If you love to hike, if you’re an avid photographer, if you embrace quiet moments amid breathtaking natural splendor, then this “sacred” mountain dominating Clew Bay on the Irish west coast should not be missed. The views from the peak are spectacular, well worth the two hours it takes to reach it, but more than that, it is a place to test your endurance, relax your brain, and revitalize your spirit. But be warned: What starts out as a peaceful meander up a well-worn path quickly becomes a serious why-didn’t-I-come-better-prepared trek through boulders and sliding rock. We’re not talking climbing gear, but it can become a serious test of fortitude nearer the summit where the incline is the steepest, comprised of fist-sized rock that shifts underfoot with every step. The trick is to find those precious few patches of grass on which to periodically rest jelly legs and catch your breath. If your stamina holds up (many make it only halfway), you will be relieved to see that the terrain returns to solid ground at the summit, with room enough to roam, exploring the views as well as a small chapel that sits starkly white and unadorned at the far end.
And because the summit is flat, perspective is a full 360°, making it difficult to decide which of the various vistas is more astounding—the many inland, displaying Ireland in the wild, with rolling plains, glassy lakes, an absence of buildings or roads stretching for hundreds of miles, or the one over the bay, with traditional thatched-roof cottages amid a patchwork of greens gently sloping into the water.
Beauty isn't the only attraction, however. Nearly one million people make the climb annually to honor the forty days and nights St. Patrick fasted there in 441 AD, praying for the Irish people. (Legend says that this was also the spot from which he banished all the snakes from the island—though many now believe the story serves as just a metaphor for converting pagan Ireland to Christianity). Catholic pilgrims will stop at three stations, kneeling or walking, saying a designated number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, some even making the climb barefoot. Non-Catholic Christians will bring Bibles or sit silently. Whichever way your spirit is engaged, it can nevertheless be a unifying experience, knowing that the stranger to the left and right is most likely doing what you’re doing—realigning perspective and communing with their creator.
Pointers for the trek:
-Check the forecast. View–obscuring mists are never far away in Ireland.
-Bring plenty of water and a snack. I foolishly brought only one water bottle that was gone about halfway up the mountain—the point at which I thought my journey was over. Instead of moping, however, I asked for some divine guidance—to trek or not to trek—and not more than a minute later, I spotted an old man bent forward, filling his water bottle from a tiny, indistinct recess in the rocks. (I don’t know what thrilled me more: quenching my parched throat or seeing my prayer answered immediately.)
-Bring a wind jacket. Despite the profuse sweating you’ll experience on the way up, you will definitely need protection for the bracing wind at the top.
-Bring a walking stick. Though some climbers employ ski poles, a traditional blackthorn walking stick (purchased at the Visitor’s Center at the base of the mountain) might prove a practical aid—especially for the journey back down, which is tough on the knees. Also, for those with height issues… that steep part near the summit makes the trip back down somewhat challenging, but you can do it! Just take it slow, stepping down sideways, keeping your eyes focused on your feet.
-Bring your camera. I made the trek alone but found many willing co-hikers to snap a picture of me against the awesome backdrop—proof for my husband that his non-sporty wife had made it all the way.
-Stay in Westport, a fun, pretty town about 5 miles north, loaded with pubs and restaurants, and recently voted “Best Place to Live in Ireland” (The Irish Times, 2012).