Croagh Patrick Excavations

Croagh Patrick Excavations

This site is located on the summit of Croagh Patrick overlooking Clew Bay, Co. Mayo (Fig. 12.5.1.) The excavation was financed by funds raised locally by the Croagh Patrick archaeological committee, the local church also Mayo County Council. (Gerry Walsh)  Further evidence of early church sites with their associated buildings is referenced on this site. It is an historically rich place of national importance.  The archaeological proof of its early use as a Christian & probable pre – Christian site is quite significant.[i]

Mr. Michael Gibbons the archaeologist who carried out the work under the direction of Mayo County archaeologist Mr. Gerry Walsh, reported that the dating of the church on the summit had generated immense excitement: ‘It has now been proved to be the earliest church building yet excavated in Ireland and shows this to be a site of Christian pilgrimage from the 5th century onwards.’  (17th March 1997)  Radiocarbon dating of a church uncovered by archaeologists on Croagh Patrick’s summit in Co. Mayo has proven it dates from the time of Patrick: it supports the legend that the saint visited the mountain.[ii]

Northern Slopes

As early as 1839 it was noted that on the northern slopes of Croagh Patrick one could see: ‘a low wall, built of large, un-cemented stones evidently of the most ancient construction-a Cyclopean monument raised ages before the Roman Patrick ascended … built by that ancient people that have erected their solemn monuments in every land … the low wall which, I believe, has never been before noticed, a wall that has borne the Atlantic tempest.’ Otway Caesar 1839  A Tour in Connaught: Comprising Sketches of Clonmacnoise, Joyce Country, and Achill.  (William Curry, June and Co.)  Croagh Patrick archaeological committee (founded in 1994) undertook to record any early human or building activity prior to or following St Patrick’s visit to the mountain.  A team of eight people led by archaeologists Gerry Walsh also Michael Gibbons climbed to the summit each day for eight weeks during July & August of 1994 / 1995.  A hill-top rampart (possibly an enclosed ritual site) that enclosed the whole summit was discovered.  A number of coloured glass beads were unearthed which a glass specialist dated as a dark blue also amber glass beads from the third century BC to the fourth century AD.  This structure may have indicated an enclosed ritual site there. The excavations further revealed a rectangular building that measured 7.76 metres by 5.52 metres (30ft by 18ft)  From 1996 to 1998 under the direction of Louisburgh archaeologist Leo Morahan a second archaeological programme was undertaken.  Following three years of surveys several new archaeological sites with monuments were discovered then recorded in the orbit of Croagh Patrick. [iii]


A rectangular dry stone oratory was uncovered approximately twenty-five metres east of the existing oratory that had been built during 1905.  The oratory was orientated east west with the south wall & the south-western corner cut into the natural rock.  As a result these walls were faced on the interior only.  The outer faces began at present ground level.  This provided an impression of being a ‘sunken’ building.  The south & eastern walls showed signs of corbelling.  The outline of the building from the outside would have been similar to that of an upturned boat whilst the interior would have been a roughly pointed vault.  Radiocarbon date of 430-890 Cal AD was returned for a sample of charcoal from within the oratory.  This site features a location map. (Gerry Walsh ) [iv]

New scientific evidence was produced of the boat shaped oratory: the archaeologists thought may have dated from 800-1200 AD now appears to have been constructed much earlier in fact possibly as early as from 430.   Excavations have produced discoveries that showed Ireland’s holiest mountain has been a sacred place for five thousand years.  The study resulted in evidence that a Celtic hillfort encircled the summit at two thousand, five hundred & ninety-nine feet.  The church was located within a circular structure. [v]

Eastern Entrance

The eastern entrance had a slight suggestion of Inclined jambs.  On either side of the Entrance (inside the threshold flag) were two large stone-lined post-holes: one of which was a double post-hole.  An iron object was retrieved from the fill of one side: whilst the fill of the other side produced an iron nail also a fragment of iron.  Three sherds of local medieval pottery, two corroded bronze pins, several fragments of iron, two worked flints also numerous worked stones were recovered from the surviving remains of a possible floor level.  Modern discoveries also found in this layer had probably filtered down through the overlying layers of collapse.  In one cutting, a layer of rough paving was uncovered inside the Inner face of the rampart wall.  Overlying this rough paving was a layer that produced artefacts of two iron fragments, two flint chips, a clay pipe stem fragment & a blue glass bead.  Overlying this again was a thin layer of stone rubble that produced a broken burnt chert flake.  The Inner face of the rampart wall was also exposed.  The excavation showed it was built on the natural scree also faced only on the inside.  A location map features at this link. (Gerry Walsh) [vi]

