Croagh Patrick is the holy mountain of Ireland, but now experts confirm that the pagans got there first.

An archaeological dig currently taking place on the summit of Croagh Patrick has unearthed clues which indicate that the Reek has been of importance not just to Ireland's patron saint and early Christian communities, but to our Stone Age ancestors as well. 

Ireland’s holy mountain has long been associated with Saint Patrick, who reputedly fasted here for forty days around the year441. In spite of the centuries of Christian pilgrimage and prayer that has taken place here, little research or archaeological exploration of its ancient past has been undertaken. 

But now it is emerging that this sacred site was a long-established centre of pagan ritual and worship before Patrick ever set foot on it. 

Reporter Jim Fahy joins the people who spend an hour and a half every day trekking up the 764 metre-high (2500 feet) mountain to their place of work,  

A team of archaeologists who are now believed to be the fittest in Ireland. 

As challenging as the conditions are, the rewards have been dramatic. A fortified wall or rampart has been located, dating back to 5000 BC, as have ruins of an encircling ring of stone dwellings on the slopes of the mountain. It’s thought to be part of a hill fort, which establishes the ritual or strategic importance of the mountain thousands of years before Saint Patrick arrived here.  

This is the highest archaeological dig in Britain or Ireland that has taken place to date, says consultant archaeologist Michael Gibbons, and recent findings have established its date as 3000 years before Saint Patrick’s time,  

It puts the whole date and the pilgrimage tradition here right to the beginnings of Irish history. 

The wall could have been built for shelter but also for defence purposes, as at Caherconree in County Kerry, says Gibbons. The presence of a rampart indicates that the Reek was  

More than just a ritual mountain, that you had a fortified settlement on the summit itself. 

Chairman of the Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee Harry Hughes believes that the summit was a place where seasonal worship took place, but Stone Age tools also suggest that people lived and worked here. Further analysis and research on the results of the excavation will reveal even more clues as to what took place on this holy mountain.  

In the meantime, however, we can rest assured that Croagh Patrick stands with the great ritual landscapes of the world. At a recent visit to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the Mayo archaeology team were told that Ireland’s holy mountain is in the same league as Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai and Mount Fuji,  

This is a mountain of global significance.

This report for 'Nationwide’ waws broadcast on 27 September 1995. The reporter is Jim Fahy.