The Growing Controversy Over Ireland’s Holy Mountain

Wild Atlantic Way Croagh Patrick Mayo Ireland

Michael Cusack is the author of “Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay – A Guide to the Edge of Europe” and a tour guide with Reek Tours.

In recent years, there has been much talk about the alarming rate of erosion on Croagh Patrick’s primary pilgrimage path. There is no doubt that the summit cone of the mountain has become difficult to negotiate for all but the most coordinated visitors. Today, it is not unusual to see people descending the ‘bad bend’ – a particularly steep stretch about three hundred vertical feet below the summit – on their backsides. Almost every day during the peak season just before and after Reek Sunday in July, the Mountain Rescue team and often the coastguard helicopter are summoned to the mountain as a result of a fall or some other mishap.

In 2013, a report carried out by Elfyn Jones of the British Mountaineering Council proposed major restorative works, as well as suggesting more formalised management and monitoring of traffic on the mountain. Jones found that upwards of €1.5m would have to be spent to preserve the main route up Ireland’s holiest mountain. Jones was quoted as saying that with the possible exception of Snowdon in Wales, ‘there cannot be many other sites where a relatively wild and natural mountain is climbed by so many inexperienced and ill-prepared walkers’. Jones estimated that 300 separate 500kg bags of stone would have to brought to the summit cone by helicopter to help make the path safer for visitors.

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Tourist Magnet

The importance of Croagh Patrick as a magnet for visitors cannot be underestimated. A survey conducted by the Westport Tourism Organisation (WTO) determined that of the reasons influencing people to choose Westport as a holiday destination, a remarkable 60.2% indicated that Croagh Patrick either greatly influenced or somewhat influenced their decision. Climbing the Reek ranked second only to the Greenway and Railway Walk as the most attractive outdoor activity for tourists in the Westport area. Michael Ring, then Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, once described the mountain as “an integral part of our spiritual and cultural heritage and very important for tourism.” One Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, has even proposed erecting a 100-foot-high statue of Saint Patrick on top of the mountain. He was quoted as saying that “the whole Westport area is like an artist’s masterpiece that has been put in a dark closet. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if thousands of more people knew it existed?”

There has been talk of closing the mountain altogether, or banning athletes who race up and down the peak. The former would be a drastic measure indeed, considering the enormous footfall of visitors to this beautiful peak each year. Recently, however, Mayo County Council’s head of environment was appointed to lead a Croagh Patrick Stakeholders group, whose aim is to manage the impact of growing numbers of recreational users on the mountain. This group recently created a dedicated map marking the pilgrimage route on the 764-metre-high mountain, new signage and information boards, as well as ‘counters’ to determine precise numbers using the sacred site. Perhaps more significantly, the group is appointing a consultant to design the conservation works. It is anticipated that the Department of Environment, Fáilte Ireland and Mayo County Council will fund the conservation project, which would also be supplemented by voluntary contributions from users.

Members of the clergy have also voiced their concerns about what is seen as the commercialization of Ireland’s holy mountain. Currently, the Reek is a focal point for some major events, including endurance tests like the Gael Force and Sea2Summit races. Father Frank Fahey of Ballintubber Abbey, who was instrumental in the restoration of what is called the Tochar Padraig or ‘Patrick’s Causeway’, as an ancient pilgrimage route from the abbey to the top of the mountain, was quoted as saying that Croagh Patrick should not be exploited in this way, and that the sacred dimension must be prioritised and emphasised.

Who Owns Croagh Patrick?

Yet even today there is debate and often confusion about who actually owns Croagh Patrick. The fact is that despite its global fame, this mountain is not a national park or world heritage site. In fact, it is not legally protected at all. The higher slopes are actually part of what is called commonage and thus owned by a number of local farmers, while the small oratory at the peak is owned by the Catholic Church.

Most of the pilgrim route is through two commonages, one with 46 shares and another with three shareholders. Elfyn Jones points out in his report that while there has been a very long tradition of access to the mountain from Murrisk there is no existing legal right of access on foot.

