Jackie O’Grady gives me hers before I select a sturdy climbing stick outside her kiosk.
“You’re mad,” she says. “There was an Australian guy did it barefoot last week. A Dublin girl told him he was mad too.”
To the left of her little kiosk, where she dispenses everything from bottled water to postcards, stands Croagh Patrick — the Reek; all 764m of it, or 2,500ft in old money.
Its squat grey-black cone towers above the tiny village of Murrisk, 8km outside Westport, Co Mayo. The Reek becomes a beacon for pilgrims every July. On the last Sunday of the month up to 20,000 people clamber to the top, taking part in a ritual that predates Patrick by a millennium or more. About 10% of the pilgrims do it barefoot. I want to find out how difficult it is to climb without footwear. Hence Jackie’s statement regarding my mental health.
I ask her to profile the average barefoot climber. “It’s mostly men do it, but there are women too. Most people do it in memory of someone they’ve lost, or for spiritual reasons. The average person is definitely male. Young men do it even though they’re not religious themselves. The challenge is to do it up and down.”
I wave my climbing stick at Jackie and take off. A whitewashed statue of our patron saint signals the start of the true climb. The packed dirt is cool as I bare my soles to the holy mountain. I take a dozen tentative steps before someone else gives me their opinion.
“You’re doing it barefoot? That’s great,” says Carol Riera, from Canada — though her Houlihan ancestors hailed from Sligo — who’s with Bruno Sterckeman, from France. Both are slowly making their way back down. They’re really impressed that they can see my toes.
“Well done you. This is our first climb and it was really nice. We didn’t do the whole thing because someone told us it takes about two-and-a-half hours to get up there. But we both vow to come back. I don’t vow to climb it because of health reasons. I slip on the ice all the time back in Quebec,” she laughs.
Thirty minutes later I’m dreaming of cooling my feet in Canadian ice. The lower slopes are strewn with flat rocks and well-trodden paths. Both offer a haven for bare feet. However, the higher I go the smaller and sharper the stones become. Progress is slow. I pass a group of struggling young women who look like they’re on their way to a concert. They stop yapping and gawp at me.
“I’ve seen it all now, that’s all I have to say,” declares the eldest. She’s wearing an ill-fitting Lady Gaga T-shirt and flip-flops. I do not offer my opinion on her peculiar choice of footwear. Above them, an American woman rudely points and declares to her companions: “You see? I told you the locals do it with their bare feet!”
There are three parts to the Reek: a twisting rocky slope; an undulating ridge; and a final treacherous cone. The first part can catch out the unprepared climber. It demands patience and tests willpower. Many I pass are questioning if they can continue. The Reek looms ahead and to the right, seemingly as far away as it was an hour ago.
I finish the first part of the climb and take a break. My feet feel like they’ve been assaulted with a steak tenderiser. A young woman stops as I check my soles for damage.
“Oh my God. You’re doing it with your feet. You’re crazy!” I gaze up at the towering Reek and agree with her.
I’m not religious, but I call out the name of a well-known Nazarene carpenter many times as I cross the ridge. Those expecting it to offer a breather between the two climbs will be sorely disappointed. Imagine walking barefoot the length of Croke Park and the pitch is littered with upturned electric plugs, or Lego blocks. Or small evil jagged stones. Which is what they are. I hiss and curse and hobble along. My stick is a saviour.
I lean heavily upon it and travel as slowly as the glacier that carved out the Reek aeons ago. I seek solace in the coarse grass to the right of the wide treacherous path. Unfortunately, shards of glass lurk there. I curse the idiots who left such dangerous litter on the mountain — rubbish that will remain after time has eroded the peak. I decide to take my chances with the stones.
At the base of the final conical slope a middle-aged man pats my shoulder. “Well done. You’ll get your penance… or you’ll get sore feet, one or the other!” A little farther up, a young man wearing a Mayo GAA jersey almost falls over on the rubble. “Jesus! That must be sore. Fair play to ya. You’re not from Kerry are ya… there’s no Kerry people welcome on this mountain!” He half-walks half-slips down the slope, laughing.
The cone has two paths: a steep staircase of stone peppered with struggling climbers taking breaks; and ramp of finely balanced slabs of rock, each needing only the lightest touch to go sliding away.
I know the end is nigh when those coming down tell me to “keep going”, that “you’re nearly there”. I don’t believe them. I’m too busy picking out my next step to take a peek at the peak. But they’re right. Before I know it I am there. A young Lithuanian woman who won’t tell me her name gives me a high five. As far as I know, she and I are the only other people on the mountain in bare feet. There are about two dozen people at the top. They take in the jaw-dropping view of Clew Bay and its islands. Murrisk is no more than the width of my thumb. I hobble to the little church and relish the feel of cold concrete on my battered soles. My pilgrimage took exactly two hours.
My barefoot challenge ends here. I slip on runners and duck inside the tiny church. A visitor’s book reveals Croagh Patrick’s international status — pilgrims from the US, New Zealand, Hungary and South Africa have been here in the past few days.
I EXCHANGE pleasantries with a fit-looking middle-aged man. Turns out he’s a priest. What are the odds? But Fr Cathal Deery’s not working today. I ask if he’ll climb again on Reek Sunday.
“I wouldn’t like to go up with that crowd,” says the curate of Clones, Co Monaghan. “I’ve said Mass a few times in this church, which falls under the Westport parish so you have to get permission from the priest there. They give you a pack and you climb up. I set up, come out and tell anyone around that I’m saying Mass. The place manages to get full pretty quickly! I’ve done other pilgrimages, such as the Lough Derg one. I’d challenge you to do that.”
I promise to think about it. He listens as I explain the reason for my barefoot climb is purely physical rather than metaphysical.
Conversation turns to the popularity of the Reek climb.
“Unlike other pilgrimages, Croagh Patrick is accessible to almost everyone,” he says. “Whenever I come up here it stops me in my tracks. You have to ask yourself what created all of this. Something created this. Most people come up and go down again without thinking about this.
“I’m not saying that they will have a religious experience but they should at least sit for 10 minutes and take it all in, ask themselves the question. I don’t know about you but I find it terrible that people are always recording with cameras and not experiencing situations. They go for a run with headphones on; they go to a rock concert and spend the whole time watching it through their mobile phones.
“What better place to sit in peace and just… experience.”
Fr Deery sets off to descend. I look around. Most people are taking snaps on mobiles and cameras. Maybe they’re proud to have climbed up here and want some proof. For the thousands who will take to the Reek tomorrow in bare feet, the experience will be all the proof they need.
I descend the reek wearing my footwear, determined to save my soles.