According to the Catholic Church, ‘Nature’s greatest cathedral in the west is being severely damaged’. Every year up to 40,000 people climb Croagh Patrick, a 760m-high mountain in the far west of Ireland as part of a pilgrimage to honour St Patrick, who is said to have made the journey more than 1,500 years ago. Theologians should investigate the purpose of pilgrimages in different religious traditions.

However, the mountain is becoming a victim of its own success, with the heavy footfall eroding previously-safe paths and, according to some members of the local community, slowly eroding the mountain’s distinctive conical shape. Indeed, the ramifications are not just of interest to Geography applicants: singles’ weekends, as well as a ‘bra-chain challenge’ stand in stark contrast to the daybreak mass that takes place, weather permitting. Tourists and casual visitors may well come to outnumber pilgrims.

This raises interesting questions, both social and physical: can heavy footfall significantly alter the geographical composition of a mountain? Our geographers may have an opinion, or they may agree with Liam, a local farmer, who argues that the footfall will lead to an increase in loose rocks, and potentially pose a threat to visitors’ safety. Similarly, theologians may be interested in reflecting upon how we treat religious sites in modern times – is it justified to restrict access? There is also a nuanced legal debate to be had about public ownership of land, as the local council share ownership with 40 local farmers who have commonage rights, and therefore also have a say in how the situation is managed.

The situation at Croagh Patrick is by no means unique to Ireland and reflects a wider trend of ancient sites having to adjust to the demands of modernity, and there seems to be no obvious solution. 

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