To complicate matters, the question of liability has been raised regarding those who are injured on the mountain. Earlier in 2016, a court upheld a claim by a walker on the Wicklow Way that reasonable care had not been taken to maintain a boardwalk in a safe condition and this failure was responsible for a gash to her right knee which required seven stitches. The Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was held liable for negligence and breach of duty and ordered to pay the hiker €40,000. The case is under appeal, but if upheld, this sets a precedent whereby any work performed on the summit cone to make it safer for pilgrims may become the responsibility of those who undertook the work in the first place and/or the ‘owners’ of the peak. While ‘totally at your own risk’ disclaimers are in place today, there is some question as to whether or not these would be upheld in an Irish court of law.

More recently, there has been talk that a recognised legal policy will be enacted meaning that anyone entering privately owned land, such as Croagh Patrick, will be taking responsibility for themselves, and that the landowners and the Mayo County Council will be indemnified. It is hoped that the Uplands Management Division of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Regional Development will provide a National Indemnity Scheme for Upland Areas as a matter of urgency.

For over twenty years, the Murrisk Development Association (MDA) have worked to maintain Croagh Patrick as a national site. This is a somewhat unique organisation as it works to upkeep the mountain as a tourist attraction on a voluntary basis. The South West Mayo Development Company, a government funded agency, has also helped with funding for projects in the area, such as the community centre at the foot of the mountain. The official car park at the foot of the mountain in Murrisk is maintained by the Mayo County Council, who began charging visitors after refurbishing the area at a cost of 150,000 Euros several years ago. Revenue from the car park is currently shared between the county council and the MDA.

.The fact that the mountain is commonage also raises other questions for those who are concerned about its future. In 1989, a concerted effort to open the mountain to gold mining was thwarted only by local opposition. No less than twenty-one prospecting companies were invited to bid on mining rights at the time. That seam of gold is still contained in at least 12 quartz veins on the mountain, which according to experts could produce 700,000 tons of ore and potentially over 300,000 troy ounces of gold. Even today, over twenty-five years later, there is much chatter on the Internet about the prospect of revisiting gold mining. Local opinion was somewhat divided at the time, although the majority prevailed, and no doubt this is a matter that will come up for debate again in the future.

Other Approaches

Croagh Patrick is a spectacular peak whose pilgrimage traditions go back thousands of years. Excavations in the area have revealed that it was one of the foremost ritual sites in all of Ireland long before the advent of Christianity. While the current ‘Pilgrims Path’ from Murrisk is the one used by the vast majority of visitors, it is by no means the only recognised access point to the mountain. The Lecanvey Route, for example, is rarely used today, but once was part of the pilgrimage trail that led from Caher Island, near Inishturk, to the summit. In fact, this route is far more benign and less treacherous than the Murrisk route. Access, however, is somewhat more challenging. Unlike Murrisk, there is no designated car park and obvious line of sight to the summit. Those who visit all three ‘stations’ of Leacht Benain, The Summit, and Reilig Mhuire on the pilgrimage route will be familiar with this approach.

Some would also argue that Saint Patrick’s initial approach to the mountain would have been via what is now known as the Owenwee route, which is part of the Tochar Padraig starting at Ballintubber Abbey. This fascinating and historic route includes no less than thirteen stages and 113 stiles on its journey of over thirty kilometres to the summit. The Mayo Mountain Rescue team use part of the Owenwee route as it affords easier access to the shoulder from their station. Then there is always the traverse from the east via the Western Way access point, or from the west via Ben Goram, which would have been part of the original route from Caher Island. However, the only routes that would avoid the most eroded parts of the summit cone are those from the west.

What is to be done?

One obvious, if expensive, solution to the problem of erosion, particularly on the summit cone of the mountain, is to adopt the model of paths in the MacGillicuddy Reeks in Kerry or even Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park, which has gravel footpaths and flagstones all of the way up to and down from the summit. Being one of six national parks managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Connemara National Park receives government funding that is not applicable to Croagh Patrick, so the money for any such project would have to come from another source. Elfyn Jones states in his report that if the landowners were agreeable, there could be options under the Planning Acts to declare the route a public right of way. This would put a responsibility on the local authority to then maintain the path in future years.

