape of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo’. Journal of Irish Archaeology 9, 9-26.

    HENNESSY, W. M., 1866, Chronicum Scotorum - a chroncile of Irish affairs from the earliest times to AD 1135. London.

    MAC AIRT, S. & MAC NIOCAILL, G. (eds), 1983, The Annals of Ulster (to A.D. 1131). Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

    MAC NEILL, M., 1962, The Festival of Lughnasa. A study of the survival of the Celtic festival of the beginning of the harvest. Oxford University Press, London.

    MEYER, K., 1906, The Triads of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series Vol. XIII. Dublin.

    O’FLANAGAN, M., 1926, Letters relating to the antiquities of the County of Mayo containing information collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1838, 2 vols. Unpublished typescript, Bray.

    OTWAY, C., 1839, A Tour of Connaught. William Curry, Jun. & Company, Dublin.

    PAGE, J.R., 1836, Ireland: its evils traced to their source. London.

    PLUMMER, C., 1922, Bethada Náem nÉrenn, Lives of the Irish Saints. Oxford.

    STOKES, W., 1887, The Tripartite Life of Patrick 2 vols. London.

    1 Comment

    • 1. Jul 27 2015 12:09PM by Barry Dalby

      There's a classic photo (IT?) of the pilgrimage snaking up the Reek at night - with several hundred flaming torches carried by the pilgrims to light the way.


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