Among the pilgrims on Croagh Patrick last month was a Belgian who’d walked three months to get there, writes Greg Daly
Santiago de Compostela is a fashionable destination for Irish pilgrims year-in-year-out nowadays, with a record 7,548 Irish pilgrims collecting their ‘Compostela’ from the cathedral offices last year. In the Camino’s medieval heyday, however, huge numbers of Irish pilgrims would make the arduous journey to the Spanish shrine only in Jubilee years, when the feast of St James, July 25, fell on a Sunday.
It’s a curious coincidence that this would be a major pilgrimage day in Ireland itself, with the annual ‘Reek Sunday’ pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick taking place on the last Sunday in July.
For 66-year-old Belgian Luc Abel, who first visited Mayo when cycling in the area in mid-July 1975 and who finished an 80-day walk to Croagh Patrick last month, the overlap of the two pilgrimages could not be ignored forever.
“There is a holy year at Compostela each time July 25 falls on a Sunday, but also St Patrick’s Reek Day is on the last Sunday of July, so sometimes they are together, and in 1976 that was the case,” he tells The Irish Catholic. “I had some problems in 1976, and I was in hospital for quite a long time, starting on July 25, 1976. I didn’t know about St James and Compostela at that point, but later on I found out.”
His first pilgrimage had been to the Eternal City, prompted by a TV programme he had seen about two Germans walking to Rome.
“I saw on TV that a German couple were walking from Germany to Rome, and I thought ‘what a crazy idea in this time, walking to Rome’,” he says, adding that a few striking coincidences subsequently caught his attention and prompted him to follow in their footsteps.
“I decided that I would go to Rome. I went to Rome without money – well, I had money but not enough, so I slept in priests’ houses and in school classrooms. It was the hardest pilgrimage, the toughest one, but the best,” he says, adding that the journey took him 55 days all told.
“It was long before pilgrimages existed – they existed all the time, of course, but in the ‘60s and the ‘70s people didn’t go on walking pilgrimages, they could buy a car and go by car, so pilgrimages walked by foot didn’t happen,” he continues.
His next walking pilgrimage was as part of a large international group walking from Warsaw to Częstochowa over 10 days in 1981, and it was not to be until 1989 that he did his second long pilgrimage, walking alone for 80 days from Antwerp to Santiago.
“When I walked to Compostela in ‘89, I walked in the winter – I started on January 1, and I finished in Compostela on March 21, just before Easter, and I saw almost nobody. In France and Belgium nobody knew about Compostela, or just a little bit, at that time,” he says.
Anyone who’s seen the film of The Way should remember the lady at the first hostel, in Roncesvalles, who tells Martin Sheen’s character that she has never personally walked the Camino. “When I was young, I was too busy, and now that I am old, I am too tired,” she says.
The line originally comes from Jack Hitt’s 1994 Camino memoir Off the Road, and was spoken to him by Madame Jeanne Debril, a one-woman predecessor of the pilgrim office in the French Pyrennean town of St Jean Pied de Port.
Luc Abel says she was indeed “famously severe” and that she was shocked to see him arriving at St Jean in February: “She said ‘Oh my God, a pilgrim now at this time! In a few years they will be coming all year round!’”
Back then, of course, barely a few hundred people walked the Camino to Santiago, whereas nowadays more than 300,000 do so each year, although Luc points out that about a third of those do just the last 100km of the Way.
“I think maybe the hype of Compostela is a bit over,” he muses, noting that the numbers arriving before Easter this year are slightly down on last year’s numbers. “It is due to its own publicity and success, because the Camino Frances is – I don’t know, I wouldn’t recommend people to go on the Camino Frances unless it is winter or something. In the summer it will be a carnival.”
In 1990 he had attempted to follow his Camino to Santiago by walking to Jerusalem, thus managing a ‘hat trick’ of great medieval pilgrimages, but though over 131 days he managed to get as far as Thessaloniki in Greece he was forced to stop. “Sometimes it is like that,” he says. Long afterwards, though, he heard about the convergence of Santiago Jubilee Years with Reek Sunday, which sparked an interest in him in St Patrick.
“I read about St Patrick and I thought, when I’m on my pension one of the things I’m going to do is walk with St Patrick,” he says. “That’s what I’m doing now – I’m retired three years. Two years ago I walked from Gibraltar to Compostela in two months, and last year I made it from Belgium to Mont St Michel in Finisterre in two months. Now it’s St Patrick, and next year something else, maybe. I don’t know yet!”
Eighty days of walking is quite the achievement, and a look at Luc’s route will bring home just how impressive it is: he set off from his home in Mechelen in Flanders, making his way across Belgium and into France from where he took ship for England and walked to London. Onward then across England into Wales, from where he took the ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare and headed north, following the Wicklow Way and carrying on to Dublin and Drogheda.
Newry then, and St Patrick’s Way, before heading through Monaghan and Cavan to Carrick on Shannon, Roscommon, and across Mayo, via Knock to Croagh Patrick, which he reached a week or so ahead of Reek Sunday.
Along the way he made a point, he says, of visiting the small Monaghan village of Tydavnet, twinned with his mother’s home town of Geel, and the site of a holy well linked with St Dympna.
“My mother was born in Geel in Belgium,” he explains. “Geel is known for curing the insane, for people who have mental problems, and that comes from St Dympna, who came from Ireland.”
St Dympna’s story is an extraordinary one, and one rarely told nowadays despite the Irish saint’s role as a patron not merely for the mentally ill, but for victims of incest.
