Ireland’s Pilgrim Pathways

Ireland’s Pilgrim Pathways
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 7
John G. O’Dwyer

In times of great uncertainty, we need reassuring anchors to cling to. Links with our ancestors who survived even greater travails become increasingly important and a walk along one of Ireland’s pilgrim paths is the perfect way to reconnect in this way.

Until recently, few modern-day pilgrims considered these sacred trails an alternate to the hugely popular Spanish Camino, so almost all Irish people travelled abroad in search of pilgrim walking.  In recent years, this has begun to change. Attracted by their mystical resonance, ever increasing numbers of Irish people are now returning to take up the pilgrim baton and follow the sacred trails of our forefathers.

So, whatever your spiritual convictions, you are urged to get both feet working, as soon as possible, on one of the paths listed below. Remember, that if you live within 20km of a path you can do so from June 8, otherwise you must wait until July.

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, Co Cork
Gougane Barra
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Authentic and well laid out pilgrim path that is justifiably referred to as the “Camino of Cork”. It accurately recreates St Finbarr’s journey from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra where the Saint founded a monastery and later went on to become Bishop of Cork.  This pilgrim route offers a magnificent 2-day journey crossing 3 mountains and 4 valleys. Memorable views over Bantry Bay, the Cork coastline and a rich archaeological history are only overshadowed by the spectacular descent into Gougane Barra.

Description:  Mountain route suitable for well-equipped pilgrims with good fitness levels, who are used to walking in a mountain environment.

Getting there: From Cork City take the N22 to Macroom and the R596 to Drimoleague.

Start: Top of the Rock, Drimoleague Finish: St Finbarrr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra

Distance: 37km  Time: 2 days

Turas Cholm Cille, Co Donegal
Glencolumbkille Church Photo: Sarah Murphy
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Genuinely unsanitised pilgrimage marked by pagan standing stones that were later Christianised and then adroitly knotted together to form the Stations of the Cross. To complete the full pilgrim circuit, it is necessary to obtain the services of a local guide.

For information on obtaining a guide contact 074 9730248 or email: oideasgael@eircom.net.  No guide is needed to follow the first part of the route to St Columbkille’s Well.

Official guided pilgrim walk of the route takes place each year on the feast of St Columbkille, which is June 9.

Description: Low-level walking but trekking boots are essential as the terrain is rough underfoot in places and the route crosses marshland.

Getting there:  From Donegal town, follow the N56 to Killybegs and the R263 to Glencolumbkille.

Start/Finish: The Protestant Church, Glencolumbkille

Distance: 9km Time: 3.5 hours (full route)

St Kevin’s Road, Co Wicklow
Upper lake, Glendalough, Wicklow Photo: Rob Hurson
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Offers a golden opportunity to weave your way along St. Kevin´s Road to Glendalough, while walking in the footsteps of our ancient ancestors and connecting with the awe-inspiring beauty of the Wicklow uplands.

Description: Moderately demanding trail following well maintained tracks and boardwalks with one hill leading up to the Wicklow Gap. After this, the route descends benignly to the finish at the ancient monastic site of Glendalough. Some areas are quite boggy, so be sure to wear boots and bring waterproofs.  Generally, it presents no objective dangers or special navigational difficulties.

Getting there:  Take the N81 from Dublin or the R411 from Naas through Ballymore Eustace to the small Wicklow village of Hollywood.

Start: Trailhead is located close by Hollywood Community Centre  Finish: Glendalough

Distance: 30 km  Time: 6 hours  Highest elevation: Wicklow Gap, 460m

*Recommended Reading Glendalough: History, Monuments & Legends

Kilcommon Pilgrim Loop, Co Tipperary

Ancient path meandering the slopes of a mythical mountain and offering a tangible connection to how the people of Slieve Felim have expressed the need for spirituality since pagan times.  Provides an opportunity to follow pre-Christian trails on Mother Mountain, once used for journeys of homage to the goddess Eilbhe. Later, they were stoically footed as mass paths by generations of upland people journeying to the Mass Rock at Laghile. Ideal family walk requiring just moderate fitness.

Description: Easy route following well-maintained tracks with a total ascent of just 170m. It can, however, be wet in places around the Bilboa River so waterproof footwear is a definite advantage.

Getting there: From Thurles, take the R498 and the R503 (signposted Limerick). After 18km go right at a sign for Kilcommon and the village is 2kms further.

Start/finish: Kilcommon Community Centre.

Distance: 7km Time: 2.5 hours

St. Declan’s Way, Tipperary/Waterford
Ardmore St. Declan’s Stone
Photo: Andreas F. Borchert
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Imagine celebrating Ireland’s national holiday, not in March but in July. It could have happened for July 24 is the feast day for a saint who, most likely, preceded St Patrick as a Christian missionary in Ireland. St Declan is now set to reclaim his rightful inheritance with the re-opening of Ireland’s longest pilgrim path in his honour. The new trail links royal Cashel with monastic Ardmore while touching upon such jewels as Cahir Castle, Mount Melleray Abbey and deeply historic Lismore along the way.

