Croagh Patrick

Another box in my “to do” list was ticked on Thursday – I climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s sacred mountain.

I had intended doing it when I was up in Mayo last year but weather conditions were poor on the day and I didn’t attempt it. I took advantage of the exceptionally good weather this week and, on a whim, I set off for Murrisk – the village at the foot of the mountain – for a three and a half hour drive from East Cork  on Thursday morning.

I arrived at the car park at the base of the mountain around 2pm. I was going to wait until after 6pm before heading up. The average time for the 7km round trip is between 3 and 4 hours and with sunset not due until 10:05pm I had plenty of time before darkness fell. In any case I had my head-torch so the prospect of walking in darkness didn’t worry me. However, after checking into the B&B across the road and after a cool drink in The Tavern I figured I might as well start the climb. I would take it easy as I wanted to be on the summit near sunset. It was now 4pm.

Croagh Patrick is 2,507 feet (762 metres) high – 100 feet lower than Knockmealdown which I climbed a few weeks back. However, it is a much tougher prospect as one has to climb every one of those feet as it starts at sea level.

The Reek as it is known is of course the most climbed mountain in Ireland as it has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. St. Patrick is supposed to have spent 40 days fasting on the summit after which he banished snakes from Ireland! There is evidence that it was also a place of significance in the pre-Christian era and may have been used for Summer Solstice ceremonies.

The highlight of the modern pilgrimage is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July when in excess of 15,000 people make their way to the chapel on the summit. It is particularly popular among members of the Travelling Community many of whom do some sections of the walk barefoot. There is a significant macho-man element in the latter, I am told, but whether that is the case or if it is purely penitential I do not know. Regardless of the reason it is astonishing that it is done at all – the ground underfoot is rocky and sharp; it is difficult enough with good footwear – it must be horrendously painful in one’s bare feet.

There is a stall selling walking sticks as you exit the car park towards the start of the walk and it is highly recommended that you purchase one as the upper reaches of the climb are over loose scree and you need all the support you can get. I had my Manfrotto monopod and I used that instead.

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The start of the well-worn track  (left click on photos for larger size)

The path up is, as to be expected, well defined and there is a constant trickle of people negotiating it. It is a straightforward trek up to the saddle with only a few loose rock stretches. As you ascend, the beautiful vista of Clew Bay and its islands open out below you. One of those islands is Dorinish which was once owned by John Lennon but was sold by Yoko Ono after his death.

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Looking back towards Clew Bay

The saddle affords fine views to the south and the path takes an easy level course until the base of the upper cone. The path now veers steeply upwards across loose scree and it is difficult going. The best bet is to keep to the right of the path where there are more firm footholds. This was easy enough to do on the day with few people about; how it must be on Reek Sunday I can only imagine.

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Looking south from the saddle to a well-cultivated peat bog  

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Names and phrases spelled with stones including “Aideen I’m Sorry” – I hope she forgave him

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The upper cone – the path wends its way through loose scree 

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Looking back from half way up the upper cone  

I was relieved to reach the top. It was calm and very hot. The views across all the compass points were magnificent. The chapel itself was closed but a small window showed the basic interior with the centrepiece being a large statue of St Patrick. The gleaming white of the exterior leant the scene a Santorini-like effect especially given the blue sky and the dead heat of the day.

The chapel was built in 1905. Builders lived in huts on the summit for the six-month period of construction. Excavations had uncovered a dry stone oratory – similar to the one at Gallarus in Kerry  and it dated from the period 430AD to 890AD.

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There were a few hours to go until sunset so I relaxed in the shade of the church. Walkers came and went. Some had no more reached the summit when  they turned on their heels and headed back down again, a behaviour that puzzled me – why come all this way and not soak in the scenery for a half hour or so at least?

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One of the three “stations” – I didn’t see anyone doing them

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St Patrick’s Bed

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Looking north across Clew Bay to the Nephin range of North Mayo

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The highest toilet in Ireland –  and in good condition too

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The sun sets towards the Atlantic with Clare Island in the middle distance

The sun began to dim appreciably around 9pm and I took a few photographs as it began to sink towards the Atlantic. A thick blanket of haze soon obscured it well before the actual sunset time of 10:05pm. I headed back down the mountain in the fading light around 9:30pm but I did not need the torch to light the way and I reached the car park at 11pm exactly.

