There are not many locations within the boundaries of Mayo from where a vista of Croagh Patrick cannot be gained from even the smallest naturally raised platform. The mountain, with its distinctive pyramidal shape, is an iconic symbol of the county for the people of Mayo. Better known today as a venue for an annual Christian pilgrimage, the Reek’s history is one of changing uses.
North Mayo native Tírechán, writing in 700AD, provides the earliest known reference to Croagh Patrick. Tírechán referred to the mountain as Mons Aigli and Cruachán Aigli. Cruachán being a version of ‘stack’ and Aigli, an almost certain version of ‘eagle’. The county is known to have had a population of golden eagles up until the last one was seen on Achill in 1912. The Brownes of Westport, whose seat rests at the foot of the Reek, took the titles Baron Mount Eagle in 1760 and Earl of Altamont in 1771. Altamont derives from adding Aigli and mountain.
Of course, Croagh Patrick’s or Eagle Mountain’s story began long before the Christian Tírechán wrote of it. Archaeologist Chris Corlett, who has studied the mountain and its surroundings, has written in detail of the impressive prehistoric pagan ritual landscape of Croagh Patrick that had a local spiritual purpose as far back as the Neolithic period, some 4,000 years before Christianity came to Ireland. Part of that landscape is the rare rock art found at Boheh. Twice a year from the vantage point at the Boheh Stone, the sun can be seen to set at the summit of Croagh Patrick and appears to roll down its northern shoulder as it sets on April 18 and August 24.
Throughout Ireland, early Christians appropriated existing and revered pagan sites as monuments for their new figures of worship. Natural world monuments (water sources, caves and mountains ) which were seen as important portals to another world by pagans, and human practices (pagan customs and pilgrimages ) were now attached by story to the new order’s saints to give them authority among the local population and to usurp the spiritual position once held by their pagan counterparts. The Boheh Stone became known as St Patrick’s Chair and the Tóchar Phádraig pilgrim route has a pre-Christian origin of significance as it was a road between the royal seat of Connacht at Rathcruachan and Croagh Patrick.
Late in 2015, a conservation plan was initiated to safeguard the well-worn path to the summit of Croagh Patrick. The previous July the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage was cancelled over fears the traditional route, beginning in the village of Murrisk, was too unstable due to the heavy pedestrian traffic and bad weather on the mountain. The Reek’s role as a destination for pilgrims stretches back long before the birth of Christianity, though the earliest recording of a Christian pilgrimage was in 1113AD. Then, the mountain was still being referred to as Cruachain Aighle. Modern estimates of 25,000 pilgrims climbing the mountain on the last Sunday in July each year are remarkably consistent with historical figures for the same pilgrimage. In 1825, for example, 25,000 people participated in the pilgrimage. The current pilgrimage figure accounts for one quarter of the total annual footfall on the mountain, making it the single biggest impact event on the Reek.
Today, the Reek has many users. As well as being an important site for Christians, the land owners still farm its slopes, thousands of tourists are drawn to it annually, several charities now depend on it for fundraising, and endurance sport enthusiasts relish the challenge of its rocky, steep terrain. I have climbed the Reek many times for charity and for enjoyment, and like other users and anyone who simply appreciates it from afar, I would truly love to see a balance struck by all stakeholders as the mountain holds a special place for all Mayo people.