The pilgrimage site of Croagh Patrick lies on a mountain some 2500-feet high in County Mayo, which is on the northwest coast of Ireland. The site serves as the modern pilgrimage destination for those who wish to take the penitential journey to and vigil at the summit at the end of each July. The terrain surrounding Croagh Patrick is made of a variety of landscapes, including bogs, meadow, ridges, and lakes. South of the area, a vast area of bog has created conditions that are not favorable to habitation, and so today the area remains sparsely populated, just as it was during prehistoric times.
Archaeological evidence from Croagh Patrick indicates the possibility that the site was sacred beginning in the Bronze Age, or possibly even before then. During this time it may have been a pilgrimage site for those not living near the site. Several prehistoric structures have been found near Croagh Patrick, including a wedge tomb, four cairns, a tumulus, rock art covered by hundreds of motifs, ring-barrows, a pond-barrow, a stone circle, and a plethora of standing stone suggesting possible burial placements. The site is said to have been a site for the Celtic harvest festival of Lughnasa which was celebrated until it was Christianized in the Low Middle Ages.
Written reference to Croagh Patrick dates to 700 A.D. when Tirechan recalled the story of St. Patrick’s stay at the site, given around 441 A.D. St. Patrick is said to have remained there for forty days and forty nights, though such an account may be rooted more in medieval legend than historical fact. According to the Life of St. Patrick from the 10th-century, St. Patrick is said to have remained on top of the mountain in prayer and fasting, following in the footsteps of both Moses and Christ. Under other accounts, stories about St. Patrick indicate that the purpose of his visit to Croagh Patrick was to challenge a pagan power figure named Crom Dubh. This account suggests that the site held high significance as a sacred religious site prior to the arrival of the wave of Christianity.
Multiple sources point to the historical pilgrimage date as being March 17th, although some indicate the end of July as the traditional date. The first record of a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is from 1113 A.D., and during the Middle Ages pilgrims likely followed the eastern Tochar Phadraig route, beginning 22 miles away at Ballintubber Abbey. This route may date to pre-Christian times, at least according to regional lore. The pilgrim route likely shifted after the establishment of Murrisk Abbey in the mid-15th century, from which pilgrims now begin their journey in modern times. Under suppression of Catholics during the time of the Penal Laws, Croagh Patrick prospered as a pilgrimage site and the site continues to be a popular site for pilgrims in modern times. An oratory was constructed on the top of the mountain in 1905.
Croagh Patrick appears to have been important for its historical meaning within Irish culture, regardless of the religious powers that influenced the area. Christians who came to Ireland did not neglect the site because of its pagan origins, nor did they destroy it. Instead, they transformed its meaning. The fact that the site was adopted by both pagan and Christian cultures suggests that something about the site itself echoes a fundamental characteristic of pilgrimage. Most likely, this characteristic relates to the high, remote nature of the mountain which is still accessible by the public. While the nature of the prehistoric pilgrimage is not entirely clear, the penitentiary nature of the Christian pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick corresponds to the difficulty in making the ascension to the top.
The importance of Croagh Patrick seems to stress the portion of travel to the summit of the mountain rather than any particular activity undertaken once the pilgrim arrives there. This is perhaps due to the lack of any particular relic associated with the summit. Along with this, there does not appear to be any major artificial features that have historically attracted pilgrims to this area. Instead, the attraction seems to be in the mountain as sacred space following the tradition of St. Patrick and the cultures that preceded him.