by Amanda Wagstaff, Hut2Hut Pilgrimage Editor
I left Dublin early in the morning for Castlebar. I was going to walk the Tóchar Phádraig, or St. Patrick’s Causeway, the pilgrim walk from Ballintubber Abbey to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick. The bus ride through the midlands of Ireland was beautiful, cloudy with instances of sun, rain, and hail. (Yea, all of those.)
I finally made it to Castlebar around 2pm with a twinge in my low back from all that sitting. I dropped off my backpack at the Rosegarden B&B and headed back to the bus stop to catch a ride to the Country Life Museum.
While I was waiting, I gabbed with an elderly lady. She was trying to figure out the bus schedule so she could get to Tuam. I helped by looking up the details in my cell phone. She was interested in my phone and said she was looking into getting one herself.
“Can I book bus tickets with it?”
“Well, that’s good. Do I have to print them?”
“No, you can just show your phone to the driver.”
“Well, that’s great. Just what I want.”
The Country Life Museum was OK. It definitely targets children, but I enjoyed the clothing, the bits about fiber arts, and an exhibition about contemporary migrants to Ireland and the folk traditions they bring with them. There were no buses returning to Castlebar, so I decided to walk back, 8 km. I figured it might be a good warm-up for the Tóchar Phádraig, and I wanted to save €15-20. It rained and hailed for the first 20 minutes of the walk. Then the ‘twinge’ in my back flared up. I began to worry that maybe I’d made a mistake. I should have just called a cab. Maybe I’d injury myself before this epic Tóchar walk even began!
But, I was just working myself up. Anyway, it was a good thing I burned the extra calories and saved money on cab fare, because when I finally did walk into town, I found that the local Italian place had an Early Bird Special: 3 courses + wine + coffee for €20. A bargain!
I slept peacefully, and woke up before the alarm, probably out of excitement and nerves. After eating a hearty B&B breakfast, I took a cab to Ballintubber Abbey. The Abbey was founded in 1216 by the Irish King of Connacht, and there has been mass at the Abbey continuously for 800 years, even during periods of suppression and destruction. It’s an incredible site with a fascinating history, especially its connection to the Tóchar Phádraig pilgrimage route.
The route itself is much older than the Abbey – originally a chariot road between the seat of the King of Connacht at Roscommon and the holy mountain of Cruchán Aigli (Croagh Patrick.) It’s quite possible that there was a trail to the mountain even earlier. There are several Bronze Age standing stones and the Neolithic Boheh Stone along the route. St. Patrick probably followed parts of the road when he made his own trip to fast on the mountain in 441 A.D. Once news of his Lenten fast on the mountain became widely known, his followers began to walk in his footsteps. A Christian pilgrimage was born and the mountain got a new name.
I pulled up to the Abbey around 9am and followed the signs for the Reception/Gift Shop. It was locked. I could hear mass going on inside, so I figured if I waited around a bit, surely someone would come around. I explored the ruins around the Cloister, and wondered if any of the ruins had once housed medieval pilgrims. I’d heard that there had once been dormitories especially for them. Then someone came out into the parking lot. I walked over and asked him if he knew when the reception office would open. “I don’t know, but Fr. Fahey is looking for you.” Whoa! Now, I’ve heard about Fr. Fahey, and he’s a bit of a celebrity in my mind. I’ve read about him in the Irish Times and watched him speak on YouTube. He has done a lot of research on the history of the Abbey, the Tóchar, and the surrounding area. He also led the effort to revitalize the pilgrimage route in the late 1980s. Looking for me? He must have excellent pilgrim radar. (Or he just saw me through a window, wandering around with a backpack.)
Fr Fahey gave me a laminated map of the path, a small booklet about sites along the way, and signed off on my certificate. I was officially a registered Tóchar pilgrim. Farms and residential properties have been built on top of the pathway over the centuries, so the Abbey has made agreements with local landowners to give pilgrims right of way. If you don’t register with the Abbey, you are not officially allowed to be walking on the pathway. The €10 registration fee covers the insurance policy.
He reminded me of the rules of the pilgrimage, most notably “No complaining.” He gave me a smooth river stone and told me to be sure to pick up a nice sharp one in the parking lot. The sharp one would represent the trials of the pilgrimage, and when I arrived at the end, I could cast it aside, but save the smooth one to represent my “change of heart.” And off I went, past the statue of St. Patrick and into a grassy field. There were stones, half-buried underfoot, and I wondered if they were remains of the ancient road…
Almost immediately, I understood why the No. 1 Rule is “no complaining.” There are plenty of things to complain about. It was a beautiful sunny morning, only a few clouds in the sky, but never underestimate those few clouds. The one right above my head began to drop hailstones about 5 minutes into my walk. I took it as a sign from Mother Nature that it was time to get into the pilgrim mindset. And I got a little lost, too. Sometimes I couldn’t see the next sign, stile, or gate, and if there is no footpath from previous walkers, you’re left staring at an open field, not sure whether to go straight across or turn to follow the fence-line… Fortunately, Croagh Patrick is visible in the distance for most of the walk, so if you’re walking towards it, you can’t be too far off track. My strategy was to walk slowly and stop every few minutes to scan the countryside for yellow markers or gates in the stone walls. A few times, I did have to backtrack, but never for too long.