Another solution would be to utilize other access points to the mountain, such as Lecanvey, although as it stands, this would require some form of right of way access over private lands in the immediate area.

There are growing calls to eliminate commercial events on Croagh Patrick, as many believe that much of the recent erosion has been exacerbated by competitive athletes running up and down the mountain. However, any such claims are currently considered ‘anecdotal’. There is also talk of banning visitors entirely from climbing above the statue of Saint Patrick over a period of time, in order to allow the peak to ‘repair itself’. This suggestion has been criticized by Failte Ireland, who labelled any such action as ‘disastrous’ for tourism in the area. The final solution may be a combination of all of these considerations, but for now the fate of Croagh Patrick as a magnet for visitors from all over the planet is, as they say, ‘in the lap of the gods’.

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The Lonely Hills of the Wraith

The Hills of the Wraith

A few miles south of Croagh Patrick, beyond Lough Na Corra, lies a remote range known as the Sheeffry Hills. These are 650-million year old mountains whose western peak of Barrclashcame is higher than the Reek itself. Phonetically translated from the Gaelic ‘Cnoic Shiofra’, they are known as the ‘Hills of the Wraith’, and they were once silent witnesses to a great Irish tragedy.

The Sidhe in Irish Legend

Pronounced ‘Shee Free’, the name refers to the legendary Sidhe, who are considered to be a distinct race in Ireland, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with mortals over the centuries. The belief in the Sidhe is part of the pre-Christian religion which survived for thousands of years and has never been erased from the collective consciousness of the Irish people.

The Hills of the Wraith
The western end of the Sheeffry Hills overlooking Doolough and the Famine Road to Louisburgh

Legend has it that when the Milesians arrived in Ireland, they found that the Tuatha De Danaan already had control of the land. The sons of Mil fought them in battle and defeated them, driving them ‘underground’ where it is said they remain to this day in the hollow hills or Sidhe mounds.

A wraith is defined as “an apparition of a living person that appears as a portent just before that person’s death.” In Ireland, such wraiths are known as “Banshees” (bean – woman and sidhe – fairy). In a place as lonely as the Sheeffry Hills, it is not hard to see why the ancient inhabitants of Ireland believed they were a haunt of the sidhe. Locals say there is an eerie atmosphere about the place, where the mists can descend unexpectedly and a traveller can wander ten miles along a desolate and silent ridge without ever seeing a person, yet at times be troubled by a feeling of another’s presence.

A Place of Terrible Beauty

Barrclashcame Summit
Barrclashcame – highest point in the Sheeffry’s – with Croagh Patrick in the background

The nearest village, Drummin, lies at the eastern end of the Sheeffry’s. To the west is the ‘black lake’ of Doolough, and beyond that, the massive mountain of Mweelrea, which slopes down to the Atlantic Ocean. This area, together with the Maumturks and the Twelve Bens, constitutes the great southern wilderness which stretches all of the way from Croagh Patrick to Oughterard in Connemara – a distance of some 70 kilometres. Today, that route is traced by the Western Way hiking trail.

It is at the western end of the Hills of the Wraith, along the shores of the Black Lake, that a story of extraordinary inhumanity and suffering has drawn worldwide attention. This is a place of exceptional beauty, where the Sheeffry’s, the Mweelrea Range and the peak of Ben Creggan intersect at the Doolough Pass.

The Famine Road Doolough
The Famine Road at Doolough – once a rough trail – was the scene of many tragic deaths

Here, in March 1849, many people – perhaps scores – died along the rough twelve-mile trail between the town of Louisburgh on the southern shores of Clew Bay to a hunting retreat built in the 1830’s by the Marquis of Sligo. Lord Sligo is reputed to have named it ‘Delphi’ based on the valley’s similarity to the home of the Oracle in Greece.

