What motivates people to climb to the top of Croagh Patrick? That's the question I asked those I joined on the climb as a month-long series of Covid-compliant pilgrimages get under way on the Mayo mountain.

The answer, according to Fr John Kenny, parish priest of Partry and Toumakeady, is that there are "as many reasons as climbers".

Some scale the slope for spiritual or religious reasons. "There’s a cure here," said Chap Reilly who came from Cork to make the trek up to the summit. "I say a few prayers for people who are sick," he told me.

Another man climbing with his young daughters told me they’d made several pilgrimages over the past few weeks: "St Patrick’s Well in Cork, St Jude's in Wexford, Knock."

They started their Croagh Patrick pilgrimage early so they could be at the top for mass at noon.

For the month of July, mass will be celebrated and confessions heard on the summit four days a week. From Wednesday to Friday mass is at noon and at 10 on Saturdays.

From tomorrow, 200 people can attend ceremonies outside the 116-year-old chapel and oratory on top of Croagh Patrick.

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Those coming back down the mountain as I ascended told me they were climbing for the challenge and the exercise as opposed to religious reasons.

Others combined the physical with the spiritual. "We just decided out of the blue to come up for the day, a bit of exercise and a bit of pilgrimage I suppose," said Christopher, a student form Claremorris.

More experienced hikers passed me on my way up. On average it takes about 90 minutes to reach the top. Much of the mountain path is covered in loose stones so a walking pole or stick is highly recommended. My stick saved me from slipping more than once.

The most difficult part of the climb is what’s known as the 'cone’ or peak. It’s a steep walk of about 20 minutes on rocks and stones and climbers who make it are rewarded with stunning views of the islands off Mayo.

"My dad died of Covid in October, said Jimmy Harrington from Malahide who accompanied me up the final stretch of the cone.

"It’s been a tough year. I’m really glad I did this for him because Mayo was very special to my father."

What surprised me most about the climb was the number of families with young children making the ascent.

One local woman brought her five-year-old son up the mountain. "We are local and he hadn’t been up here before," she told me as she helped him back down.

The pandemic was on the minds of many climbers including Emer, a student from Louth. "I’d just love to get vaccinated so we can move on," she said, adding that she is working part-time in a pub.

About 70 people were on the summit for mass.

"If it’s only for two or three, it’s worth it," said Fr Charlie McDonnell, parish priest in Westport.

Not everyone who wishes to do the pilgrimage is able for the climb, but that’s not a problem.

"If you put your foot on the mountain you are part of the pilgrimage," said Fr Kenny. "You don’t have to make it to the top."

On my journey back down I met many more people walking up. Most were on holidays in the area and eager to complete the climb. With all my stopping to chat, my own journey up and down Croagh Patrick took five hours - five very rewarding hours!