It was humbling to be presented with open fields and no path. We’re so programmed to follow the road, stay in line, ‘keep off the grass.’ This forced me to pay closer attention to my surroundings to figure out which way and how to go forward: avoid that muddy patch, leap over that creek or walk further to find a narrower crossing, etc.
But sandwiched between hail, mud, and confusion was the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever experienced. Trees and moss. Trickling streams. Birds and sheep. Lots of Spring lambs. The strangeness of the blanket bog… I was totally absorbed in the experience: the sights, smells (grass, fetid mud, peat smoke), and the aches and pains in my body…and I had this intense feeling of vitality. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one.” You just can’t manufacture it. It’s like gifts from the ‘muse.’ Many artists and writers talk about ‘feeding the muse.’ You can’t manufacture inspiration, but if you keep ‘feeding’ your muse by reading and sketching and experiencing, you will eventually be struck with ideas. It could be that you have to feed your spirit in order to feel vital – move your body, eat nutritious foods, breathe, laugh, hug, relax.
After about 6 hours walking through farmland, blanket bog, heath, and hillside, I arrived in Aghagower. I was worn out, but still had a smile on my face.
Aghagower is a tiny town, but it does attract the odd tourist because of it’s Round Tower. These were built at early medieval monastic sites as protection from invasions, especially by Viking. Aghagower happens to be exactly halfway between the Abbey and Croagh Patrick, so it is an excellent place for Tochar pilgrims to end their first day of walking. St. Patrick is said to have stayed here himself. After his Lenten fast on Croagh Aigli, he spent Easter in Aghagower with his friends Senach the Bishop, Mathona the nun, and Aengus.
I, too, was warmly received in Aghagower by my AirBnB hosts Peter and Josephine – with a hot meal, a hot shower, Epsom salts for soaking my tired feet, a comfy bed, and good conversation. They picked me up from the center of town and took me to their home Castle Reek View, named for the stone ruins nearby. It is the perfect place for pilgrim walkers to end the first day of the Tóchar. (See the Tips section below for more information.)
I set out the next morning with a Full Irish Breakfast in my belly (Josephine makes a mean Full Irish. I swear I wasn’t hungry until 2 pm!) and with a much lighter backpack. After talking to Peter and Josephine the night before, they had convinced me that it would be crazy to carry my heavy rucksack 15 km and then all the way to the top of Croagh Patrick. They generously offered to courier my bag to my next AirBnB in Westport (about 5 miles from their house.) I’m absolutely sure that they saved the day. There is no way I could have hauled that thing all the way up that…but, we’re not at the mountain quite yet.
Peter drove me back to the center of Aghagower and the trail. The first part of the day, I walked through rolling hills accompanied by bleating sheep and lambs.The path eventually met up with the road, and curved around towards the southern side of the mountain. As the mountain got closer and closer, I began to feel more nervous about the climb. I’m not really a mountain climbing enthusiast – I’ve had some bad experiences in the past – but I was determined to achieve the summit, even if I had to go at a snail’s pace.
One of the most exciting sites along the second half of the trail is the Boheh Stone, a huge Neolithic rock with circular carvings. The purpose or meaning of the carvings is unknown, though it is thought that the concentric circles indicate the Sun. I’ve also heard that during St. Patrick’s Christian mission to convert the pagan sun-worshippers of Ireland, priests would carve the crucifix on top of the circle carvings, thus giving us the design of the ‘Celtic’ cross.
The Boheh Stone is also significant, because from that spot, one can observe the ‘rolling sun’ on Croagh Patrick. If you watch the sunset around Aug. 22-24th, the sun appears to ‘roll’ down the side of the mountain. August is also the month of Lughnasa, the Celtic harvest festival. Lughnasa was Christianized, along with many other Celtic traditions and festivals, and survives in the form of Reek Sunday, the annual pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July every year. While the Reek Sunday is a pentitential experience for some pilgrims, doing the 3 stations on the mountain and some even walking barefoot, the event has a festive social atmosphere that is probably more in line with the festivities of ancient Lughnasa.
The road walking began to wear on my feet and legs. The mountain seemed to float above me, but I felt like I’d never get to the base. I could see the pilgrim path on the side of the mountain and I began to notice tiny black dots – people! I had been completely alone on the Tóchar, and there seemed to be hundreds of people on the Reek. I felt a little annoyed, maybe a little jealous that I still had a ways to go.
I passed by the Mountain Rescue Base Station and began to trudge up the hill. There was no clear path, so I just started scrambling through the grass. Eventually I reached a gravel pathway and began the ascent up the mountain. The trail was pretty well-worn, a mix of sandy gravel and large rocks. But it was nothing compared to the final ascent to the top – a VERY steep grade and the terrain underfoot was slippy shale stones.