The Famine Walk

There are various accounts of what happened at the time, but there is general agreement on a number of important points. Ireland had been gripped by famine for four years. The British Poor Law Unions had established workhouses for the poor, hungry and destitute Irish. These workhouses were run by a locally elected Board of Guardians. This board was also authorised to provide food without forcing the people to check into the workhouse.

In order to qualify for outdoor relief, the locals had to be inspected and approved by the Board. The poor also had to prove that they did not own more than a quarter acre of land to receive any relief. Those approved received three pounds of coarse Indian corn from America.

It is estimated that six hundred starving people gathered in Louisburgh in search of this food or a ticket that would admit them to the workhouse. The Receiving Officer at the Louisburgh Workhouse advised them that he had no authority to do either, but that the people could appeal to two individuals, named as a Colonel Hograve of the Board of Guardians and a Captain Primrose, the local Poor Law inspector.

The people were told that both these individuals were to be found at a distant hunting lodge. The group set off for the place in terrible weather, and after the six hour trek were apparently advised that they should return in the morning if they wished to present their cases to the two men.

Delphi Lodge
The lodge in its idyllic setting just off the Louisburgh Road

After a very cold night, the people were turned away empty-handed in the morning and left to face the bitter winds that funnel through the Doolough Pass. None were given permission by Hograve and Primrose to enter the workhouse or obtain the three pounds of corn. During the walk back to Louisburgh, several perished along the shores of Doolough. A letter written to the Mayo Constitution at the time indicated that sixteen people died along the trail. Other estimates suggested that as many as four hundred people perished.

The next day, the Receiving Officer at the Louisburgh Workhouse sent a group of men out to bury the bodies where they had fallen. One account suggested that the trail was covered with corpses as numerous as sheaves of corn in an autumn field.

Gone but not Forgotten

A symbolic one-mile Famine Walk, as it is now known, takes place every year in the area of a monument at the foot of the Sheeffry Hills along the road that takes visitors through the Doolough Pass. To commemorate the hungry poor who walked this way in 1849, a stone marker topped with a Celtic-style cross carries a quote from Mahatma Gandhi – “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

Famine Memorial Doolough
The Memorial at Doolough to the Famine Walk Victims

Today, sightseers will stop at the northern end of Doolough and gaze at the beauty of their surroundings. Others, like Bishop Desmond Tutu who visited the site in 1991, will also be mindful of the human suffering that took place here over a century and a half ago in the shadow of the Sheeffry Hills.

The Southern Wilderness

The Southern Wilderness

As a pilgrim approaches the shoulder of Croagh Patrick on a clear day, waves of mountain ranges stretch towards the southern horizon.

Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground
Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground

There is only one village of any size in the thirty spectacular kilometres between the Reek and Leenane, the gateway to Connemara. This is Drummin (An Dromainn, meaning “The Ridge”). At the time of writing, Drummin had a small church and a public house. It was also on this plain between Croagh Patrick and the next mountain ranges of Partry and Sheeffry that a young nun, Sister Irene Gibson, lived in a forest home as a hermit for several years up to 2003, in an unsuccessful attempt to set up a hermitage near the village.

It is said that after Saint Patrick fasted on the Reek for forty days, that he threw a silver bell down the south side of the mountain knocking the she-demon Corra from the sky into a lake, sited at the base of the mountain and known locally as Lough na Corra.

Looking southwest from the Reek, the first mountain range that comes into view is that of the Sheeffry Hills (Cnoic Shíofra, meaning “Hills of the Wraith”). This desolate and remote ridge affords spectacular views of both the Reek and the magnificent ranges to the south and west, including the Mweelrea group, the Maumturks, Ben Gorm, Devilsmother, and the Twelve Bens of Connemara. The highest peak, Barrclashcame, is actually eight metres higher than the summit of the Reek.

