Barefoot pilgrims brave the rocks for Reek Sunday

Thousands make it to the top for 8am mass with Archbishop Neary

Pilgrims Shauna (9) and her dad Ray Murphy, Devlin, Louisburgh, Co.Mayo take a break as they Make their way up Croagh Patrick at dawn for the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

Pilgrims Shauna (9) and her dad Ray Murphy, Devlin, Louisburgh, Co.Mayo take a break as they Make their way up Croagh Patrick at dawn for the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin


Up to 30,000 pilgrims made the journey to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo today to celebrate Reek Sunday.

The first mass of the day commences at the summit at 8am, by which time there’s barely space to park a car in Murrisk, the village at the bottom of the mountain, though the slopes are crowded.

Climbing down from the summit is the trickiest part of the day, however, with the steep run of scree at the top of the mountain making for particularly treacherous conditions underfoot.

Mayo Mountain Rescue reported some 17 casualties, four of whom had to be stretchered from the mountain, while two more required evacuation by helicopter.

Most of the injuries were broken bones and strains, while one person suffered a head injury and another man was airlifted to Galway with chest pains.

Old tradition

The last Sunday in July has been a day of Christian pilgrimage to the mountain for more than 1,000 years and this year’s event drew people from all over the world to southwest Mayo.

“It makes it easier if there aren’t too many people,” said Clare native Seamus Hynes.

Hynes, who said that you can never be too early to start the climb, arrived in Murrisk for his fourth climb of the Reek at 4.30am on Sunday, having driven straight from playing a gig in Killaloe on Saturday night.

“When I got here, it was like a procession of lanterns all the way up with these headlamps,” he said. “It was extraordinary to see it.”

Another man who arrived early was Michael Murphy, who drove up from Monivea, Co Galway, with his daughter Alison and began to climb at about 7am. “This is my 18th year so I’m notching them up,” he said, noting also that it was the first time he’d not been rained on.

“I’m doing it so long now, if I didn’t do it, I’d feel like I was missing something. It’s a nice way to reflect on the past year and give a little bit of thanks as well. A little bit of gratitude. There’s a lot of people out there who can’t do it and I think we have to appreciate that too.”

Like Murphy, many others spoke of returning year after year for the climb.

“I’ve done it for the last 15 or 20 years,” said Padraic Flood of Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, while taping the sole of his boot back on. It had fallen apart as he climbed back down from the summit.

Asked whether his reasons for climbing were religious or athletic, he said, “A bit of both.”

“The year I’m not able to do it, I’ll say to myself I’m going downhill,” he added.

Many climbers make the pilgrimage without shoes or socks out of choice rather than bad luck, a tradition of penance and sacrifice that goes back centuries.

While most barefoot climbers listed religious motivations for their decision, some did not.

Joseph Lee, a researcher from New York who’s spending the summer working in Ireland, had his own reasons for tackling the climb without his shoes.

“Because I can, or I think I can,” he said. “I only just heard that people do it in their bare feet and I don’t know if I’ll be back and I’m young so, why not give it a try?

Feet problems

“This one guy I was walking with for 10 minutes just kept telling me it’s good for my feet, which I’m not really sure I believe. He said I’ll never have feet problems after this.”

Nearing the summit a little later, Lee still had a wide grin on his face, though he was considering putting his runners back on for the return trip.

Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam gave his annual homily during mass on the summit, choosing to focus the minds of his elevated, mist-soaked congregation on the need to be hopeful in what could be considered a difficult time for the church and, more particularly, his archdiocese.

As in years past, Archbishop Neary drew attention to the national economic situation and what he sees as a “season of transition as we watch the collapse of the world as we have known it”.

“In times past it was difficult to imagine the world without God,” he said. “Today it is becoming a challenge to imagine the world with God.”

Describing how Christians have become used to being “marginalised” in contemporary society, Archbishop Neary went on to underscore the centrality of hope to the Christian faith.

Concluding on a combative note, he questioned how offence caused to Christians goes unpunished, in contrast to Judaism or Islam. “When it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, there seems to be a different standard,” he said. “Freedom of expression knows no limits.”