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The holy mountain that's become too popular

Reek Sunday, Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, Co Mayo, Ireland Image copyright AFP

Up to 40,000 people climb Croagh Patrick every year - a 760m-high mountain in the far west of Ireland - as part of a pilgrimage to honour the country's patron saint. It's one of Ireland's top tourist destinations and has become popular with runners. But not everyone is happy, including the Catholic Church.

On a clear day you can see Croagh Patrick from miles away, its near-perfect conical shape mirrored against the sky. Originally a site for pagan ceremonies, St Patrick is said to have climbed the mountain more than 1,500 years ago, fasting and praying for 40 days and 40 nights.

He'd have had a wonderful view up there. It's not an easy ascent - piles of loose rock make progress difficult. A passing nun, her long skirt billowing like a parachute in the wind, once dressed my arm after a fall.

On a good day there's little to beat the outlook from the summit. The Atlantic stretches to the horizon. The bay below is scattered with islands - called drumlins - left over from the last Ice Age.

There are said to be 365 of them, one for each day of the year. John Lennon owned one once, wanting to start up a commune. But then the infamous rain and mist of the west of Ireland arrived - and the Beatle and his entourage left.

Image copyright ALAMY

For hundreds of years people have journeyed from all over Ireland each year to climb Croagh Patrick as an act of pilgrimage and penance, some clambering over the sharp stones in their bare feet. My own grandparents would struggle at night up the mountain to attend mass at daybreak on the summit.

But as with many of the old, traditional ways in Ireland, big changes are taking place. There's a large new car park at the base of the mountain, full virtually year round. A nearby pub does a roaring trade. Groups of German teenagers pile off buses in their climbing gear. An American couple dressed in lycra do an exhausting set of stretching exercises.

Liam, a local farmer born and bred in the shadow of the mountain, is happy that more people are visiting. "The mountain has its moods, just like us," he says, hitching up his trousers over an ample belly.

"It goes from grey to green in the wink of an eye - and sometimes in the evenings it has a purple colour about it."

Liam watches as two Italian women - who look as if they've just come off the catwalk - teeter tentatively along, among the stones in their high heels.

"The tourists have brought money and jobs to the area," says Liam. "But it's all the other stuff I worry about."

St Patrick's holy mountain has become popular as a venue for runners careering up and down in all weathers.

Ireland's patron saint might have frowned on other events on his mountain - including a "singles weekend with a difference" and, bizarrely, a "bra-chain challenge", with thousands of sets of underwear linked up the mountainside.

Image copyright ALAMY

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church has objected to such activities: "Nature's greatest cathedral in the west is being severely damaged," says a local priest. Others, including Liam, have different concerns - such has been the boom in visitors, the paths leading to and from the summit are being worn away.

"The whole shape of the mountain is changing. And with the rocks getting looser and looser, you'd be killed any moment with a boulder falling on your head," says Liam.

Safeguarding Croagh Patrick is fraught with difficulties. While the Catholic Church has authority over the summit and its small chapel, up to 40 local farmers have what's known as commonage rights on the mountain and any work to improve pathways or put safety measures in place has to have their agreement.

Meanwhile, the local council might be fearful of taking responsibility for the mountain for fear of being sued by those who are injured climbing - and there are many such incidents each year.

Image copyright ALAMY

Perhaps Croagh Patrick itself is becoming angry at its use and abuse - this year, for the first time, the annual pilgrimage was cancelled on safety grounds. Thick mists descended. Gale force winds whipped around. "The winds were so strong, the chalice was almost sucked out the chapel," said one local.

Yet still a few hardy - or perhaps foolish - pilgrims made the trek to the summit. One man said he had to lie on his belly "for fear of the winds driving me all the way to New York".

Everyone - the Church, the tourist authorities and the sports groups - agrees that something has to be done to safeguard Croagh Patrick's future. Exactly what is the big question. Perhaps only St Patrick himself knows the answer.

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