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Mountain climb good for the soul, but not the soles

An unshod climb up the 2500-foot Croagh Patrick is no mean feat.

After a hard night’s partying in Westport, what you really need is to climb a 2510 ft mountain, before dawn, barefoot. Reaching the summit of Ireland’s holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo, is a lot more than your average Sunday stroll, but this is what over 30,000 pilgrims - from hardened climbers to old men, women and children – attempted on Sunday.

Every year for 1500 years, pilgrims have celebrated where Ireland’s Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days and nights in 441 AD, overcame the pagan god Cromdubh and banished the snakes from Ireland on his way down. Re-enacting the hardship endured by the saint, they climb the sharp, rocky face barefoot.

Philomena Dempsey from Galway set out at 3:45am, one of a long wavering line of candles leading up the mountain, and made it back down at 1:30 the following afternoon. `It takes a lot longer in your bare feet…they get very tender, but it is penitential after all, and you get over it very quickly.’ Martin Nyland (75) from Mayo has been climbing the mountain for 50 years in his Wellington boots:
`I started in 1948 and only missed one year up to today. I always do it in my Wellingtons, because there’s a great grip in them. I wouldn’t mind turning around and going back up again.’

The white scar marking the route of the three-hour climb is a well-trodden path, as Croagh Patrick had been a site of worship for thousands of years before St Patrick arrived. Archaeologists discovered Bronze Age artifacts on the summit in 1995, thought to be over 2500 years old.

St Patrick himself was not entirely successful in his mission to de-paganise Ireland - the choice of the last Sunday in July as the traditional pilgrimage Sunday (known as Garland Sunday) dates back to the harvest festival of Lughnasa in honour of the ancient Irish god Lugh.

More recently, the sacred mountain was under threat during the 1980s when gold was discovered in the nearby Owenwee river (Abhain Bhui in Gaelic translates as `yellow river’). The overwhelming importance of the area as a national pilgrimage saved the mountain from possible destruction as the Minister for Energy banned further exploration in 1990.

Meanwhile, both the spiritual and the merely energetic continue to struggle up the steep, cone-shaped mountain each year to reach the summit and catch a glimpse of the 365 islands scattered around Clew Bay. Kathleen Sheridan from Limerick was determined to reach the summit, with or without her children:
`I had to turn back because my three girls were tired, so I’m going to drop them down to their father and go back up again. I don’t find it hard to keep going, because it’s like someone is making me get up there. I think it’s very good for the soul.’