Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is traditionally known for the great pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo. Croagh Patrick, or Cruach Phádraig as it is known in Irish, literally means Patrick’s Stack, the site, according to hagiography, was where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days. For over four thousand years Patrick’s Stack has has attracted pilgrimages, with the site originally hosting pagan gatherings which were gradually to become more Christianised from the time of Saint Patrick. The popular nineteenth century British writer William Thackeray recorded the following details regarding the Croagh Patrick Pilgrimage which he witnessed in 1842;
‘The first station consists of one heap of stones, round which they must walk seven times, casting a stone on the heap each time, and before and after every stone’s throw saying a prayer.
The second station is on the top of the mountain. Here there is a great alter – a shapeless heap of stones. The poor wretches crawl on their knees into this place, say fifteen prayers, and after going around the whole top of the mountain fifteen times, saying fifteen prayers again.
The third station is near the bottom of the mountain at the further side of Westport. It consists of three heaps. The penitents must go several times round these collectively, and several times round each individually, saying a prayer before and after each progress.
The pleasures of the poor people – for after the business on the mountain came the dancing and love-making at its foot – was woefully spoiled by the rain, which rendered dancing on the grass impossible, nor were the tents big enough for that exercise. Indeed, the whole site was as dismal and half-savage a one as I have seen.’
Although the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick is both traditionally and presently the most popular and infamous custom associated with the last Sunday of July, other traditions with different names exist throughout the country, some still surviving to this day and observed on the last day of July, where people from near and far gather on mountains, hills and strands in many parts of Ireland to mark the end of summer, and welcomed in the harvest.
Activities to mark the start of harvest have traditionally differed from region to region, in Lahinch in County Clare, for example, the Rev James Kenny, in 1814, recorded that the last Sunday in July was known as Garlic Sunday, and was a patron day, but also included activities participated in included the less devotional activities of horse-racing on the strand, and dancing. From Ballyliffen in County Donegal, Charles McGlinchey remembered that in his youth, 1860s-1870s, the last Sunday in July was known as Heather-Berry Sunday, and was marked by the younger people who went up into the hills to gather hill-berries and heather-berries, while in Leitrim, the last Sunday of July was known as Garland Sunday, in reference to the custom of the younger people, in parts of the county, adorning the holy wells with Garlands of flowers on that day.
Duncan, Leland L. ‘Folklore Gleamings from County Leitrim’ in Folklore 1893.
Kenny, Rev James.’Union of Kilmanaheen’, in A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland, edited by William Shaw Mason. Dublin, London and Edinburg, 1814.
Mc Glinchey, Charles. The Last of the Name. Edited by Brian Friel. Belfast, 1986.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. The Irish Sketch Book. London. 1842.