My recent walk from Canterbury to Dover in a day (see previous post) was one stage of the much longer pilgrimage to Rome which takes many weeks to complete. There are however many thousands of local shrines where the ritual journey begins and ends during the course of a single day.
One such is Croagh Patrick, in the West of Ireland. Tradition holds that, in 441 CE, during his mission to convert the Irish to Christianity, St Patrick fasted at the summit for 40 days and nights and it is from here that he is said to have banished snakes from Ireland.
By the ninth century Croagh Patrick had become a major destination for Christian pilgrims and today around 100,000 people make the ascent to the summit each year. Towering 2,500 above sea level, the peak is often cloaked in cold mists coming off the Atlantic and many make the climb barefooted, scrambling over scree and stones to reach the top.
The busiest day of the year at Croagh Patrick is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, when up to 40,000 make the ascent. Activities at the summit include circumambulation seven times counter-clockwise, while reciting prayers. This rite which echoes the Hajj rituals of the Kaaba, is a symbolic act of penitence, seen as earning plenary indulgences, the automatic forgiveness of sins.
Known previously as Cruachan Aigle, meaning the high mount of the eagle, Croagh Patrick has been a focus of ritual for over 5,000 years. Bronze age cairns have been found at the site, as well as Neolithic art on a rocky outcrop (today known now as St Patrick’s chair) and, along with standing stones nearby, there is much evidence to anchor the ceremonial importance of this landscape in ancient times.
For the Celts, it was associated with the deity Lugh, whose Lughnasadh festival on August 1st once marked the beginning of the harvest season. Like many of the Greek gods, Lugh has an array of fine attributes; a king, a warrior, a brave youth skilled in swordsmanship and other arts, of war and peace. He is variously a sky god, a sun god, a storm god and most importantly, a member of the Tuath Dé, the pre-Christian tribe of the gods of Ireland.
The Lughnasadh was celebrated across Ireland and often involved walking to the top of a hill or peak. Here the first sheaf of corn was buried as a symbol of success for the harvest and a demonstration that Lugh had defeated the demons of blight. Lughnasadh included games and music, dancing and feasting. After all, our dependence on the bounty of the land is worthy of acknowledgment and such, festivals often start with a collective act of pilgrimage, marking communal gratitude and relief.
This weekend we raise a cup to all those bringing in the harvest and join those on top of the Croagh in giving thanks for the Earth’s bounty!