Connemara's Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills
Connemara’s Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills

Looking southwest from the top of the Reek, one can see the deep gorge that forms the break between Connaught Province’s highest mountain, Mweelrea (813 metres), and the Sheaffry Hills. This is the valley of Doolough (Dubh Lough – The Black Lake). This beautiful valley was once the scene of tragedy during the great famine, when starving residents were forced to walk for many miles in brutal winter conditions to request certification as paupers from the decision-makers who were staying in Delphi Lodge, at the southern end of the lake. The commonly accepted story is that they were instructed to appear at 7:00 a.m., then sent back towards the town of Louisburgh, some twelve miles distant. Several were too weak to continue and fell by the side of the road, where their bodies were later collected. Today, the monument in Doolough valley has an inscription from Mahatma Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

Winter Sun at Doolough
Winter Sun at Doolough

Beyond Doolough is Ireland’s only fjord – Killary Harbour. On a fine day, the Killary is visible from the Reek, as are the magnificent Twelve Bens and the tooth-like mountains of Maumturk.

Derryclare Horseshoe - Lough Inagh 

There are no direct roads from the Reek to the mountains of Mayo and Connemara. By car, it is necessary to either go via Westport or Louisburgh. The Western Way hiking trail does cross the valley, however, and intrepid walkers can follow this path without fear of motorized traffic.

Western Way Map
The Western Way near Croagh Patrick

The area south of Croagh Patrick seems placid today, but as evidenced by tales from the Tochar Padraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, which joins the main pilgrimage trail up the mountain from the southern side, this region has many stories of great hardship and persecution from not so long ago.

NEXT POST – The Wrecks of Clew Bay

Clew Bay Islands

A short walk to the statue of Saint Patrick on the Reek often reveals stunning views of Clew Bay and the distant Nephin mountains, but (apart from the massive Clare Island to the west) how can you tell one island from another? Here are some clues:

Westport Bay from the Reek
Westport Bay from the Reek
    • The semi-island at the end of the long strip of land reaching from the shore out into the bay is called Bartraw. It is one of the most popular destinations in the Westport area
    • The island just off the tip of Bartraw is called Inishdaugh. Legend has it that Danish treasure is buried there
    • To the left of Inishdaugh is Inishleague, behind which are Inishimmel and Inishlaghan, while to its right is the island of Inisheeny, now uninhabited but once home to several families
    • The connected islands that look like a prehistoric bird with a long tail (furthest west from Bartraw) are Dorinish Beg and Dorinish More, once owned by Beatle John Lennon and once home to a commune of hippies led by Sid Rawle
    • The large island inside Westport Bay with a prominent white house at its eastern tip is Inishraher, now a retreat of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization
    • The tiny island that looks like a hat to the east of Inishraher is called Corillan or ‘The Scotsman’s Bonnet’
    • The island at the end of the Murrisk peninsula (closest to the Reek and just beyond Murrisk Abbey) is called Cahernaran, and once had its own fort
    • Beyond Cahernaran, further down the coast towards Westport, are the three islands of Annagh – East, Middle and West joined by narrow strips of land and shingle – now empty but once home to over thirty people
    • The island that boasts the only working lighthouse in Clew Bay (the white structure visible just beyond the ‘tail’ of Dorinish) is called Inishgort. At last count, this island had one inhabitant
    • The island with a cluster of buildings to the southeast of Inishgort is Inishlyre, whose deep natural harbour used to be used as a dropping off point by larger ships with cargo for Westport Quay. A family still lives on the island.
    • The large islands behind Inishgort are Island More and Knockycahillaun, which once housed several families and are part of a network of islands connected by shingle A new holiday home and the old houses are visible where Island More and Knockycahillaun meet
    • Beyond the Island More chain, the distant shingle bar jutting straight out into the bay is part of Inishbee island, beyond which lies the beautiful island of Inishoo, with its horseshoe harbour
    • Further north and east of Inishoo are the myriad islands of Newport Bay and the Nephin Mountains, one of the wildest and most remote areas in the entire country.
    • Looking further west from the Nephins is the dome of the Corraun Peninsula, and beyond that is the island of Achillbeg and Achill Island itself, the largest offshore island in the country, with its cliffs of Croaghaun on the western end of the island – the third highest sea cliffs in Europe.
    Sunset over Westport Bay
    Sunset over Westport Bay

    NOTE – It is not unusual to see rain sweeping over the Nephin Mountains, while the Reek may be bathed in sunshine, and vice-versa. When the wind swings to the northwest, the impressive form of Clare Island being suddenly obliterated by mist is often a harbinger of a squall heading for Croagh Patrick.

