‘On Eagles Wings’ – Croagh Patrick: The Mount Sinai of Early Medieval Ireland


“The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'”
Exodus 19:23


Sometime during the seventh decade of the seventh century AD (c.670s) an Irishman approached the mountain in modern day Co. Mayo known as Croagh Patrick. He was an ecclesiastical academic type, something of a ‘a wise man’ or ‘sapiens’ in the early Irish Christian tradition.  Although he had been fostered and trained in a monastery in Co. Meath, on the east coast of Ireland, he was in fact, a local – originally hailing from the north coast of modern day County Mayo, around the western shore of Kilalla Bay.

It was probably not his first time seeing the mountain. He would surely have heard stories about it in his earlier youth; maybe caught glimpses of it at times and certainly would have been aware of its imposing presence in the landscape. Indeed, almost as soon as he crossed the River Shannon, traveling from Leinster, he would have caught sight of it several times in the distance.


The man probably traveled out along the lowland plain of modern day Murrisk, between the mountain and the southern shore of Clew bay, along the same route that the modern day road takes today. He would have passed an early church site at Umhall, now known as Cloonpatrick graveyard at Oughaval. He would have passed a few standing stones and the remains of prehistoric stone alignments on his way. He would passed the future site of Murrisk Abbey, then just a coastal bluff sticking out into the sea. He would have passed the future site of the modern day car park at the foot of ‘the Reek’ as it is now called. And he would have kept on going.

He was looking for something in the landscape. Something conspicuously imposing and already ancient. A few miles up the road, at a point where the highest stream from the mountain summit flows down into Clew Bay – linking the summit and the foot of the mountain – he apparently found what he was looking for. A late prehistoric stone cairn or ring barrow mound – part of, or adjacent, an older communal burial place still in use – reflecting an even older dynastic, or territorial boundary.


I like to imagine that he stopped there a while, walking around it, running hands over grass covered stones. Perhaps even, tracing the lines of an Ogam inscription on a standing stone that would go on to survive all the way into the early 20th century before being reused by the council in a drain. I like to imagine him gazing up at the mountain and at the cairn; walking backwards away from both it and the mountain, observing how it blocked the view of the summit itself when seen from below at the right angle. I like to imagine that, after some time, he may even have clambered up on top of the mound to sit and think – an idea starting to form in his mind. And then, after another minute or two, fumbling in a satchel for a wooden framed wax tablet and a stylus in order to write something down. His younger assistant and bodyguard looking at each other in despair, settling in for another boring long haul afternoon of nothingness…

et defunctus est auriga illius hi muiriscc aigli hoc est campum inter mare et aigleum, et sepiliuit illum aurigam totum caluum ( glossed: ‘id totmael’) et congre gauit lapides erga sepulcrum et dixit: sit sic in aeternum (glossed: vel interim) et uissitabitur a me in nouissimis diebus.

Liber Ardmachanus, fol.13v

‘And his charioteer died in muiriscc aigli hither between the plain and sea at aigleum, and he buried his charioteer completely shorn/bald (id totmael) and he gathered stones for his tomb and said ‘May he be thus (in the meantime) for eternity and he will be visited by me in the newest (i.e. last) days’.

(Authors Translation)



Forgive the imaginary romantic indulgence. The man’s name was Tírechán. His association of the (hagiographical) St. Patrick with the mountain known today as Croagh Patrick is not only the earliest that has survived from Early Medieval Ireland – it almost certainly represents the very origin of the tradition itself. Tírechán was no ordinary early Irish hagiographer writing a simple account of the life of St. Patrick. He was doing something remarkably different in early literary terms. He was engaged in writing a pseudo-historical itinerary of St. Patrick using the seventh century landscape as a sub textual framework – a physical witness – to back up his depicted stories, events and erstwhile claims for patrician ecclesiastical authority.

IMG_20140723_131916 (2)

At that moment in time, at the foot of the mountain, he was working on nothing less then the metaphorical and ecclesiastical climax of his text, known today as the Collectanea. The mountain that he called both Montem Egli and Crochen Aigli, (it is not until the 14thC that the name Cruach Patricc is actually attested) serving as the climactic stage of St. Patrick’s (hagiographical) mission in Ireland. Quite literally and figuratively, the Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb of Ireland.  As far as he was concerned, this was the perfect candidate for an insular heavenly mount on earth ala Moses, Elijah, Jesus, a hint of the actual words of the historical Patrick himself and his historical missionary field of activity – all generously dolloped with Tanakh/Old Testament/New Testament parallels superimposed over the early medieval Mayo landscape. 