By now, I’d joined the ranks of other Reek climbers – a diverse group of folks – fit older men and women, sometimes in small groups, a few macho young men, families – some with children in full meltdown mode, a few couples whose relationships seemed to be holding on by a thread, and a few people who were totally unprepared. No one was really talking, just focusing on the task at hand. It was a great situation to observe facial expressions. There was one boyfriend who would walk really quickly, then turn and look at his panting girlfriend like “What? It’s not that hard.” And the girlfriend looked like she wanted to throw him off the side of the mountain. There was the toddler who was unapologetically bawling by the side of the trail, refusing to move, and no promises of candy or ice cream would make him budge. Then the girlfriend in her trendy work out gear steadily making her way up the slope while her boyfriend was lagging behind exclaiming that he was having ‘a bleedin’ heart attack.’ I sympathized most with the toddler. I thought that his reaction to the whole thing was the most appropriate – all these crazy adults had actually planned to have this experience. He was just along for the ride, and it was clear that this was a ridiculous idea and possibly an existential threat.
What a relief to get to the top! The good thing about climbs like this is that once you see the view, you completely forget about all the evil thoughts you had on the way up, like throwing your boyfriend off a cliff. There is a small chapel at the top, but other than that, you have a 360° view of County Mayo, Westport and Clew Bay. The first thing I did was cast my stone off the side of the mountain, into the ravine that may (or may not) be where Patrick cast the demons. Then I looked back East and tried to figure out where I’d come from, if any of the landmarks looked familiar. I sat at the top for a while, because I knew that the climb back down would be rough. A pilgrimage doesn’t really end at the destination; You have to make your way back home, too.
I finally plucked up the nerve and energy to head down the mountain, this time on the northern side. I gingerly stepped and slid down the side of the mountain, probably slower than I had on the way up. I took about an hour to descend all the way to the car park. Fortunately, there is a pub at the bottom. I got myself a Guinness and called my AirBnB host. She lived in Westport, just a few minutes drive away and had offered to give me a lift. I have had the good fortune of staying with the most generous AirBnB hosts here in Ireland. These walking trips would be infinitely more complicated without their advice and help.
My knees were killing me, so I took some Advil and a hot shower then headed down to the Quays for dinner at The Towers, recommended by my host. I ordered the special: pan-seared John Dory with colcannon and a glass of wine. Best meal I’ve ever had. (But I think my taste buds were biased by the long walk.) There was a baby sitting in a highchair at the table next to me. While her parents chatted and her brothers bickered, we had a long conversation in the form of stares, smiles, giggles, and funny faces.
Fr. Fahey said that the smooth stone symbolized a ‘change of heart.’ I don’t know if I could clearly define my own change of heart, but I do know that the feeling of vitality from the first day of the hike has stuck with me. Even as I’ve gone back to the daily grind of work and responsibilities and worries, that feeling is something I hold close. When things start to feel hopeless, I know it’s time to start feeding the muse.
Tips for Walking the Tóchar Phádraig
- Planning: For info about Ballintubber Abbey, visit Ballintubber Abbey or the Heritage Council website Email: email@example.com; Phone: +353 (0)94 9030934
- There are several organized walks on the Tóchar each year, but walkers are also welcome to organize their own trips. You must contact the Abbey to let them know of your plans. You must also register with the Abbey and pay a €10 registration fee before you go.
- Timing: Tóchar Phádraig can be walked in 1 very long, very challenging day or in 2 shorter (still challenging) days. I walked about 6 hours each day, with a fairly heavy rucksack, slow going through muddy patches, and a few brief delays from backtracking.
- Terrain: The fields and bogs can be very wet and muddy even in the best of weather. I highly recommend waterproof hiking boots, as opposed to ‘trainers.’ It also helps to have a walking stick, so you can test out the depth of puddles or the firmness of boggy ground.
- Nearest towns accessible by public transport: Westport and Castlebar.
- Accomodation: I stayed in AirBnB accommodation in Castlebar, Aghagower, and Westport; but it is possible to stay with Peter and Josephine at Castle Reek View B&B in Aghagower for the entire duration of your trip. If you make arrangements with Peter ahead of time, he can pick you up from Westport, drive you to Ballintubber Abbey, and pick you up at the end of your walk. This makes logistics a lot easier and you can avoid carrying a heavy pack! Bottom line: it’s ideal accommodation of Tóchar walkers.
- Weather: Unpredictable weather is just part of the Irish travel package. I always take full rain gear and sunscreen, no matter what the forecast. Certain parts of the trail, especially the final climb up Croagh Patrick could be very dangerous in bad weather. There’s a Mountain Rescue team for a reason! Use your judgement and be prepared to change your plans if the weather turns nasty. I always write down the numbers for local taxis, just in case I get stuck somewhere.
- Maps: I use the “Ulmon Pro” app on my iPhone – you don’t need to have cell coverage or data to use the maps and the GPS is very helpful to locate yourself. I noticed that parts of the Tóchar showed up on the Mayo County map as well, even though it wasn’t labeled. Of course, you shouldn’t rely totally on technology. You can buy Ordinance Survey maps online. For the Tóchar, you need maps 30, 31, 37, and 38. (Keep in mind, you receive a small map from the Abbey.)
Croagh Patrick: Closer and Closer
 Croagh Patrick: An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage, Harry Hughes, 1991; The story is from the medieval text “Tripartite Life of St. Patrick”