    NEXT POST – Everest Sherpas on the Reek

Folklore from the foot of Croagh Patrick

The Reek from Aughavale Graveyard

These stories were collected from locals in 1938-39 and memorialized in a book by Catriona Hastings entitled “Ag Bun na Cruaiche” – Folklore and Folklife from the Foot of Croagh Patrick.

 

Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer) Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)
Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)

 

Murrisk Village is situated beside the sea, about six miles west of Westport – ‘muir’ meaning the sea, and ‘uisge’ the water.  It is at the foot of Croagh Patrick or ‘Cruach Padraig’ – the Hill of Patrick, where Saint Patrick was said to have spent forty days and nights fasting on the summit. Before Saint Patrick, it was known as ‘Cruachan Aigle’ or Eagles Mountain, at which time most of it was said to have been covered by woods. The small road leading to the mountain is called ‘Bothar na Mios’, or the road of the dishes. This is apparently because people used to cook food nearby before climbing the Reek.  To the northeast of Murrisk, the sea comes in, in some places, and forms deep holes in the land. This place is known as ‘Murrisk na bPoll’ or Murrisk of the holes. To the west of the village is a place called ‘Cathair na Ranna’ (now known as Cahernaran Island) where there was once said to be a fort built by a chieftain named ‘Rann’, but that has vanished without a trace.

 

Clew Bay itself was called ‘Cuan Modh’. There is much mystery about how it got its name, but according to local legend a tribal chieftain named Aengus built a fort on one of the islands that was known as ‘Inis Modh’. Creag Bui, Sidh Rua and Creagan Ard are big hills around Croagh Patrick. Sidh Rua is so called because there is supposed to be a fairy living there.

 

According to local farmer Michael Gavin, “there is the ruin of an old abbey where Augustinian monks lived long ago. Grainne Uaile, the Sea Queen of the West, was baptised in Murrisk Abbey. There is a place called Log na nDeamhan (Serpents’ Hollow) at the foot of Croagh Patrick, where Patrick is said to have banished the snakes long ago”.

 

Lecanvey is situated at the foot of the Reek on the western side, about two miles from Murrisk. The name Lecanvey means ‘Flag of the Storm’ – ‘Leac an Anfaidh’. It is said to merit the name due to the Atlantic storms that typically occur during the months of December and January. There are said to be many local stories of fairy forts and ‘pisreoga’ or superstition among the older villagers. For example, “if you see a white horse and if you wet your finger with spittle and rub it on your heel, you’ll have good luck”, or “if you are going to play cards and you walk three times under a briar, you’ll be lucky”, or “if someone dies in the house, stop the clock and chase out the cat”.

 

The oldest type of dwelling which is remembered to exist in the area was a small house made of sods. The roof was also made of sods and beams of bog deal were laid across under the sods as a means of support for the roof. The roof was thatched with rushes or sedges to keep the sods from getting wet. There was a hole in the centre of the roof which supplied the place of a chimney. This type of chimney was plastered with clay. These types of dwelling went by the name of bothain. There was only one room in these houses and this had to suffice as a bedroom as well as a cooking and eating area.

 

Old Head and Clare Island Sunset
Old Head and Clare Island Sunset

 

According to the locals, the sea at Lecanvey is a great indicator of the weather. When the sea is green it is a sign of bad weather. When it is dark and rough, a storm is brewing. A blue sea, tranquil and calm, indicates a spell of fine weather. When the Reek appears near, it is a sign of bad weather. A dense fog on the Reek, with a west wind, foretells rain. When the haze leaves the top and rests on the base of the mountain, fine weather is expected. When the dust rises in clouds from the roadway, rains will follow. The bat foretells of fine weather when he flies about in the dusk or twilight. When the cattle or annoyed by the cuileoga (horse flies), it foretells of great heat. When the flies gather thickly on the window panes, especially after cold weather, it is a sign that sign weather is at hand. Beware the southeast wind at Lecanvey – it tells of a coming storm.

