Pilgrims, nature lovers, archeologists, historians and hill climbers come from all over the world to climb the mountain. This pilgrimage has been going on for centuries, and an older one for millennia. More on that later.
The current one has been going on in an active way since 1905 with the dedication of the new St. Patricks Oratory. Pilgrimages had fallen off following the Great Hunger (Potato Famine) of the 1840s and efforts were made to revitalize it. On Sunday July 30, 1905 there were 10,000 pilgrims in attendance of the new church. Night pilgrimages were performed until 1973, but they are now held during the day, sometimes barefooted.
An older tradition goes back even further. Pre-Christian artifacts have been discovered by archeologists suggesting a Celtic hillfort that circled the top of the mountain. On the summit have been found amber, blue and black glass beads dating to the 3rd century BC. The mountain seems to have been revered long before Patrick, and was perhaps the reason he had his fast and contest there. It was believed to be the seat of the old Celtic fertility deity Crom Dubh, often translated as the Dark Stooped One. In pre-Roman times, Crom Dubh seems to have been considered a despotic deity with evil powers.
Throughout Ireland, the Festival of Lughnasa is celebrated at the end of July as the start of the harvest festival in honor of the deity Lugh, the ancient pagan god of the Tuatha De Danann, a people whose name is now encompassed in the Irish word for August — Lughnasa. Lugh, personified as both young and strong, grasped harvest riches from the hands of fate each year by defeating the older god Crom Dubh. Each year the ritual involved cutting the first of the harvest and taking the head of Crom Dubh from its sanctuary and temporarily burying it in a high place. This head (right) survived until it was recently stolen from the wall of a ruined church on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland.
Locally in County Mayo the celebration is known as Domhnach Crom Dubh (Black Crom Sunday), but it is also known as Garland Sunday, Garlic Sunday, the last Sunday of Summer, and Domhnach na Cruaiche — Reek Sunday.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian