A history of Reek Sunday

Fri, Jul 28, 2017

John Healy, Archbishop of Tuam (1903-18).

In 1432, Pope Eugene IV issued a document that lay in obscurity deep within the Vatican vaults for centuries. When the doors of the archives and library of the Holy See were thrown open during the papacy of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), the British government sent a team of historians to transcribe everything they could find relating to Ireland. As a result of that investigative trawl, the well-known historian William Henry Grattan Flood presented Dr John Healy, Archbishop of Tuam, with a medieval document that detailed Rome’s official 15th century stance regarding the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage. The document, dated 27 September 1432, states, “Pope Eugene IV grants to the Archbishop of Tuam [at the time Seán Mac Feorais, aka John de Bermingham] an indulgence of two years and two quarantines [one quarantine was a penance of 40 days], on the usual conditions, for those penitents who visit and give alms toward the repair of the fabric of the chapel of St Patrick on the mountain which is called Croagh Patrick: this indulgence to be gained on the Sunday preceding the Feast of St Peter’s Chains [August 1]: because on that day a great multitude resorts thither to venerate St Patrick in the said chapel.” Archbishop Healy revived the old tradition of pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick and built the present church on its summit in 1905. But the history of the pilgrimage goes back further than the 1400s.

Writing in 700 AD, north Mayo native Tírechán provides the earliest known reference to Croagh Patrick, though it was not in relation to pilgrimage. In the 1990s, an early Christian oratory was discovered by archaeologists at the summit of Croagh Patrick, which they dated to between 400 and 900 AD. Also at that time, many small enclosures were found at the summit and some have pointed to those finds in particular as evidence of early pilgrim shelters. The first reference to the mountain as a pilgrimage site dates to 1113. The Irish annals describe how that year 30 pilgrims lost their lives in a terrible thunderstorm on the summit. A little later, in 1185, the historian Jocelyn wrote a history of St Patrick in which he described how multitudes of people ascended the holy mountain to fast and pray. When he set about reviving the pilgrimage in the first decade of the 20th century, Archbishop Healy asked the public had they any particular tradition regarding the day. The only one they communicated back was that which was handed down to them by their parents, that the pilgrimage takes place on the last Sunday of July. And so, in that tradition, thousands will climb Croagh Patrick this Sunday, Reek Sunday, to mark St Patrick's pilgrimage of 441 AD, when he fasted for 40 days on the mountain. The weather on the day, oddly, does not appear to affect the number of climbers as you would imagine it might. In 2006 and 2009, two years with bad weather on Reek Sunday, 20,000 and 18,000 people climbed respectively. In two years of favourable weather, 1999 and 2013, no more than 25,000 pilgrims climbed in either year. No matter the forecast this year, if you are planning on climbing, do not take unnecessary risks and from my own experience, wrap up well.

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