 

 

Sherpas on the Reek

Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, author of "Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay" on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick

Mingma Tsiri Sherpa, a man that very few know his name or how to spell it, is one of the very best high altitude climbers in the world.

Mingma – a man who has climbed Mount Everest 19 times and and is the first Nepalese to summit K2 – and his brother Pasang climbed Croagh Patrick as part of an effort to develop closer ties with Ireland and promote tourism in Nepal, a country that has suffered greatly since the earthquake in April 2015 that killed over 8,000 people.

Mingma Tsiri Sherpa first summitted Everest via the standard north east ridge route on May 12th, 1995 with the Taiwan expedition. His next summit came on May 10th, 1996 again with an expedition from Taiwan but this time via the standard south east ridge route.

Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, author of "Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay" on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick
Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, Reek Tours guide, on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick

Mingma was at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed nineteen people. In a talk given at Outback Jacks in Galway two days after his hike up Croagh Patrick, Mingma explained that if the earthquake had struck during the night, the sixty people rescued at base camp after being buried beneath the snow might not have survived.

Descending Ama Dablam
Sherpa Mingma on slightly more difficult terrain on Ama Dablam in the Himalayas!

Mingma’s brother Pasang, who himself has climbed Everest nine times (the family holds the Guinness World Record for most siblings to have climbed Mount Everest – a total of 56 ascents between seven brothers) explained how his father was employed by the first expedition to successfully climb Everest in 1953. His job was to collect from and deliver mail to Edmund Hillary and other climbers at base camp by running to and from Lukla – a distance of 38 miles each way.

Sherpas are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal. ‘Sherpa’ is now used as a generic name by many westerners to describe mountain guides from the Everest region. Being born at an altitude of 4,100 metres (13,400 feet), Sherpas like Mingma Tsiri and Pasang are at home in places where most people would experience symptoms of altitude sickness.

Pasang also spoke about the difficulty of rebuilding his own village, which was destroyed and is still without electricity nine months after the disaster. Despite this situation, he believes that Nepal is recovering quickly and that anyone interested in trekking or even climbing there should consider 2016 as a great year to visit.

“We are from the Rolwaling village, east of Kathmandu,” says Pasang. “Our village is in a very remote area that is over 4,000m high. You have to trek nearly five days from Kathmandu to get there.”

Because of this, he says, it received no assistance from the Nepalese government or NGOs in the wake of the massive quake, so he, Mingma and other villagers decided to fundraise by themselves.

“A lot of Irish friends helped rebuild the homes and set up the Solar Project, so I’d like to thank all the Irish people who donated.”

The project raised almost $30,000 to power the village by solar power, with Ascent Himalayas contributing money too. One of the most successful Sherpas in history, Mingma set up Ascent Himalayas in 2012. It employs 25 guides, as well as a number of support staff.

Whereas for decades climbing companies were Western-owned, more and more Sherpas are taking ownership of these businesses in Nepal.

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“Mostly, climbing expeditions in Nepal are run by big Western companies, but we feel we can do it ourselves, as the benefit goes to the whole country,” says Pasang.

“For a Western company, the profit is split between them and the local company on the ground, because to get the permit you have to use the local company … We worked for many years for a Western company, which is why we wanted to give those services to climbers coming to our country, but by our own company, as we are more experienced than most other companies.”

Croagh Patrick may not have presented a particular challenge to these supermen, but they were pleased to have trodden on Ireland’s holiest mountain as part of their crusade to raise awareness of the disaster that struck their beautiful country.

