A 5-hour climb to wash away my sins?

Mention Croagh Patrick to anyone Irish and they’ll immediately think of walking barefoot up a mountain on the west coast of Ireland in Co. Mayo. Okay – maybe that’s bordering on a generalisation, but it was the first thing I thought of when I saw it. I’ve been hearing about it for years and not alone had I never climbed it, I’d never seen it. At least now I can say that I’ve seen it.

IMG_9621 (800x597)Back as far as 3000 BC, this 764 metre high mountain (that’s about 2507 ft – is that high enough to be called a mountain?) has been a pilgrimage site. Back then, it was a favourite place for pagans celebrating the summer solstice. Today, it’s a Christian pilgrimage, and very much associated with St Patrick. It is said that in the fifth century, the man himself fasted on the summit for 40 days. Each year, about a million pilgrims go to pay their respects (or perhaps to notch up some bragging rights).

IMG_9502 (800x586)Known locally as the Reek, thousands of people descend on Murrisk on the last Sunday in July (Reek Sunday) to ascend the mountain. The practising Catholics amongst them might even be after a plenary indulgence. If you climb it on St Patrick’s Day, or during the summer (July-September) and pray for the Pope’s intentions in or even near the little stone chapel at the top and then go to confession and communion within a week, you’re in line for an indulgence.

IMG_9500 (600x800)This piqued my curiosity and I needed to know more. Apparently, an indulgence is  the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned. And there I was thinking that forgiveness equated to not being punished. How wrong was I.

Indulgences come in two kinds: partial and plenary. A partial indulgences removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of it. I was now wondering whether I could specify the sin I want indulged? So I looked deeper and discovered that a plenary indulgence remove all the temporal punishment due for the sins committed up to that time. All of them.

IMG_9507 (600x800)So, climb Croagh Patrick, in my current, morosely unfit state and skip purgatory – were I, of course, never to sin again? How tempting was that? Not very. I made it part way up (okay, that’s definitely an exaggeration – and I’m only fessing up because there was a witness – I made it as far as the wire fence where the climb officially starts). My excuse? I wasn’t wearing the right shoes and it was wet. And I hadn’t really grasped the full meaning of plenary indulgence. Had I known then what I know now…

IMG_9505 (800x600)I’m also a little dubious about the words ‘may gain’… all that effort for a maybe? Mind you, that said, it seems as if every Irish person but me has been up Croagh Patrick, so now, climbing the Reek is officially on my bucket list. If nothing else, the view out over Clew Bay should be spectacular and the pint with my name on it in the pub afterwards might taste all the sweeter.


The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation—to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. So said the authority on World Religions – Huston Smith. And just when I was seriously giving thought to doing the  pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the home of the remains of the Apostle James. Am I ready to challenge everyday life, I ask myself?

People have been going on pilgrimages for centuries: Muslims to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem, Christians to the Holy Land. Then in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, we had the Crusades, but let’s not go there today.  When the Holy Lands were otherwise occupied, European Christians had to find sites closer to home – St Peter’s in Rome, Canterbury Cathedral, walking labryinths, or the Stations of the Cross. Despite falling out of favour during the Reformation, this idea of a prilgrimage – a journey that would transform your life – managed to survive through the ages.

I went in search of the heart chakra of the world some time ago and on reflection, that was a pilgrimage of sorts. On most of my visits to Ireland, I go to Fr Moore’s Well and check in with him to see what’s going on. I never did Lough Derg – despite the belief that doing it three times would land me a man. Neither have I climbed Croagh Patrick (St Patrick did in 441 AD).

When I think of it, my pilgrimage life has been sadly neglected.  And now I’ve left it too late. Spiritual tourism has become popular. Finding remote areas or trails to travel is a challenge. And although many recommend the Camino Way, I have problems seeing myself walking alongside the masses, each of us heading to the same place. I might have to give this a little more thought.