Climbing the Holy Mountain, 21 Jul 2023

Location: Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo

Distance: 4.2 miles

Elevation: +/- 736 metres

I stood here on a bright day thirty years ago, so I know the view should be an epiphany, seven hundred metres above the island-strewn seascape of Clew Bay. County Mayo – mountains, inlets, cliffs, the clash of land and ocean – winds away in chaotic beauty to both horizons. But not today. We see only 30 metres of mountain top, the hunkered-down shack of a chapel, the drab brown ’Croagh Patrick’ sign, and each other, cocooned in blue waterproofs. It is not what it could be, but it remains a rich shared moment for Martha and myself. We have climbed Ireland’s ‘holy mountain’ together. Perhaps it is richer still to have done it by slogging through cloud, wind, and driving rain on an appalling summer’s day.

Earlier, on the shore, we leave the warm, dry van, tightening straps and laces, determinedly pulling up zips. The hum of wind is constant, as is the clattering rain on our hoods. Our faces are wet when we raise them. We see only the lower slopes above us, sparse and wild, quickly subsumed by cloud. On other days, we would stop to study the distinctive cone of the mountain, with its white-grey, stony peak. We would point out the pilgrim path, rising straight from the car park to the ridgeline, before turning right to follow that ridge to the summit. Were we here on the last Sunday of July, we could watch a continual snake of humanity shuffling heavenwards, as the annual pilgrimage has for generations. The mountain’s mythical status may well be pre-Christian, but there has been a chapel of some sort at the top since the fifth century. For most of that time, it has been associated with St Patrick, whose bland be-mitred statue we pass as we begin to climb. People come here motivated by faith, by a wish to connect to a national icon, to assert belonging, or just for a day out. We are here for all these reasons but, mostly, to do something together.

Our phones read out height. At 150m, we stop to eat, finding limited shelter against a rocky outcrop. Even at this lower height and in this gloom, the view is impressive. The rest of the walk is three hours blanketed in cloud, bending heads against the elements, one foot before the other, stopping occasionally to share water and encouragement. I offer Martha (and myself) the escape route of turning back at the cairn where the path tops the ridge. I know she will decline. Onwards, upwards, tacking to-and-fro as the path becomes rockier. We collect encouragement from the few people coming the other way: ‘Not far now’, ‘It’s easier coming down’. We dispense similar support as we descend.

It is, indeed, easier going down, but still hard on unaccustomed muscles and cartilage. The pub is a blessed relief – warming tea, locals politely dismissing two more tourists with a glance. We find a corner, creating puddles on the stone floor as we confirm what we have gamely been ignoring. Our waterproofs are not impermeable. Damp pervades the layers beneath. The practicalities of drying out and being picked up take over. But, beneath, is the satisfaction of a challenge ticked off, another layer in our shared story. Maybe we’ll come back some other time for the view.