NEXT POST – Saint Patrick’s Causeway

The Causeway to Croagh Patrick

Round Tower at Aughagower

Tóchar Phádraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, is an ancient route that begins at the 13th century Ballintubber Abbey and finishes some 20 miles away, on Croagh Patrick.

Historians believe it is actually part of a long lost route from Rathcroghan, formerly the seat of the high kings of Connaught, to what was then known as Cruáchan Aigle, the pagan name for the Reek. Others take this as part of a route from even further east – all of the way to the Hill of Tara in County Meath. It is known as a ’causeway’ because it was originally built to carry heavy traffic, such as horse-drawn ‘chariots’, across the boggy terrain.

The route from Ballintubber Abbey to the Reek crosses no less than 113 stiles. In winter, the Tóchar can be a difficult hike, and waterproof footwear is a must. On a dark December day, we joined the trail at Stile 36, in an area known as ‘The Battlement’. Here the Aille River was in full flood as it rushed past the ruined Killawullaun Mill.

During penal times (when a series of laws were imposed in an attempt to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept a reformed denomination as defined by the Anglican Church), a man who became known as Sean na Sagart was employed to hunt priests in the area. Despite the best efforts of the locals to protect the priests, this man enjoyed some success before he himself was stabbed to death. The trail passed close to a lake known as Lough na gCeann – Lake of the Heads – where it is said that Sean disposed of his victims heads after claiming his reward.

After weeks of rain, the trail was extremely boggy. Several times we sank up to the tops of our boots. Fortunately, the landowners had allowed the trail pioneers to maintain small bridges across some of the swollen streams.

Round Tower at Aughagower
Round Tower at Aughagower

We followed the Aille River for about a mile, crossing several more stiles, before coming to a place named Teampleshaunaglasha, the ruins of a church that was abandoned in 1562. It is believed that the ‘Shaun’ in the name was a hermit who lived in this place in later years. The ruins were surrounded by a killeen – a unbaptized infants graveyard – and other graves from the famine years. There are several legends associated with this place, particularly those involving the terrible fate of individuals who removed stones or artifacts from the old church.

A bohreen (little road) at Stile 46 then led through overhanging trees to the remains of a famine village that once housed 26 families. A legend tells of a mysterious woman who visited at night to leave food for the starving inhabitants.

Large slabs of limestone became visible as the Aille River emerged from its underground course at Stile 50. Potholers have measured the underground course of the river at Pollflanagan to a depth of 112 feet, where they reported the existence of fish with no eyes. Nearby is another cave known as Pollhondra, where a man named Hondra is said to have hidden after he killed his wife. It seemed that there was a tragic story at every turn of this route.

At Stile 57, a depression in the ground reveals a place once called ‘The Well of Stringle’. It is here that St. Patrick is said to have baptized many locals when he camped there over two Sundays.

The trail then crosses a hillock known locally as ‘Creggaun ‘a Damhsa’, or the Hillock of the Dancing, where fairies are said to dance. this is followed by another bohreen (‘bothareen’ or small road) which leads to the impressive cliffs that tower above the River Aille as it vanishes into the earth.

At the village of Coill an Bhaile, the trail turns towards the ancient site of Aughagower (“The field of springs”), which Saint Patrick established as a diocese around 441 a.d.  At this turn, the ruined castle of MacPhilbin, who captured one of the O’Rourkes and paid a heavy price in return, dominates the landscape for miles to the west. On the way to Aughagower, the trail crosses a large swath of uncultivated land.

Approaching Aughagower, after Stile 75, the trail is temporarily lost as landowners have strewn wire across the stiles on the road from Westport. It is believed that it is unlucky to cut directly across a sacred path, but the site of Cloondachon – where Patrick is said to have either tamed or disposed of two unfriendly wolfhounds, does not seem accessible.

Apart from its impressive round tower, graveyards and churches, Aughagower boasts several artifacts dating back to Saint Patrick’s time, including ‘Dabhach Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Vat), ‘Tobair na nDeachan’ (The Well of the Deacons), and ‘Leaba Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Bed).

Aughagower-12-19-028

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