A holy mountain: Croagh Patrick in myth, prehistory and history

Long before St Patrick banished snakes and demons from the Reek, and long after it too, it was a sacred place of pagan rituals

Cruach Phádraig, known in pre-Christian times as Cruachán Aigle, near Westport, Co Mayo, rises to a height of 762m and, as Peter Harbison wrote so nicely, “it looks down in a benign yet patriarchal fashion over the drowned drumlins of Clew Bay”. That it became a holy mountain, a sacred site, is hardly surprising, given its pyramidal structure, with the very striking bright quartz, drawing the eye from a distance on bright days.

Mountains are seen as holy across many of the great religious traditions. They are places of potential encounter with the supernatural, either benevolent or malevolent. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition there are many such sites; imposing mountains, but also smaller hills. Mount Sinai (2,285 m) in Egypt is sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Bedouins hold that it was the mountain where God gave the laws, including Ten Commandments, to the people. In the New Testament, Mount Tabor (575 m) is believed by many Christians to be the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9). He went there with three of his favoured apostles who receive enlightenment as they see him talking with the great prophets, before receiving divine affirmation as God’s “beloved son” in whom he “is well pleased.”

The great Romanian scholar of religions Mircea Eliade concludes that mountains are “holy ground because [they] are nearest to heaven.” They are, he writes, invested with an “awe inspiring mystery, the majesty that emanates [from them is] an overwhelming superiority of power.” The also inspire a certain religious fear in the presence of what he calls the mysterium fascinans (fascinating mystery) that is the totally Other.

Myth, prehistory and early history


Robert Macfarlane, writing of an expedition to the deeply mysterious Minya Konka mountain in China, sacred to Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, describes it in striking terms:”I hadn’t ever before reached a mountain landscape so wholly sacralised, in which almost every human mark was either an expression of devotion or a marker of hierophony. Everything was oriented towards the peak.”

Croagh Patrick is such a place, a mountain that is charged with a sense of the sacred. Its significance goes back into the mists of myth and prehistory. There is an increasing volume of archaeological evidence suggesting ritual, ceremonial and defensive activities, confirming that it had been a sacred mountain long before its Christian, syncretistic assimilation. Recent evidence, revealing the remains of a hill fort at the base and Neolithic art on a rocky outcrop known as St Patrick’s Chair, suggests it goes back almost 6,000 years ago to pre-Celtic times. It can certainly be said to have been the kind of place where “hierophonies” might happen. These were those moments of meeting between the sacred and the profane, heaven and earth, which our ancestors, with their openness to divine interventions of all kinds, saw as miraculous encounters with the divine Other.

It was also here, on the Reek, Michael Dames suggests “that Connacht mythology, like that of every other province, sought a suitable place to re-enact its own rebirth. Connacht’s nativity occurred annually at the start of harvest at a conical mountain, tipped with white quartz.” This was the site of the Lughnasa festival and, the legend suggests, Patrick ascended the already sacred mountain during the festival in the late spring or early summer of 441 CE. It is said that he spent a scriptural 40 days in penance and prayer on the summit, 40 days of desert struggle with temptation, including a direct confrontation with the demon.

Patrick in the battle for the soul of Ireland

This is a narrative of the confrontation between the forces of the old and the new. Patrick, the apostle of the newly arrived faith, is seeking to win the allegiance of the people, to draw them away from their long-established deities and win them over to the new, one and true God. From a traditional Christian perspective, it can be read as the “battle for the soul of Ireland”, as it recounts the story of the victory over “the lesser gods” and their fall into redundancy with the ineluctable advance of a perhaps more rational and practical monotheism.

In the case of Cruach Phádraig, Crum Dubh was the dominant deity, the ruler of the elements, as might be expected from a god inhabiting a formidable mountain, overlooking one of the world’s great oceans. Crum was, however, confronted by a force that was far more powerful than he, and Patrick was its champion, equipped with the spiritual strength needed to dispossess the established lord. It was from this that we have the legend of Patrick banishing from Ireland all demons and snakes, the symbols of evil and defiance of the one God. The antiquarian John O’Donovan (1806-1861) tells us that the first demons, perhaps led by Crum Dubh, were believed to have been overcome at Log na nDeamhan, where the saint threw his black bell at them. Corra, depicted as the devil’s mother, succumbed at Loch Nacorra. The medieval Scottish monk Jocelyn, wrote “that Ireland since its first habitation had been pestered with a triple plague, namely, a great abundance of venomous reptiles, with myriads of demons visibly appearing and with a multitude of magicians…The glorious apostle laboured by prayer and other exercises of devotion to deliver the island from triple pestilence. Taking the Staff of Jesus in his hand he hurled the reptiles into Log na nDeamhan.” It was from this and similar narratives that we have the imagining of Ireland as a land of “saints and scholars”, from where all the forces of evil have been banished.

Traditions die hard

While the Croagh Patrick rituals had been largely Christianised there is definite evidence to suggest that an old pagan tradition may have lived on. At least one 19th-century source is said to have heard pilgrims invoking the older pre-Christian deities in their devotions. The evangelical polemicist Page wrote, “none but those that are barren go there to commit the most abominable practices that would make human nature, in its most degraded state, blush”. He tells us that “on entering the bed pilgrims removed small pebbles to bring home, in order to prevent barrenness, and to banish rats and mice.” To William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), writing The Irish Sketch Book, it was clear that in the popular imaginary the battle with the pagan gods did not end with Patrick and they still had a grip on the mountain. He noted that at the outset of the pilgrimage on a Sunday the diocesan clergy, who had now taken control of the site, went up the mountain to forbid any kind of levity, music and dancing, while exhorting the pilgrims to strict adherence the performance “of what are called religious duties”. The older gods were not giving up easily.

Dr Patrick Claffey is Wallace Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department for the Study of Religions and Theology, Trinity College Dublin. Atlantic Tabor: The Pilgrims of Croagh Patrick – text by Patrick Claffey, with photographs by Tomasz Bereska and Tomasz Szustek – is published by Liffey Press, €19.95