Description: A long-distance walk suitable for well-equipped pilgrims who are used to walking long distances. It crosses the Knockmealdown Mountains, so walking boots and protective clothing are essential for this stage.

Start/finish: Rock of Cashel, Co Tipperary or Ardmore Monastic Site, Co Waterford.

Distance: 115km  Time: 5 to 7 days

Cosán na Naomh, Co Kerry
Cosán na Naomh, Co Kerry

Isolated by mountain and ocean, the weather-sculpted lands beyond Dingle carry an inescapable feeling of regressing in time. This is particularly true of the ancient Cosán na Naomh penitential route that winds through ancient fields and fuchsia rich lanes from the pilgrims landing place at Ventry beach to Mount Brandon.

Description: Path is at relatively low level but there are some challenging underfoot conditions and one steep ascent and descent, so walkers need to be well equipped and shod. Walking poles useful for the  descent. Very fit walkers can complete the full pilgrim journey to Mount Brandon summit by setting off reasonably early.

Start: Cosán na Naomh trailhead, Ventry Beach Finish: Ballybrack carpark

Getting there:  Follow the R559 west from Dingle and swing left for Ventry beach carpark.

Distance: 18km  Time: 5 hours or 8.5 hours, if including Mount Brandon

Cnoc na dTobar, Co Kerry

Cnoc na dTobar has been a sacred pilgrim site since prehistoric and medieval times and was the location of ancient mountain assemblies, especially the festival of Lughnasa, where harvest was celebrated on the mountain’s summit.  Route follows 14 Stations of the Cross built in 1885 by Canon Brosnan, parish priest of Cahersiveen. Summit views are magnificent. They offer the Kerry Mountains, Dingle Bay, the West Cork hills and the Skellig islands.  From the summit, walkers can either retrace their steps or continue along the mountain ridge by following an ancient mass path to Kells.

Description:  High level walk to a mountain summit requiring warm clothes, good comfortable walking shoes, a packed lunch and plenty of drinks. Walkers participate at own risk and remember navigation skills may be required in mist.

Getting there: Turn off the N70/Ring of Kerry road, to cross the bridge in Cahersiveen. Take the first right and second left. Pass St Fursey’s Well. Park at the car park on the right where parking costs €3.00.

Distance: 5 km Time: 4.5 hours or 6 hours  Ascent: 650m

Tochar Phadraig, Co Mayo

Tochar Phadraig is the genuine pilgrim article and long pre-dates the Spanish Camino. It was originally a prehistoric druidical pathway with many resonances still surviving from its pagan past.  Christianised by St Patrick, it remains stubbornly untamed and much as it was for medieval pilgrims. Among those who have walked it is former President of Ireland Mary McAleese who afterwards wrote as follows; “Thank you for making our visit to Ballintubber Abbey a very special experience. Walking the Tochar was every bit as wonderful and prayerful as the Camino”.

Description: The path is at relatively low level, but here are some challenging underfoot conditions so walkers need good footwear and adequate protective clothing. The final ascent over the shoulder of Croagh Patrick can prove tiring after a long day.

Getting there: Ballintubber Abbey, located off the N84, 14km from Castlebar.

Distance: 34 km  Registration fee: €10 (payable to Ballintubber Abbey)

Start: Ballintubber Abbey  Finish: Murrisk car park

Information: 094-9030934 | Web: www.ballintubberabbey.ie

*Recommended Reading Going Up The Holy Mountain

Sli Mór, Co Offaly

Initially cycling may seem an oddly incongruous mode of conveyance for a pilgrim path.  but pilgrimage traditionally involves all non-mechanised transport and cyclists are commonly encountered on Europe’s penitential trails, along with an assortment of mules, horses and donkeys. So, in the case of the ancient Slí Mór, participants have a choice of either walking or cycling to Clonmacnoise which was followed by many scholars and pilgrims from Europe seeking enlightenment.

Description: The route follows much of the great Esker Riada ridge on quiet roads that afford absorbing views. It contains little to challenge even the most casual cyclist or walker.

Start: Ballycumber, Co Offaly which lies on the R436 between Clara and Ferbane

Distance: 24.5km  Time: 1.5 hour leisurely cycle or a 5 hour walk

Boyne Valley Camino, Co Louth
St Peter’s Church Nave 1, Drogheda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pilgrimage has been defined as a mindful journey to a place of spiritual significance and Mellifont Abbey, is certainly of profound significance. Founded in 1142, as the first Irish Cistercian Abbey, its coming heralded the demise of the long-established Celtic Church as the Cistercian Order spread nationwide.  Now the ancient pilgrim route linking Mellifont with the medieval port of Drogheda has been revived.