Croagh Patrick is a magnificent mountain and it was a wonderful experience to climb it. That said, I found it very tough going in the 29 degrees heat and in the absence of any wind. I was exhausted at the end of it. My admiration for the people who climb it on Reek Sunday – often in wet and windy conditions – has been considerably increased as a result.

Supermoon

According to Wikipedia: ” A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon or a new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth. The most recent occurrence was on June 23, 2013, as the closest and largest full moon of the year and the Moon’s closest encounter with Earth for all of 2013. It will not be so close again until August 10, 2014.”

Curiously, the term comes from astrology and is of relatively recent (1979) coinage – it is not used in the astronomical community which refers to it as a perigee-syzygy or perigee moon. Somehow, I think the astrological name will stick as far as the general public is concerned.

The weather forecast for East Cork of the evening of the 23rd June was good – calm and clear. I wanted to photograph the Moon as it rose in the sky with some landscape in the shot to give a sense of perspective as well as interest. I figured that Ballycotton Island would be a good choice and I checked the Photographer’s Ephemeris application to establish the moonrise direction. It was due to rise at 21:43 and would be directly over the island, viewed from Ballinamona beach, shortly thereafter.

Supermoon TPE

A screenshot of The Photographer’s Ephemeris page for Ballycotton on the 23rd June. This application is indispensable for landscape photographers. Seehttp://photoephemeris.com/

I arrived at Ballinamona car park around 9pm.  There were a few other people about enjoying the pleasant evening. Three women emerged from a car carrying a beach windbreaker, chairs and bags of material. They set up the windbreaker and chairs in a sheltered spot in the dunes on the beach side of the carpark and the material they were carrying included sticks with which they made a fire. It was fitting that they did so as not only was this the night of the Supermoon, it was also St John’s Eve – a traditional night for bonfires in Ireland. These women were marking it in style  – having a picnic on the beach and waiting for the emergence of the Moon over the ocean – although I suspect their fire was for heat only. It was a nice night but there was still a chill in the air.

I set up my tripod a few yards away and placed my Canon 5D Mark11 and Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens on it and attached a cable release. I set the ISO to 400.  All I had to do now was wait.

I checked my watch as the time  of moonrise came and went – 21:43, 21:50, 21:55  and still no sign of it. Was it hidden behind the island?  And then at 22:00 exactly it became faintly visible a few degrees above the horizon to the left of the island exactly as the Photographer’s Ephemeris had indicated.  Despite the seemingly clear sky a distant cloud obscured most of it.

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At 22:00 the Moon revealed itself albeit faintly

As it slowly rose in the sky however it left the cloud behind and emerged in all its magnificence. I had to politely decline the picnic women’s offers of tea or coffee as I concentrated on the photography.

I waited until it was directly above the lighthouse and then I packed up and left. It was 22:23. When I got home I did a quick edit on what I thought was the best shot of the evening and I posted it on Twitter at 23:06. I should add that it was a straight shot – the moon was not re-positioned using Photoshop in any way.

Immediately people started re-tweeting it and by midnight I was trending in Ireland (Twitter-speak for being very popular  – not to be confused with trendy; I was never that). The image has been re-tweeted 576 times since.

Supermoon Twitter

The BreakingNews.ie Facebook page posted it and they received 2,445 “likes”.

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To date it has been viewed 6,377 times on my Flickr account.

I was contacted by the Irish Examiner for a high resolution copy and they published it on the 25th June.

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The back page of the Irish Examiner on 25th June

I am astonished at the response.  I thought it was a good enough photo but the image is technically deficient in that it is a bit “soft” due to the atmospherics – it is difficult to get things bitingly sharp when you are shooting into late evening haze with a long telephoto lens. I may well have contributed to the softness by not using mirror lock-up when making the exposures. A shutter speed of 1/13 sec didn’t help either. That obviously didn’t matter as far as the public was concerned. They liked it and that was that. Sometimes those of us in the photographic community can get too bogged down in the technicalities of an image to the detriment of recognizing that a photo can have impact and resonance for people without being  “perfect”. Certainly, I have lots of other shots that I would regard as being technically superior but none, so far, has been as popular as this.