The late Owen Campbell in
the doorway of his family
pub at the foot
of Croagh Patrick.
(Photo: James Fennell)
There are those who hold that the gold found in the torcs and crowns and bracelets of the ancient Royal families of Ireland came from the rugged slopes of Croagh Patrick. Locals tend to play down the rumour. In the 5th century, St Patrick emulated Jesus Christ’s wilderness solitude when he spent forty days and forty nights living on the peak. His lengthy fast - and his snake-banishing, blackbird-wrestling feats - impressed the good Christians of Mayo so much that the mountain, formerly Cruachán Aigle, was renamed Croagh Patrick in his honour.
In 1905, a small chapel was built on the summit and the number of mountain-climbing pilgrims rose to more than 100,000 pilgrims a year. These days, it’s more like 30,000 which isn’t bad for a barren, windswept mountain on the west coast of Ireland. Most come on ‘Reek Sunday’, the last Sunday in July. Some are barefoot, others carry lighted candles. Some recite the ‘Hail Mary’, others belt out ‘Ave Maria’ when they reach the top. And some are just climbing for the crack.
For seventy years, Owen Campbell’s life has been inextricably linked to the mountain. Today, he is the proprietor of Campbell’s Pub, an iconic landmark on the main Westport to Louisburg road that also happens to be one of the most popular haunts for passing pilgrims in need of a thirst-quencher and somewhere to warm cold hands and creaking bones after the four-hour round trip. Croagh Patrick rises just to the south while, directly north, over John Behan’s Famine Memorial, the islands of Clew Bay are scattered like confetti.
Owen’s grandfather purchased the building a hundred years ago when it was a small thatched cottage. During the 1930s, the Campbell family extended and converted the premises into a hotel. The grand scheme faltered when Owen’s father, also called Owen, passed away suddenly in 1949. His widow continued to run the hotel, aided and abetted by her six young children, of whom Owen was the oldest.
Just quarter of a mile from the pub stand the ruins of Murrisk Abbey, founded by the Augustinians, which operated from the 1450s to the early 1800s. The Augustinians also ran the national school in Murrisk, where the young Campbells were taught. Owen’s education stood him in good stead and he remains an enthusiast for information. When not reading a book, he is engaged in conversation with his customers or leafing through The Mayo News, perhaps looking for a letter from one of his more vociferous regulars. Among his favourite regulars was the late Celtic guru Michael Poynder, a proponent of the theory that ogham (pronounced Om) was a silent language based on hand movement. ‘We used to always be arguing’, laughs Owen. ‘I had a great respect for him but we didn’t agree.’ Owen was amongst those who attended when Poynder’s ashes were scattered over the ancient tombs of Carrowkeel.
When the Campbells were young, this southern shore of Clew Bay was replete with white-washed cottages, strewn between cow tracks, potato ridges, cabbage patches and small fields of barley. Most of these cottages had vanished into the soil by the time young Owen took over the business in the 1970s. He had been pulling pints since the age of twelve. With more and more pilgrims opting to stay in Westport, he closed down the hotel and concentrated instead on the bar. Two of his brothers stayed back to help him. A third brother moved to Dublin and became an author. The two sisters married but all four Campbell boys remained bachelors.
Today, the pub comprises of a single-room with the bar running in an L-shape along two of the generously decorated walls. On one wall, an aerial photograph from the 1970s; ‘that was taken from two miles up in the sky’. On another, black and white snaps of Murrisk Abbey, pilgrims in the ascent, Peter McConville’s brass band giving it welly. Owen fires a shot of Baileys into a customers’ coffee. His brother Michael lays a plate of complimentary ham and cheese sandwiches in front of a couple seated beneath a flintlock musket and a yard glass. The beams are bedecked in gourds, clay pipes, Guinness bottle labels and police badges from around the world. There are still a few characters about such as an elderly lady who comes down every day with a bottle that Owen fills up with Guinness to take home ‘for herself and the brother’.
Local wakes still frequently take place here and there are often spontaneous outbursts of traditional music and set dancing. Amongst many fine sights Owen has seen was the night a steel-capped fire-chief from Minnesota tap-danced with his wife in the middle of the room. In the early days, Campbell’s hosted many American Wakes, farewell parties for those about to emigrate, nights filled with full excitement, anticipation and overwhelming sadness. In the 1970s, some of the returning Irish-American tourists baffled the otherwise tranquil Owen with their demands for ice in their drinks. ‘They thought we should all be like America’, he explains. ‘Ice was totally new to Ireland then but we eventually caught up with them. And I’d say we’re ahead of them now’.
To read Owen's obituary from The Irish Times, click here.
 Murrisk Abbey’s unusual roof battlements suggest its architects had some inkling of the immense challenge such monastic institutions would face with the Protestant Reformation of the coming century.
 It’s not yet 24 hours since that same regular was telling him how he’d gone to cut turf in Scotland during the 1950s and was partly paid in milk, butter and potatoes.
 Michael Poynder, an eccentric sage of ancient Celtic scientific wisdoms, is best known for his book, Pi in the Sky. Poynder was always on hand to remind people that, for instance, a month is a moon’th, representing one complete orbit of the earth by the moon. ‘He was a rare man’, says Owen. ‘He wrote some strange stuff’, says Owen. ‘He used to go on about the best place to put your bed and things like that. We used to always be arguing. I had a great respect for him but we didn’t agree!’ When Poynder died, he requested his ashes be scattered over the Carrowkeel tomb in Co Sligo. Owen was amongst those who attended the occasion.
On the subject of ashes, Owen recalls how a party of wealthy Americans, including Donald Trump arrived by helicopter to bury a departed friend alongside a bottle of whiskey on the slopes of Croagh Patrick. ‘The whiskey wasn’t there long’, says Owen, ‘and it didn’t blow away either’.
Other regular customers include the American photographer Ron Rosenstock, who runs an annual photography workshop in the area, and artist Chris Doris who, like St Patrick in 441 AD, spent 40 days and nights living in a tent on the mountain, during which time he completed over 100 paintings.
 Thomas Campbell, Solas: A Tale in Three Parts (Ogham Press, 1997).