Here’s the full entry in translation:

And Patrick proceeded to Mons Aiglí, intending to fast there for forty days and forty nights, following the example of Moses, Elias, and Christ. And his charioteer died at Muiresc Aigli, that is, the plain between the sea and Mons Aigli, and there Patrick buried his charioteer Totmáel, and gathered stones for his burial-place and said: `Let him be like this for ever, and he will be visited by me in the last days.’ And Patrick proceeded to the summit of the mountain, climbing Cruachán Aigli, and stayed there forty days and forty nights, and birds were troublesome to him and he could not see the face of sky and land and sea <…> because to all the holy men of Ireland, past, present, and future, God said: ‘Climb, o holy men, to the top of the mountain which towers above, and is higher than all the mountains to the west of the sun in order to bless the people of Ireland’, so that Patrick might see the fruit of his labours, because the choir of all the holy men of the Irish came to him to visit their father; and he established a church in Mag Humail.

Tírechán, Collectanea, 38 (1-4) (Trans: L. Bieler)

IMG_20140723_132042 (2)

An Irish mons Dei

The burial mound he was writing into hagiography was intended to bear witness for future generations in forming part of a sanctuary boundary at the bottom of the holy mountain – harnessing archaeology and geography with hagiography. The depicted charioteer was the saints second to have died and been buried, according to Tírechán (the first being just after he had crossed the River Shannon). Two charioteer deaths, book-ending the saints depicted journey through Connacht. Patrick was either a dreadfully lax employer with little concern or duty of care for his employees, or, its a legal and religious metaphor. For something or other.

Tírechán then has St. Patrick subsequently ascending the mountain and fasting for forty days and nights before receiving heavenly and mortal recognition for the fruits of his labours. Its literally a Patrician transfiguration scene shoe-horned into an ‘new’ ‘old’ insular Mosaic Covenant. The mountain, an Irish mons Dei, both a heavenly throne on earth and conduit on high – Patrick, the bridge and vehicle between – a nation of high priests under his leadership and under those, his flock, the Irish people. A holy covenant and contract between past, present and future, signed sealed and delivered from high.


And yet, compare Tírechán’s depiction (and subsequent folklore and later medieval tradition concerning Croagh Patrick) with some select quotes from the biblical material he was deliberately and explicitly echoing :

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness.

The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

1 Kings 19.


Now Moses … led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”


Exodus 3

 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain…

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.”

11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it.

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[b] trembled violently. 

20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”

23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”

24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”

Exodus 19



The people cannot come up

This is what motivated and inspired the earliest association of St. Patrick with the mountain that would eventually be anglicized, much later, as Croagh Patrick. Note what is not included. No Crom Dubh. No Serpents. No Snakes. No Bell flinging. No Christianization of a pagan festival called Lughneasa. Though if you really want to think about dates (the traditional pilgrimage date being the last Sunday in July) you might want to also note that it slots neatly between the feast day of Elijah in Catholic tradition (July 20th); and the feast of the Transfiguration (Aug 6th).

What is perhaps most interesting is what comes across from both Tírechán’s depiction and his use of biblical allusion and backdrop. No ‘ordinary’ people. Whatsoever. The mountain is depicted as a holy sanctified place, to be only approached by a select holy priesthood. Boundaries set around the foot of the mountain delineating the sacred and the profane, the inner sanctuary or sanctissimus. The echoing of repeated biblical warnings of non encroachment. The hidden views of the mountain summit, obscured by natural and supra natural heavenly forces. At times, the hiding of faces and averting of eyes.


A Public Free-for-All

Fast forward c.1300 years and the annual pilgrimage to the mountain is arguably the most popular Patrician site in Ireland, eclipsing that of Armagh, the Hill of Tara and Downpatrick in terms of sheer numbers. This coming Reek Sunday (aka Domnach Crom Dubh, aka Garlic Sunday aka Garland Sunday) thousands of pilgrims will climb Croagh Patrick for many different reasons. Mountain rescue teams will treat the injured and ferry down the incapacitated. Stalls will offer refreshments and shelter from the elements. Religious and tourist tat will be sold.

In doing so, there is a certain measure of irony when one considers the earliest attestation and depiction by Tírechán, who did so much to lay the foundation for subsequent ‘tradition’. Its highly likely that whatever he envisaged back in the seventh century, it was not that of a public free-for-all. Montem Egli, Cruachan Aigli, the holy Mons Dei of Ireland, in his day, was probably never meant to be for anyone other than a select few religious elites. In terms of the great unwashed, it was probably meant to be approached, in trepidation, fear and awe, and viewed from the bottom only – as an insular ‘high priesthood’, or ‘choir of holy Irish men’ processed upwards to cement Patrician authority and legitimacy. An archaeology and natural geography of hierarchy.

