The ancient route from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick, known as Tochar Phadraig (the Pilgrim’s Route), draws 30,000 on the last Sunday in July each year to climb the mountain in the footsteps of St. Patrick who fasted there for 40 days and nights. The more recent phenomenon of Knock garners hundreds of thousands of visiting pilgrims each year: vast swathes come in groups between May and October while individuals visit daily all year round. Finally, the lesser-known and singular pilgrimage event happens once a year on the unpopulated island of Caher, between Inishturk and Clare Island and is accessed by boat from Inishturk.
Caher Island (Cathair na Naomh, ‘Ring Fort of the Saints’) is an ancient centre of pilgrimage, which draws a small but dedicated crowd on August 15th each year. Some come to see the mysterious unpopulated island, once home to an early Christian monastic settlement. Others come to follow in the footsteps of St. Patrick who is reputed to have visited here around the same time he was on Croagh Patrick. There are remains of a small chapel, 7th century monks’ hermitages and ancient tombstones. Stone crosses, some carved in a kind of frame, with the effect of a cross within a cross within a cross face away from the wide ocean and towards Croagh Patrick, as if in homage. Nowhere could you commune with the ancient monastic communities better than on the deserted rock where signs of modern life are non-existent. Through well-worn carvings on a Dolphin Stone archaeologists and historians have established links between Caher and other holy places on the continent.
Pilgrims travel to Mayo for the last Sunday of July to climb the Reek, as it is known locally. Beginning before sunrise, a steady stream of climbers make the arduous ascent over shale and rock, some barefoot in keeping with the tradition. In 441 AD, St Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting on the mountain. He had a silver bell, which he used to fend off demons that manifested as crows and who turned the bell black, which St. Patrick’s Bell is today. On the last day of his fast, Patrick threw the bell at Corra, the chief demon, knocking her out of the sky. Where she landed a lake formed known as Lough na Corra. To this day, pilgrims on the Reek report hearing the sound of a ringing bell as they climb, which spurs them on to the top.
In knock, an altogether different kind of pilgrimage takes place. Where Tochar Phadraig has deep roots in pagan traditions which later morphed into Christian ways and Caher Island’s pilgrimage has an eye on archaeology and history, Knock is a shrine dedicated to one single apparition which occurred in 1879. Since then, pilgrims have flocked to the site to congregate, pray and receive cures. Religious celebrations take place all year round and have grown in number over the decades. While stationed at Knock, Monsignor Horan championed the building of the current church beside Knock Shrine. After it opened in 1976 he went on to campaign for Knock Airport to be built. The airport is a success-story in the region and has transformed the Mayo landscape: where it once felt remote, it is now accessible to many.