“Her father was a pagan king, like there were many kings in Ireland at that time, and her mother became Catholic,” Luc explains. “But then the mother died, and the king was in sorrow and told he had to remarry. He said ‘yes, if I find a woman as beautiful as my wife, then I’ll remarry’.”
His advisers and men looked everywhere for a suitable bride but to no avail, Luc continues. “And then the father saw his daughter and thought ‘she is as beautiful as my wife’, so he set his mind on his daughter, and that’s not good.”
The princess escaped with her confessor, Fr Gerebran, the two making their way to Flanders and settling in Geel, where they cared for the sick but were found by spies working for the king.
“Then the king travelled to Flanders. He found his daughter there, and asked her again would she marry him. She refused, and then he beheaded her,” Luc says, adding that Gerebran was similarly slain.
A highlight of his Irish pilgrimage, he adds, was spotting stained glass windows about St Dympna in the cathedral in Armagh”
The victim of an insane father, St Dympna became regarded as a saint for the mentally ill, and Geel became a shrine that attracted psychiatric patients from the Middle Ages on, with the town pioneering a method of care that still is used today, with patients boarding with families while being cared for in the local hospital.
“It’s the only place in the world that psychiatric patients stay with families – even today, patients that are not dangerous stay there,” Luc says, adding that his grandfather’s family had had a few ‘guests’ back in the day, integrated into the family while receiving professional help at the hospital.
Despite his family connections with Geel, however, Luc had never really had much to do with it until he met a man about 10 years ago who had walked from Geel to Tydavnet in connection with St Dympna.
“I met him about 10 years ago, he had already been to Compostela and Rome and then told me he had also walked to Ireland. That’s the first time I ever met anybody who had walked to Ireland,” he says.
While Luc had been surprised to discover just how small Tydavnet was when he got there, he says, he was grateful for the welcome he received in the village. “I was well received in Tydavnet, where in the pub a lady offered me a sandwich, when normally they don’t have food, and I didn’t even have to pay, so that was very nice,” he says.
A highlight of his Irish pilgrimage, he adds, was spotting stained glass windows about St Dympna in the cathedral in Armagh – with St Patrick’s Way from Armagh to Downpatrick being a highlight in its own right, of course.
St Dympna, he stresses, is not the only direct Irish link with his area. “Flanders was Christianised by Irish monks,” he says, “like St Rumbold, perhaps the first archbishop in Flanders.”
Whether St Rumbold was Irish or Scottish isn’t quite clear, but certainly he seems to have been trained as a priest in Ireland, as were many Scottish and Welsh-born missionaries in early medieval Flanders, Luc says, noting that Mechelen’s cathedral is dedicated to Rumbold and that St Willibrord, the Northumbrian ‘apostle to the Frisians’, had studied in Ireland.
It seems fitting, then, that Luc has quite literally tried to walk in the footsteps of the saints who brought the Faith to his homeland, and he clearly finds it deeply enriching, even if walking pilgrimages have changed dramatically over his lifetime.
“I think walking is one of the ways that you see a lot. You’re on your own, you feel your body, and things can happen. You concentrate on just walking – you don’t have to do anything except walk and find a place to sleep,” he says.
“Of course nowadays it’s completely different from what I used to do. When I started in ‘76 I had a book which was all the maps of Europe, and Belgium was just two pages. Now I use my smartphone. I don’t have, normally, any maps with me. I only have a smartphone and a back-up of course,” he says, showing how the Maps.Me app on his phone enables him to spot the smallest of routes over fields and wherever he has stayed along the way.
A stickler for walking every step of the way, he has no time for the notion of taking the occasional lift, regardless of how tempting that may be.
“That’s not my idea. You do it all, or you give up,” he says. “I’ve met people who have been in the rain and a car stopped and offered a lift, and said they couldn’t refuse that. Of course you can refuse that – that’s the hardest part – or else you say ‘yes, I’ll come along’, but the next day you come back.”
Admitting that this is not the only way of doing such pilgrimages, he is adamant nonetheless that it is so for him. “There are no rules. Everybody does it like it fits for him, but when I say I do it walking I walk it all,” he says. “You meet people on the Camino who when it is hard they take a taxi or send on their luggage or – when I do it I do it the whole way. It is the only way for me.”
The modern pilgrim experience is very different to that of medieval pilgrims, and Luc thinks that trying to emulate his forerunners too closely is futile. “You cannot do it like they did in the Middle Ages. Some people say ‘I want to do the original way’, but there’s no original way,” he says.
“Of course, you make it as hard as you want. I did it in my time on the roads, because of course I had no maps. I had that book with all Europe, and sometimes I asked people in Italy what is the best way to Rome. That way, the said: the highway. Then I took the national roads to Rome.”
As a seasoned pilgrim he travels lightly, of course, carrying a sleeping bag and a small mattress but eschewing a tent in favour of staying in hostels or using AirBnB. Even then, however, he finds he has little use for either. They’re there more as precautions than anything else.
July 20 was his last day of walking on this pilgrimage, with him climbing Croagh Patrick after a rest day in a very rainy Westport. He spent the next few days in Donegal and Sligo, before returning to the Reek to climb it for a second time, this time with 9,000 others. The two climbs were very different experiences, he says.
“The first time it was great and the weather was beautiful, and I thought it was almost finished – I’ve done it! The second time on Reek Sunday I was rather early, so at nine o’clock I was at the Mass there and it was raining. It was another Croagh Patrick I saw then,” he says. “Of course, nobody knows that you have done so many months’ walking to get there, so I was just an ordinary pilgrim like everybody else.”
Nobody except himself and God, of course. Not, as St Thomas More says in A Man for All Seasons, a bad audience!