Croagh Patrick towers majestically over the town of Westport and rumour has it that if you can’t see the summit then it’s raining but if you can see it then it’s going to rain, such is the weather in the west of Ireland. Standing 2510 feet (765 meters), the mountain known locally as the Reek was a pagan sacred site long before the new religion of Christianity arrived upon our shores. It was once known as the dwelling place of Crom Dubh or The Dark Crooked One, Crom Dubh was a Celtic god of fertility who was said to live in the underworld through the dark days of winter emerging into the light on the 1st of August to claim the first fruits of the harvest. The Harvest festival which takes place on the 1st August is known as Lughnasadh. This may account for one of the other names that the mountain was known by, Cruachan Aigle or Mount of the Eagle. There is a suggestion that the Celtic god Lugh lived upon the summit of the mountain and that he would turn into an eagle and fly over County Mayo in order to keep watch upon the land. Could this is be the reason why an eagle is incorporated into the coat of arms of Westport?
It was around the 11th century that the mountain began to be known as Cruach Phádraig and when Irish place names became anglicised around the 16th century it was given the name Croagh Patrick. It was upon the summit of the Reek that the Christian monk, Patrick was said to have battled the goddess who was said to live upon the mountain. Folklore tells us that during the battle the goddess took the form of a giant bird, Cora, or a great serpent called the Chaorthannach (the fire spitter), who Christianity would have you believe was the ‘devil’s mother’. The story goes that Saint Patrick fought with the Chaorthannach upon the summit of the Reek when he banished the snakes and demons from Ireland. He raised his holy staff and called down a mighty whirlwind that carried all the serpents and demons out of Ireland and consigned them to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean never to return.
All that is except the Chaorthannach, Patrick is said to have defeated her and confined her to a lake south of the mountain which bears her name Lough Corra but she escaped and headed for the safety of Lough Derg. When the Chaorthannach arrived at Lough Derg she believed she had beaten Patrick and was preparing to enter the waters and swim down to her cave at the bottom of the Lough which is said to be a portal to the underworld when he jumped out from behind a large rock. Some say that as they fought in the waters of the Lough she swallowed Patrick whole but he tore himself free from her stomach spilling her blood into the waters of the Lough and it is because of this that the Lough was given its name Lough Derg meaning dark Lough. They will tell you that she now lies on the bottom of the Lough and that Patrick succeeded in killing the devil’s mother once and for all as she has never been seen in Ireland from that day to this. However, there are others who will tell you that legend and folklore suggest that the Chaorthannach is not dead nor is she banished, she simply waits patiently for her time to come again after all she has nothing but time and she is well used to waiting silently ever ready to take advantage of any opportunity to cause chaos, famine, or war. Her children walk the earth in many different guises and her son still sits upon his throne ready to command his legions of hell.
However, I suggest that this story was thought up by those who would have you believe that all things pagan were demonic and evil. It may be that Patrick’s battle with demonic forces upon the mountain was simply a metaphor to explain his defeat of the ‘wise ones or Druids’. The word serpent was used to describe those with wisdom and cunning in the ancient world as the serpent was said to know how to avoid its enemies and catch its prey (Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves (Matt. 10:16). Unfortunately for the druids they were to succumb to the power of the ‘new religion’ and the persecution of the pagans by the Christian church.
Tony Locke graduated from G.M.I.T. Castlebar with a B.A. (Honours) degree in Heritage Studies. He lives in Westport, County Mayo. He is the author of Mayo Folk Tales.b