The lockdown has hit everyone hard, some more than others. For Fearghal O’Muineachain, the virus has cut into a pastime that is something of a passion – visiting churches. Since the age of 15, Fearghal has visited more than 1,100 Catholic churches, cathedrals and Abbey’s in Ireland, as well as a handful of Protestant ones. He now runs ‘Ireland’s Churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys’ Facebook page, which carries photos and short histories of all the churches he visits.
Fearghal’s trips have taken him to all 32 counties, from Cathedrals to parish churches, travelling by bike and public transport”
“I started visiting churches when I was 15,” Fearghal says, “and when I was 18, I took trains for longer journeys. I was very interested in the architecture and the geography, that’s part of what inspired me. Normally, I would try and visit at least one Church every day, sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to visit five. Ultimately, I hope to visit every parish and church in Ireland.”
But this unlikely past time surprises many people, Fearghal explains: “People don’t expect someone my age to be interested in the Faith in this way. And I go to places that are off the beaten track, places that wouldn’t have outsiders visit them often.”
What Fearghal doesn’t mention is that he travels using only his bike and public transport to get around. As a result, his journeys can be long and physically exhausting. He once cycled a 229km round trip, from Ballincollig to Cahir and back again.
Fearghal’s trips have taken him to all 32 counties, from Cathedrals to parish churches, travelling by bike and public transport. He documents his visits with pictures, posting them to his Facebook page, ‘Ireland’s Churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys’.
“I started the page back in 2016,” he says. “I had been visiting churches since 2012 and noticed that there wasn’t a page dedicated to churches around Ireland. But I had all these photos and I wanted to share them. Few people noticed at the start, but now I get good feedback and people contact me from all over the world. I notice that whenever I post something about Waterford especially, I’ll always get a few new likes and follows!”
There are a number of different interests that have driven Fearghal’s passion. The first of these is his Catholic Faith. Born in 1994, he was raised a Catholic by his parents, attending Mass regularly as he grew up. Although it was mostly in the background then, when he went to college his faith flourished. He is a mainstay of many of the Catholic groups around Cork, where his encyclopaedic knowledge, his devotion, and good nature makes him a popular character.
He would collect them to copy out hand-drawn replicas and as part of his transition year he worked with Ordinance Survey Ireland”
“I was very lucky my friends went to Mass back then, so I never really had an issue going. I was an altar server and then a minister of the word, and a good chaplain at school kept me in touch with the faith,” Fearghal says. “But it became more important to me when I went to college. I was inspired by the example of the Catholics I met. It led me to join the youth groups around Cork, and I still go to a lot of them, like Youth 2000.”
For Fearghal, churches help him to keep in contact with and broaden his faith. Prayers and devotions differ from church to church and help him to find inspiration.
“It’s hard to pick out anything specific,” he says. “I find churches from the golden era of Irish Church architecture especially beautiful. These would be churches from the 19th century. Many have beautiful statues and windows, and the Gothic architecture is very impressive.”
Fearghal’s trips around the country combine a number of his interests: faith, geography, architecture and cartography. Since he was very young, Fearghal loved drawing maps. He would collect them to copy out hand-drawn replicas and as part of his transition year he worked with Ordinance Survey Ireland. Armed with a new laptop and the freedom to move around, he was able to produce more and more detailed maps.
“Drawing maps is a passion I’ve had since a very young age,” he explains. “When we gave presents to teachers, I would give them maps of their home place. I’ve drawn maps of Cork, Belfast, as well as local maps like for Ballincollig. Right now, I’m keeping busy drawing maps out the back garden. I’m also planning drawings of St Mary’s Dominican church and the North Cathedral here in Cork. Normally, I draw them using information from the internet, but if I can’t find out anything online, I visit the places myself and mark the major features.”
Fearghal continues to post photos of trips he made before the lockdown. For now, however, he’s confined to a five-kilometre radius, praying that the pandemic might be ended swiftly.
“Typically, I would take a trip outside of Cork at least once a month,” he explains. “I try to go every Monday if I can. April 2020 was the first month since 2011 that I haven’t travelled beyond the Cork borders. It will also be the first month in my memory that I haven’t been into Cork City Centre as it was beyond my 2km radius.
“I miss the trips very badly now we’re under lockdown. I’ve been going for two walks a day around my two-kilometre radius, visiting a very nice grotto to Our Lady in Curraheen. But it’s hard to keep positive and keep the faith. Please God, once all this is over, I hope to get back to making my visits.”