A fortified settlement on the summit itself also the presence of a rampart indicated that the Reek was much more than just a ritual mountain. (Reporter Jim Fahy hosted the broadcast for ‘Nationwide’ on 27 th September 1995):


During 1995 excavation was concentrated on the dry stone rampart wall that encircled the summit of the mountain.  Up to thirty hut sites were located on the north & western sides of the mountain outside of the rampart wall.  That wall with associated hut sites may have represent pre-Christian occupation on the mountain’s summit.  Hut (A) on the western side of the mountain was oval in plan with no indication that a definite inner or outer wall face survived.  A damaged retouched flint flake, a small chert flake also a chert chip were recovered from the hut’s interior.  Hut (B) was circular in plan with a maximum diameter of five metres.   Interior was composed of a thin layer of peat that contained a spread of charcoal that overlay on the natural scree & bedrock.  The charcoal spread produced a broken chert flake fragment, a minute bronze fragment also a modern penny.  A four metre long stretch of the inner face of the rampart wall (again faced on the inside only) was uncovered at the north west corner of the summit.  A broken retouched flint flake, a possible hone stone also a yellow glass bead were recovered at that site.  Overlying this layer another soil layer produced a small chert flake, a flint chip, an incomplete bronze mount with a white glass bead.  The topsoil layer there produced a broken retouched flint flake, two black glass beads, three blue glass beads, two amber beads, a purple glass bead & some modern finds. Several of the beads may have dated to the third century BC.  A location map features on this page.  [vii]

An aerial survey uncovered dozens of circular hut sites abutting the summit.  Excavated evidence was provided of settlement during the bronze age when one produced flint fragments. Also discovered was a string of glass beads from the iron age.  They Identified a series of prehistoric ritual & ceremonial sites that may have contained greater important discoveries.  Those included stone rows, standing stones also prehistoric rock art on the side of the mountain. [viii]

An archaeological excavation licensed by the National Monuments Service commenced on 2nd August 1994.  That dig on Croagh Patrick’s summit unearthed clues that indicated the Reek has been of major importance not just to Ireland’s patron saint or early Christian communities: but to Ireland’s stone age ancestors as well.  Reporter Jim Fahy joined the people who spend an hour & a half every day to trek up the seven hundred & sixty-four  metres-high (2500 feet ) mountain to their place of work.   As challenging as the conditions were: the rewards proved dramatic.  Consultant archaeologist Michael Gibbons stated that this was the highest archaeological dig in Britain or Ireland that has taken place up to that time.  According to him recent results have established its date as 3000 years before Saint Patrick’s time.  The wall (dated 5000 BC) may have been constructed for shelter or defense purposes.  Ruins of an encircled ring of stone dwellings featured on the mountain’s slopes. It was possibly part of a hill fort.  Chairman of the Croagh Patrick archaeological committee Harry Hughes believes that the summit was a place where seasonal worship was held. Yet stone age tools suggested that in fact people lived & worked there.  During 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 also Mount Fuji. (27th September 1995) [ix]

Within early references Croagh Patrick was known as ‘Cruachan Aigle‘: the high Mound of the Eagle.  The sacred mountain dominates Murrisk village & the surrounding landscape.  The seven hundred & sixty – five metres quartzite cone would have exerted a magnetic force on people of the past eons.  This mountain has been linked with St. Patrick since the mid-fifth century when he was reputed to have spent some time on the summit while he banished reptiles.  If snakes or demons symbolized paganism then it is understood that Croagh Patrick with its summit must have represented one of the foremost sacred ritual places in all of Ireland.  They were possibility of bronze age origin then were later integrated into the Christian tradition as one of the stations was called ‘Roilig Mhuire.’   References to claims for church taxes from buildings within the summit enclosure (dated 824 & 1216 AD) would indicate that a number of churches / small chapels were built on the site over time.  During 1838 a small chapel called Teampall Phadraig was recorded as being in existence within an irregular circle of stones.  The current chapel was constructed  during 1905 then extended during 1962. [x]

Lower Slopes

The site at the foot of Croagh Patrick (NGR 90600 / 28020 with SMR MA087 – 04401-) was excavated over two short seasons during 1994 &1995.  A location map features at this link.  [xi]

The archaeological survey Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo-Archaeology, Landscape and People  2001 by the Croagh Patrick archaeological committee also provide evidence that cashels, raths, ringforts with several enclosures were widely distributed round the lower slopes of the mountain also along the coastal zone. [xii]

A recent discovery was a hermit cell located one thousand two hundred feet beneath the summit.  Archaeologists believe it was in use as a retreat centre where monks withdrew to meditate away from the busy pilgrimage centre atop the mountain. [xiii]


