WESTPORT, Ireland — Shrouded in mist, the sacred mountain rises above the countryside, majestic, mysterious and a little foreboding.
Here, on this rocky west coast promontory overlooking the Atlantic, St. Patrick is said to have fasted for 40 days and nights as he wrestled with demons and banished snakes from Ireland.
Every March 17, the world throws a lavish celebration for the fifth-century preacher who tramped around Ireland converting its people and spinning endless miracles along the way. Revelers around the globe slurp green beer, host parades and wear silly hats.
But those who truly want to honor the patron saint come to Croagh Patrick, a remote, rugged mountain in County Mayo, which draws over a million pilgrims and tourists each year.
Elders and children, believers and hikers, tourists and locals. They come with walking sticks and hiking boots, guide books and rosary beads. They come for the sweeping views of Clew Bay, for the fresh air and camaraderie, for a day of fun — and penance.
Trekking to the summit in the saint's footsteps, some climb in their bare feet, pausing at three "stations" along the way to recite a series of prayers. There is a small oratory on the summit where Mass is celebrated on certain feast days and on the last Sunday in July — "Reek Sunday" — traditionally the holiest day to climb, when up to 30,000 visitors flock to the slopes.
"I do it for the graces it gives me all year," said Patrick Breen, 51, of Athlone, as he began his descent last July, his bare feet bruised and swollen after several hours on the mountain. "It's a gift, a beautiful gift."
All around, thick Irish brogues mingled with languages and accents from around the world. A family of four from Colorado huffed up the final leg, the father celebrating his 55th birthday, his teenage daughter dreaming of the spa that awaited when they got back to their hotel. They passed a trio of 20-something Gypsies from County Cavan, hiking barefoot in honor of two toddlers from their community who had drowned in a lake earlier in the summer. A German tourist with a backpack helped his mother scale the rocks. A young Englishwoman wiggled her pink toenails and boasted about climbing barefoot just to prove to her boyfriend that "fancy toes" could do it. An older Polish couple picnicked at the summit with ham sandwiches and flasks of hot tea.
Although the mountain is just 2,500 feet high (764 meters), even seasoned hikers are surprised by its steepness and difficulty. Over the years, climbers have eroded the original trail, so what remains is rocky, unforgiving and often slippery terrain. The last leg, before the summit, is a formidable cliff of rolling rocks and shale known as "the scree." Casualties are common and every year local rescue squads airlift numerous injured climbers from the slopes.
But that doesn't deter pilgrims who have been flocking to the site since ancient times. Long before Patrick, the Celts celebrated the harvest festival of Lughnasa here, beginning in early August. The sacred mountain was considered especially important for woman who would sleep on the summit during Lughnasa to encourage fertility.
Today St. Patrick is big business in the area with dozens of Patrician statues, holy wells and shrines. Westport, a pretty port town about 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the mountain, is filled with stores selling Patrick memorabilia and the wooden staffs that are ubiquitous on the mountain. (Westport was also home to 16th century pirate queen, Grace O'Malley, who vies with Patrick for local attention and lore.)
Twelve miles (19 kilometers) from Westport is Ballintubber Abbey, where Patrick founded a church and baptized his earliest converts. The present abbey has been in daily use as a church for nearly 800 years. Ballintubber also marks the beginning of an ancient pilgrimage route (now called Tochar Phadraig) that winds for 22 miles (35 kilometers) over hills and fields, ending at Croagh Patrick. Along the way, pilgrims pass a round tower, a holy well and a raised stone carved with Neolithic circles called St. Patrick's Chair.
But it is the mountain that remains the big draw for pilgrims and tourists alike. At almost any time of the day, any time of the year, it is possible to make out a steady stream of climbers in the distance, inching their way toward the summit, hunched over their wooden crooks, little specks of humanity disappearing into the mist.
If You Go...
WESTPORT, COUNTY MAYO: http://www.westporttourism.com/westport-facts.html
CROAGH PATRICK VISITOR CENTRE: http://www.croagh-patrick.com/visitorcentre/croagh-patrick .The visitor center at the base of the mountain has a cafe, craft shop and information about guided tours in the area.
BALLINTUBBER ABBEY: http://www.ballintubberabbey.ie/ . Open daily 9 a.m.-midnight.