Of course, being Irish, we don’t (historically) take kindly at being told what not to do.


There was probably a small oratory and enclosure serving as a pilgrimage/hermitage site on the summit by the eight or ninth century. From there, popular pilgrimage activity went from strength to strength, especially after the 12thC ecclesiastical boom. I like to think of it, in a way, as a by product of the increasing popularity of certain holy sites ‘out in the wild’ –  unconnected and at a remove from the more regular church site hubs where access to inner sanctuaries, much the way Tírechán envisaged, was more controlled and regulated by ecclesiastical guardians. At a time when many people in insular Irish society would not have been allowed to partake of rituals within the inner precincts at church sites – being able to ‘climb in the footsteps of of Patrick himself’ would have been a highly potent experience for pilgrims.


An Archaeology of Entitlement

The ultimate irony is that its increasing popularity and number of people climbing it for various different activities is now a threat in itself. Ongoing erosion, damage and lack of a coherent sustainable management plan and modern mountaineering infrastructure is a major concern. Ive seen for myself, what passes for a ‘path’; the giant scrawling ‘messages’ spelled out with rocks on the upper shoulder; and have even grazed my knees avoiding getting hit by an extreme sports enthusiast charging down the mountain on a bike.


Until such time as ‘something is done’, (ie. ‘someone else’s’ money is spent, or someone gets run over by a bike at a 45 degree angle) maybe we need to think about the bigger picture and longer time-frame in a similar vein to that of Tírechán. There’s something logical, sensible and sustainable to be said for restricting the mountain to people on foot. For restricting access, or numbers at certain times. Perhaps even, leaving it ‘fallow’ for certain years. Two years on, one years off, kind of thing. Its what farmers (and the Glastonbury festival) occasionally do to ease pressure on land. And they’re just flat fields.


Incidentally, I wrote this post last year and was all ready to publish it when the news broke that the 2015 Croagh Patrick pilgrimage had been cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Timing eh? It was apparently the first time in living memory that the pilgrimage didn’t go ahead in large numbers and means the mountain got an unexpected ‘rest’ from c.20,000 people in one day. It will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable difference or commentary by local authorities concerning any reduction in incidents today, following the extended break. If there is, than maybe we should take a hint and listen. To the mountain and/or Tírechán.


*** Update: 20:00 ***

“Fewer pilgrims, combined with good weather, had the welcome result that there were less casualties for rescue services”

According to local reports from regulars there has definitely been fewer casualties this year. Whether this has anything to do with that mentioned above, or related to the apparent decrease in overall numbers attending, despite the good weather today, remains unclear. There was apparently more people following advice re: bare feet and proper clothing.  I would imagine all three factors had an impact, along with last years Darwin Award Contenders still being fresh in people’s minds. In any case, I hope today’s decrease in incidents are viewed by local authorities in light of the gap or break in the traditional pilgrimage and that it helps to articulate possible avenues of similar recovery breaks in the near future.  Responsible sustainable pilgrimage for all.


Post Script: (3rd Aug 2016)

Since writing the above, I have, quite by accident, stumbled across a digitized pamphlet entitled ‘Croagh Patrick : the Mount Sinai of Ireland’ by a Francis Patrick Carey, published in 1955 in Dublin by Irish Messenger Publications. As you might expect, given the period and publisher (not to mention the diocesan Nihil Obstat and Imprini Potest notices on the inside cover), it is a fairly standard, overdramatic and romantic (Catholic) account of the history and religious importance of Croagh Patrick, the national saint and its pilgrimage.

Although very vague, trusting and understandably simple in its understanding of the differences between history, pseudo-history and ‘fakelore’, ie. Tírechán’s account and that of the later Vita Tripartite and subsequent traditions, it is nevertheless a charming little piece which contains some interesting tidbits on the 1905 ‘revival’ of the pilgrimage –  as well as a partial nod to the changing dates of the pilgrimage in later centuries. Strangely enough, given the title, it does not actually go into the biblical parallels with Mt. Sinai.

I wish to publicly acknowledge the much earlier title and date which bears great similarity with mine. I was not aware, a year ago, of its existence when I came up with said title. The similarity is purely coincidental from my part and I respectfully defer to my patrician predecessor. 


Update: (29 July 2017)

Another Reek Sunday approaches, and I feel compelled to underline the utter genius of Tírechán’s original use and choice of Montem Egli (Croagh Patrick) in some of the earliest Patrician Hagiography. Its not so much that he did all of the above, i.e. creating an Irish version of biblical precedent by yoking a contemporary landscape witness to pseudo-historical ‘past’, in his present, for the future – its that he managed to insert it at all in what was surely an emerging ‘official’ narrative that favoured Ulster locations in its portrayal of the National Saints pseudo-historical activities.

