If you’ve ever celebrated St Patrick’s Day, doubtless you know the story of St Patrick famously banishing all the snakes from Ireland. Every time I heard this myth when I was younger, I always pictured an old man in a long robe (á la Friar Tuck) brandishing a hefty staff, marching across Ireland while herding all the snakes into the sea as one would a flock of sheep.
Although I suspected this was probably not how this event came to pass, when I came to Ireland I learned that St Patrick was very efficient with his snake banishing and did it all in one go from the top of Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo, after a forty day fast. It has been a pilgrimage site ever since, although archaeological evidence shows that it has been a place of worship since 3,000 BCE. Thousands of people come every year from all over the world to hike to the summit for both religious reasons and to enjoy the incredible view of Clew Bay and the west coast.
My friends Noémie, a French au pair, and Alex, a Killala native, didn’t take much convincing, and last Saturday we found ourselves standing, full of expectation, at the bottom of the mountain.
We began our ascent up the steep and rocky path, armed with sturdy walking sticks we had rented from a booth at the mouth of the trail. It was relatively warm and bright on the bottom third of the mountain, and we stopped frequently to take in the view and catch our breath. We noticed that clouds had begun to gather at the peak, and we hoped they would dissipate by the time we completed the two-hour hike.
There weren’t very many people on Croagh Patrick that day, at least compared to the 15,000 pilgrims that ascend it on the holy day, Reek Sunday, in July. We only encountered a few hundred people as we climbed, and as a result they stood out as individuals and groups. My friends and I began to recognize them, gauge our progress next to theirs, and were encouraged by those on their way back down. We fell into step with other young hikers, groups of friends, older men and women who had a vitality I hope I possess at their age, languages I could identify and some I couldn’t, and even some sturdy and brave children being guided by family members. I’m always pleasantly surprised and thrilled at the variety of people that are drawn together by the love of the beauty of nature and the physical challenge it can present.
By the time we got half way up the mountain, the clouds had settled in and were soaking everything in a delicate mist. The apex was obscured from view, but we refused to let it dampen our drive as we assessed the final leg of our journey up a nearly vertical and extremely rocky piece of trail.
We slogged on, and I began to feel like I was in a scene from Lord of the Rings. One does not simply climb Croagh Patrick, I said to myself while my lungs ached. Every person returning told us, “Just five more minutes.” Yeah, right, I thought.
And then we were there. A white church rose suddenly into view, and we were hit by a gust of wind as it blew over the mountain. Everywhere people were high-fiving each other, taking pictures, and praying. One group even popped a bottle of champagne.
There was no view due to the low clouds, but I felt such a sense of accomplishment I hardly cared. I looked at my new friends, neither of which I had known before I came here, both with such different histories, and marvelled at what we had just accomplished together. I felt a sense of camaraderie with the other hikers who had made the journey with me that day, and the millions who had scaled it before me, reaching back into human history.