Description: Trail follows the River Boyne before making its way through the serene woodlands of the Townley Estate and then meandering quiet lanes to Mellifont. A separate return route gives a total walk of over 25km. This now counts towards completing the Spanish Camino when following the traditional Irish pilgrim route from the port of A Coruna to Santiago.

Note: Since the walk is not yet fully waymarked, you will need the detailed map that is available for download from: caminosociety.com

Start/finish: St Peter’s Church, West Street, Drogheda

Start/finish: St Peter’s Church, West Street, Drogheda

Distance: 26km (to Mellifont and back) Time: 6 hours

Slemish, Co Antrim
Slemish mountain, Co Antrim

Initially the Slemish pilgrim path leads upwards at a sympathetic angle. Soon however, the smooth grasslands are behind and you will find yourself scrambling skywards over disobliging basalt.  The advantage of a steep gradient is that height comes rapidly to gain a magnificent 360-degree view. It includes the great sweep of the Antrim plateau and beyond Ireland’s most evocative coastline you will see the gleam of the ancient Sea of Moyle. All you need is a small stretch of the imagination and pre-Christian farmers are once again tending their flocks in the valleys below.

Croagh Patrick seems, however, to have cornered the market as St Patrick’s devotional mountain, for there is nothing to represent the strong links between this striking eminence and Ireland’s national apostle.

Description: A short and enthralling route, but be warned; the going is quite steep in places and slippery where wet. It requires the skills of easy grade scrambling to overcome some of the difficulties on ascent and descent while the path is ill defined in places. Boots should be worn and walking poles could be of help on the descent.

Getting there: From the Ballymena bypass take the A42 to Broughshane; Slemish is well signposted from Broughshane.

Distance: About 2km (Ascent: 200m)  Time: Allow a little over an hour of walking time to complete both ascent and descent.

Maumeen Pilgrim Path, Co Galway
Maumeen chapel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

St Patrick is reputed to have come this way in the 5th century and immediately created a strong pilgrim tradition by blessing Connemara from where he stood at the head of the pass. Maumeen has ever since remained an important pilgrim site. There are all the usual incidentals of pilgrimage; an oratory, an outdoor altar, a rocky cleft where St Patrick reputedly slept, a statue of the saint and Stations of the Cross.

Getting there: From Galway take the N59 for Clifden. Beyond Maam go right following the Slí Chonamara for about 3km to Maumeen carpark, which is located on the right-hand side of the road.

Description: Unchallenging outing on well-defined tracks and quiet back roads.  For the full traverse of Maumeen (ascending the west side and descending to the east) it is best to leave a second car at Keanes Pub, Maum Bridge. If you wish to shorten your walk you can also leave a car in a small carpark above Cur, near the end of the northeast track from Maumeen.

Distance: 9km Time: About 3.5 hours for the full walk.

Lough Derg, Co Donegal
Lough Derg
Photo: Eugene Lang

Timeless pilgrim route far removed from roads, houses and other signs of modern day living that still has many echoes of its early Christian past reaching back to the time of St Patrick.  Route follows the concluding stage of one of Europe’s great medieval paths that led to Lough Derg. It concludes at a cross marking the disembarkation point for the Augustinian Friary that once existed on Saints island, Lough Derg.

Description: Easy trail following pilgrim path way markers on well-maintained forest tracks with nothing that could really be referred as a hill along the way.  No special clothing other than normal outdoor wear required.

Getting there: From Pettigoe village, which lies on the Fermanagh/Donegal border, follow the R233. This leads directly to the pilgrimage start point at Station Island Pier.

Start/finish: Station Island Pier

Distance: 12km (return) Time: 3 hours

The Irish Pilgrim Passport

Why not mark down the coming summer to begin completing the Irish Pilgrim Passport? The passport requires that participants walk 5 Irish pilgrim paths with a total distance of 125km and produce evidence of completing each, in order to receive a pilgrim stamp, which is available locally. When fully stamped, the passport is forwarded to Ballintubber Abbey to obtain the Teastas (completion certificate) similar to the Compostela for the Spanish Camino. The paths that must be completed are: St Kevin’s Way, Cnoc na dTobar, Cosán na Naomh, Tóchar Phádraig, and St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path.  Further information on where to obtain a passport is available from pilgrimpath.ie.

If you would like the camaraderie of walking a pilgrim path as part of a group, booking is now open for the two-day walk along the St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path which takes place on August 22/23, 2020. Further information from pilgrimpath.ie

John G. O’Dwyer has recently publishedWild Stories from the Irish Uplands‘ with Currach Books.