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Irishman avoids prison by making pilgrimage

A pilgrim ascends Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo (Photo: PA)

An Irishman who was promised by a judge that he would be spared time in prison if he undertook a religious pilgrimage and said “a few prayers” has completed the task and raised about £2,500 for charity in the process.

Joseph McElwee had been convicted of drunken behavior and verbally abusing a police officer and faced a prison sentence. However, in March, Judge Seamus Hughes came up with a novel opportunity for McElwee to avoid prison time and ordered him to climb Ireland’s holiest mountain, Croagh Patrick in County Mayo.

Mr McElwee reported to the court this week and showed the judge photographs of himself and 13 friends on top of the roughly 2,500ft mountain where St Patrick fasted for 40 days in the fifth century.

At the time of his conviction, the judge said: “I want you to come back with evidence that you did the four stations of Croagh Patrick and say a few prayers. You then might have a different impression of County Mayo and its people.”

The police officer whom Mr McElwee insulted grew up near the mountain.

Mr McElwee told the judge he regretted what he had done and had managed to raise money for charity during the climb. The judge asked if he had found climbing the mountain therapeutic and Mr McElwee said he had.

“I hope that when you come out of a pub in the beautiful village of Rathmullan in future, you take in a deep breath of fresh air from nearby Lough Swilly and you will appreciate that gardai are there for your own protection,” the judge said.

Judge Hughes ordered half of the cash to be given to a local hospice and the other half donated to an adult mental health services programme. He asked Mr McElwee to write a note to be included with the donations explaining the circumstances.

While community service orders are common for less serious offences, it is believed to be the first time that an Irish judge has ordered someone to undertake a pilgrimage in lieu of a prison sentence. The judge’s initiative at keeping someone out of prison may prove popular with the cash-strapped Irish government, which is considering £5.1 billion in cuts to public spending.