As a native of North Co. Mayo, Tírechán’s inclusion of his own family dynasty and its ‘great church’ beside or within the original Wood of Foclut would not have been lost on an ecclesiastical audience familiar with Patrick’s own writings. As the inheritors of what was believed to be the location of the only Irish place specifically identified by the Historical Patrick, Tírechán’s dynasty possessed a unique ecclesiastical currency within seventh-century Ireland.

Despite acknowledging the eastern hagiographical locations promoted by others, Tírechán’s utilization of Foclut can, and should be, viewed as a deliberate and overt challenge to the emerging orthodox Patrician framework. By placing large elements of Patrician hagiography within a western (Connacht) context, Tírechán was literally and metaphorically playing with the Historical Patrick’s own words, missionary activities and theological motivation.

Tírechán’s own work, the Collectanea, as it survives today, is unfinished. A work in progress, seemingly cut off in medias res. This is even more apparent on closer reading.  In his first book or section, St. Patrick sets off from Leinster, traveling across the island to the Wood of Foclut, in Connacht, in order to arrive by the Second Easter. By the second section, the ultimate destination of the Wood of Foclut has been downsized, and it is his ascent and sojourn on Croagh Patrick for forty days and nights which becomes the metaphorical and theological climax of his text.

Something about Tírechán’s actual being there, of witnessing the impressive looming presence of the mountain, made him forgo his earlier literary intention and change tack in the middle of his compilation. The mountains sheer physicality, dominating the landscape for miles around, both East and West (I have personally gazed upon the white speck of the modern church on its summit, clearly visible to the naked eye, reflected in the sunlight on a clear day, from 7 miles out in the Atlantic ocean) resonated on multiple levels.

As an overtly contextualized Irish ‘Mons Dei’; almost, but not quite, at the ends of the (known) earth; almost as far west as one could go; snuggling oblivion itself and lathered with biblical metaphor – it was the perfect location for his purposes. An Irish version of a transfiguration scene, acting as nothing less than the anointing of Patrick as divinely chosen inheritor of the island of Ireland itself.

The writing was already on the wall when it came to the eastern elites of Armagh, already in the ascendancy and positioning themselves as heirs of Patrician authority. Nevertheless, his having Croagh Patrick as a ‘heavenly’ earthly throne for the national saints authority and legitimacy, seen against the background of his own dynasties inheritance of Foclut and the overall importance of ‘the west’ in the Historical Patrick’s own account, was a stroke of sheer genius. The East may well have promoted Slemish as a holy mountain associated with the national saint – but their very authority to do so, was now to be, subversively, underpinned by the grandiose, yet not so very subtle historical reality and association with the real Historical Patrick’s place of captivity and missionary field.

I like to think of it a textual middle finger, on Tírechán’s part, to ‘The Man’.

Underwriting their Patrician propaganda into his own Patrician landscape.

And no matter how much this may have rankled with the authorities in Armagh – there was nothing they could do about it, without poking themselves in their own eye. To argue against such a depiction, was to argue against their own patron, his very own words, the bible itself, and their own aggrandized authority. A Patrician Catch 22.

1300 years later… and its still working.


Update: (24 July 2020)

For the second time in five years, the annual pilgrimage on Reek Sunday has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with authorities urging people not to attempt to climb. Whilst obviously wishing that the world wasn’t battling a dangerous virus, I can’t help but think that this second ‘rest’ from thousands of people climbing all at once will be most beneficial to the mountain itself. It seems that, by chance, external events over the last few years have contrived to bring about a semi-regular ‘fallowing’ of the mountain after-all.



Morahan, Leo. (2001) Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo – Archaeology, Landscape and People. Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee, Westport.

O’Donovan, John and O’Conor, Thomas. (1838) Ordnance Survey letters Mayo:letters relating to the antiquities of the County of Mayo containing information collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survey in 1838; edited with an introduction by Michael Herity (2009). Four Masters Press. Dublin.

O’Hagan, Terry, (2011) “Tírechán: biography and character study”, Harvey, Anthony (project leader), Jane Conroy (principal investigator), and Franz Fischer (principal researcher) (et al.), Saint Patrick’s Confessio Hypertext Stack Project, Royal Irish Academy.

Ó Riain, Pádraig (2014) ‘Croagh Patrick’s early associations, Patrician and Non-Patrician’, in Mayo History and Society, (Eds. Gerard Moran and Nollaig Ó Muraíle) Geography Publications, Dublin.

Swift, Catherine. (1994) The Social and Ecclesiastical Background to Tírechán’s Treatment of the Connachta in the Seventh-Century Collectanea. Unpublished DPhil dissertation, University of Oxford.


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