It’s a long way to the top, especially with a Guinness-induced hangover. Save the stout for after the climb up Croagh Patrick, says SARAH BAXTER.
Was it downright sacrilegious or exceptionally appropriate to hike up Croagh Patrick with a hangover? On the one hand, this peak – named after Ireland’s superstar saint – was the site of Patrick’s 40-day fast, the place where this devout Christian banished all the snakes from the Emerald Isle: in short, a holy spot unfit for the suffering hedonist. On the other hand, Paddy has motivated millions to sink a skinful every March 17. Surely such an inspirational – if not actual – boozer wouldn’t condemn a slightly worse-for-wear pilgrim?
So there we stood, my hangover and me, peering up at 765m of sacred hill, looming over Ireland’s west coast like a colossal quartzite traffic cone. A gaggle of women strode by, chattering about ‘the Reek’ – I hoped they were referring to the mountain’s local name and not my whiff of stale stout.
Slightly wobbly, I ambled towards the bottom of the well-gouged trail, passing a stand selling rustic walking sticks – a tempting prospect, and a snip at €4. You can’t buy one of those,” derided my companion. “This is supposed to be hard work – penance, in fact. Besides, it’ll make you look like an old granny.” Just then, an old granny overtook us.
Despite its un-Himalayan proportions, Croagh Patrick is no easy jaunt. Its sides are steep and, if you’re a proper pilgrim, you should really do it barefoot. As we started up the uneven, rocky path, it was hard to believe the thousands of shoeless devotees who climb the peak on the last Sunday in July -Reek Day – even make it past the gift shop.
Even with hiking boots firmly laced, I toiled and stumbled over the rocks and shale. A troupe of Brad-Pitt-in-Snatch soundalike boys sprinted – yes, sprinted – past, while an old feller wearing a tweed cap paused to swig out of a whiskey-filled flask. Or maybe it was holy water?
I was starting to feel better, though. Stopping for a drink of my own – this was thirsty work – I turned to see Clew Bay stretching beneath us. It wasn’t exactly a perfect blue sky, but the view across the water was clear. I began to smile through my fuggy head.
And then they came. Like a biblical plague, clouds of midges descended, black specks of irritation, sneering persistently around our faces. Suddenly I noticed that everyone was performing their own Bruce Lee movie, chopping and swiping the air and themselves in a futile attempt to be rid of these pesky biters. Maybe St Patrick was setting us a test?
He was certainly testing our spelling. As we scrambled higher we could see across to the other side of the ridge and here, in front of the purple-green swathe of hills and peat bogs, was graffiti on a grand scale. The ground was covered in the names and homes – Mary, Dublin; Dave, USA – of reams of hikers, all meticulously ‘written’ in piles of stones.
Lord have pity on the poor pilgrim from Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu.
After a false-sense-of-security-giving flat bit, we started to climb the conical sides of the upper Reek, a shoddy mosaic of wobbly rocks. I watched as a woman labouring ahead trusted her not-insubstantial weight to a particularly shonky stone. As she lurched to the ground, she flailed inelegantly (if only she’d invested €4 in a stick) and yelped to the heavens: Holy Mary, mother of God!”
I was so busy smirking at the Irishness of this outburst that I almost lost my own footing – holy vengeance for the sin of smugness.
To be fair, the climb was disproportionately difficult; only 765m perhaps, but all of them steep ones. The ground was either slimy with mud or jagged with rocks (remember, people do it barefoot), and my legs were begging to be back on flat, reliable ground. All around me fellow climbers with red faces were wiping their brows. I nearly had a heart attack – not from exertion but after spotting one girl tottering up in high heels, obviously a believer in the luck of the Irish.
Finally, the summit beckoned. As we made our final push, a plateau appeared, complete with a chapel and a pub selling Guinness. OK, there’s no pub, but some poor builders somehow managed to construct a simple white church here back in 1905.
I rested against a rock, then realised I was sitting on a Catholic ‘station’. “Kneel and say 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and 1 Creed,” it read. I didn’t know where to begin, and felt ashamed all over again by my previous night’s excesses. But then I looked around – down at the island-specked bay and across to the nearby town, source of my downfall and, perhaps, my redemption. In this part of the world, I reflected, a prayer can begin: “Lord, bring me mercy – and two pints of the black stuff Ö”
• Buses (www.buseireann.ie) connect Knock to Westport; Croagh Patrick is 8km outside the town. After (not before!) your climb, sink a pint in Matt Molloy’s, Westport’s finest drinking institution. It’s the right side of tourist tack and hosts traditional musicians.”