Glaspatrick refers to St. Patrick’s streamlet.  Included within an early ecclesiastical enclosure were a church & graveyard with a holy well along with three forts & two fulacht fiadha.  An old field system existed at the site.  Occupants of some pre  – Christian enclosures were converted to Christianity then these sites possibly became actual early ecclesiastical settlements.  It was reputed that Totmael St. Patrick’s charioteer passed away in that area. [xiv]

An article on Gloshpatrick by author may be viewed at this site:


Mr. Michael Gibbons the archaeologist who carried out the work under the direction of Mayo county archaeologist Mr. Gerry Walsh reported that the dating of the church on the summit had generated immense excitement: ‘It has now been proved to be the earliest church building yet excavated in Ireland and shows this to be a site of Christian pilgrimage from the 5th century onwards.’   [xv]

According to this site the discovering of a drystone oratory actually pushed back Ireland’s knowledge of pilgrimage architecture on the summit of Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo.  It was similar to the Gallarus oratory in Co. Kerry.  The discovery had been radiocarbon dated to between 430 & 890 AD.  The centre was opened by Gerry Walsh with his wife Gabrielle during March 2000.  Further information may be viewed at this link :

This site states that dry stone oratory discovered on the mountain’s summit was radiocarbon-dated to between 430-890 A.D.  Reputed to be one of the oldest stone churches within Ireland:

Pilgrimages have taken place over the past two millennia to Croagh Patrick’s summit. Annually the event takes place on the last Friday (Garland Friday) also on the last Sunday in July.  These dates connected with the ancient Celtic festival of Lughnasa (1st August) that celebrated the beginning of the harvest season.  The scattering of hut sites with fulacht fiadha (cooking sites-constructed close to running water) revealed that the area was a bronze age settlement. [xvi]

This site provides Information on Croagh Patrick also has an image of the pilgrim path:

The name ‘Croagh Patrick’  came from the Irish ‘Cruach Phádraig’  i.e. ‘Patrick’s Stack.’   The mountain is known locally as The Reek: from ‘rick’ or ‘stack.’  During the pre-Christian era Croagh Patrick was known as ‘Cruachán Aigle‘.  It was believed  the site was connected to a pagan harvest deity: the dark god Cromm Crúaich  or Crom Dubh in a later time.  Or it has a literal translation of Eagle Mountain or Mount Eagle.  The Reek was a sacred place long before 441 AD when St Patrick climbed then stayed for forty days.  The mountain was a site of worship as far back as 3000 BC.  The chapel that sits atop Croagh Patrick was constructed during 1905 by twelve local men that used local stone & cement hauled up the mountain’s steep sides by donkey:

Publications that reference St. Patrick or Croagh Patrick are among the following:

Walsh  G.  Preliminary Report on the Archaeological excavations on the summit of Croagh Patrick 1994 Cathair na Mart Historical Journal  (pages  1-10) [xvii]

Walsh  G.  Glaspatrick, Croagh Patrick 1995 / 1996 in I. Bennett (ed) Excavations 1994  (Wordwell Ltd. Bray) (pages  69 / 70[xviii]

Croagh Patrick: A Place of Pilgrimage. A Place of Beauty  2nd April 2018.  Images of digs feature at  this link.  One may download an extract from chapter two at this link:

Morbury St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland  1900 (London) :

Healy The Life and Writings of St. Patrick  1905 (Dublin):

Bury  St. Patrick, His Place in History  1905 (London):

Fleming  Life of St. Patrick  1905 (London) :

Thurston November  1905 in The Month:

Moran April 1907 in The Irish Theological Quarterly :

MacNeill Eoin The Origin of the Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick was published in the The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland  30th June 1929 sixth series vol. 19, no. 1,  pages 1-15. This may be downloaded at this link:


[i] Unpublished Excavations ( [Assessed 26th June 2021]

[ii] Scientific evidence (( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[iii] The History of Croagh Patrick ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[iv] Unpublished Excavations ( [Assessed 26th June 2021]

[v] Scientific evidence (( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[vi] Unpublished Excavations ( [Assessed 26th June 2021]

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Scientific evidence (( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[ix] RTE Archives ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[x] Archaeology Murrisk ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xi] Unpublished Excavations ( [Assessed 26th June 2021]

[xii] Archaeology Murrisk ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xiii] Scientific evidence (( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xiv] Archaeology Murrisk ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xv] Scientific evidence (( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xvi] Archaeology Murrisk ( [Assessed 15th February 2022]

[xvii]   Ibid

[xviii] Ibid.

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