Published on August 8th, 2016 | by Jim Lee


On a wing a prayer – Air Support for the annual Reek Sunday Pilgrimage

Reek Sunday, (or in Irish Domhnach na Cruaiche), or Garland Sunday, is an annual day of pilgrimage in Ireland which takes place on the last Sunday in July. On that day pilgrims climb Ireland’s holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick (764 metres), in County Mayo, some in their bare feet. The tradition of pilgrimage to this holy mountain stretches back over 5,000 years, from the Stone Age to the present day, without interruption. Its religious significance dates back to the time of the pagans, when people are thought to have gathered here to celebrate the beginning of harvest season. It is held in honour of Saint Patrick who, according to tradition, spent 40 days fasting on the mountain in the year 441. This year mass was celebrated in the chapel at the summit by Archbishop Charles J Brown.

With between 15,000 and 30,000 pilgrims participating each year, the risk of injury or medical emergency is high, and accordingly the Air Corps have been providing an Agusta Westland AW139 helicopter for many years, for medical evacuation and logistical support, backed up by the Coast Guard’s Sikorsky S-92A. Up to 300 personnel, from all 12 mountain rescue teams from across Ireland, were on duty at regular points up the slope, as part of a safety and emergency plan which was coordinated by members of the local Mayo Mountain Rescue team. It is the busiest day of the year for the Mountain Rescue teams, as well as the Order of Malta, who had 120 volunteers on-hand to provide support the Civil Defence and members of An Garda Síochána who were also involved in the climb. Last year the official pilgrimage was cancelled due to extreme weather conditions.

For this year’s event, held on 31st July, an Air Corps Agusta Westland AW139 ‘276’ from ‎301 Squadron was on hand to support the work of local mountain rescue and medical teams. The Air Corps deployment consisted of more than just the helicopter and its crew, but also included a team of signallers, fuelers and landing point commanders. The previous day, the aircraft provided logistical support, transporting equipment onto the Reek in anticipation of the thousands of pilgrims expected.

Air Corps deployment to Croagh Patrick

Air Corps deployment to Croagh Patrick

Somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people took part in this year’s pilgrimage and many did the climb in their bare feet. The climb takes two hours, on average, and one and a half hours to descend and not surprisingly, there were casualties, with injuries ranging from cuts and broken bones to hypothermia and cardiac arrest.

Eight people required medical assistance this year, which included a middle-aged man who suffered a suspected heart attack, at approximately 10:00, close to the saddle of the mountain. Fortunately, he was close to one of the medical tents at the time and was able to receive vital medical treatment. He was then airlifted by the Sligo based Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) helicopter, EI-ICA, callsign ‘Rescue 118’, to Castlebar where he was further stabilised, before being transferred to Galway (see video here).

A second suspected heart attack incident occurred at approximately 18:00 and that casualty was airlifted to Mayo University Hospital in Castlebar. Well done to all concerned.


About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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