A pilgrimage steeped in religious, cultural, historical, and political significance writes Jason Osborne
A group of seven intrepid walkers set out beneath an overcast sky, guided by former BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent Martina Purdy. Drops of rain threatened to sour the occasion, but in keeping with the example of the saint they were following, they trusted God and pressed ahead anyway. Their faith was rewarded as the rain relented and allowed them to continue the walk without concern.
A new series of ‘camino’ style pilgrim walks were launched this month by the St Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, Co. Down. New pilgrim guides Martina Purdy and Elaine Kelly, former barrister, made headlines in 2014 when they left their high-powered careers behind in favour of religious life with the Sisters of Adoration. However, 2019 saw the closure of their convent due to too small a congregation size to satisfy the Catholic Church’s governance standards. Not content to leave the story there, the former sisters developed this project during lockdown that others might encounter the spirituality they cherish.
“This is an exciting new project which was designed during the lockdown to encourage people to come and enjoy the countryside, and to experience the rich legacy of our patron saint and the beauty and history of Downpatrick,” said Dr Tim Campbell, centre director.
Launched on the afternoon of July 1, 10 pilgrims signed up for the inaugural walk but the number reduced to seven the night before it was to take place, a fact Martina took with good humour: “Seven is God’s number, so that’s good.”
Out of the seven people who set out that evening, four finished, with three making it three quarters of the way. The rugged nature of the terrain is not to be underestimated. “Not for the faint-hearted, to do the whole thing in one day,” Martina replied when asked about the reaction to the unveiled route, “but if you’re a walker and you enjoy walking, yes, it’s tough, it’s a challenge, but you can do it.”
Walkers enjoy a range of options here. Wednesdays and Thursdays are divided into morning and afternoon walks, with the morning walk stretching 8km (5 miles), and the afternoon walk spanning 13km (8 miles). “It’s a matter of personal taste,” Martina says.
“If you’re reasonably fit and you want a more pedestrian walk with a pleasant morning and then lunch, that’s the morning session. We’re learning as we go on,” Martina concludes. The possibility of doing the entire 22km (13 miles) in one go is available, but it’s recommended those looking to take on the challenge are very fit or avid walkers.
What can pilgrims expect to see along the walk? St Patrick’s Way is designed to take in famous landmarks and monuments intimately associated with the patron of the land. Martina’s group expressed their approval at the inclusion of so much Irish heritage: “The feedback was that people loved Inch Abbey. They found it a very tranquil place, I mean, there was 800 years of prayer there. That doesn’t just go away. Inch Abbey is very impressive.” Inch Abbey is one of seven major sites of religious and cultural importance along the route, and it continues to attract much admiration. “There’s a sense of prayer and peace there, and people were really taken with the fact that you could still see the wall with the preserved Gothic windows behind the high altar.” Despite the age and importance of the surroundings, Martina was still aware of the small touches that graced their group on its opening walk: “Inch Abbey is beside the water, and the Lord sent nine or 10 swans to make the day,” she laughed. “You usually only see one or two.” The Quoile River also proved popular with the walkers, offering natural beauty alongside the man-made sights.
Inch Abbey is not the only site along the way of major religious importance; Saul Church awaits pilgrims too. This church was built in 1932 in acknowledgement of St Patrick’s first church in Ireland, on that very spot. It is understood that in the year 432, St Patrick’s boat was swept ashore and he swiftly converted the local chieftain. This chieftain offered Patrick a barn for shelter, from which he went out and preached the message of Jesus Christ extensively until his death in 461. Another popular site sprang up here as a result of this history – Paddy’s Barn. The footsore travellers proceeded to this famous waystation under Martina’s direction for lunch to wrap up their walk.
Elaine Kelly operates the other half of the walks, and she’s had opportunity to guide the pilgrims since they opened for business, too. She delighted in sharing St Patrick’s Roman Catholic church with the walkers. Of particular interest was the mosaic which this church boasts, depicting six scenes from the life of St Patrick. What’s more, the church also contains a beautiful rose window, which Martina explains “is an example of Gothic French architecture”. Between natural and man-made sights, pilgrims can be assured that their appetite for beauty will be satisfied.
Martina shared one of her own favourites from the route: “Personally, I love Slieve Patrick because you get this incredible view.” Those who sign up can be sure they’ll get the full taste of pilgrimage: “It’s an experience. You’re not going for a country stroll, you’re going for the experience, the challenge,” Martina asserts. While the range of options presented to those interested caters for all abilities, there is an element of challenge to all routes. “Elaine calls it the walk of your life,” Martina jokes, “but I say you get the sleep of your life after it.” This inclusion of ‘challenge’ is important for any walk that intends to model itself after a pilgrimage. Historically, pilgrimages were undertaken with the intention of drawing closer to God, and Christianity has never hidden the fact that struggle, suffering, and challenge were a necessary part of life with God. Ireland is a land designed for pilgrimage with barren peaks like Croagh Patrick and ascetic sanctuaries like Lough Derg. Patrick realised this, popularising many of Ireland’s harshest pilgrimage points.
Martina and Elaine’s pilgrims didn’t go out to meet these challenges unprepared. “The Dean of Down, Rev. Henry Hull, blessed everyone as we left. He did Patrick’s Breastplate, which is part of the pilgrim’s passport we’ve designed,” Martina explained, Patrick’s Breastplate being a prayer of global popularity among the faithful.
An important aspect of these walks is their ecumenical nature. They’re open to those of all faiths and none, in keeping with the tradition of the area. “There’s great ecumenism now in Downpatrick,” Martina says, “but in 1932 on the 1500th anniversary of the landing, there was a bit of a rivalry between the Catholics and the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland has the site of the first church and they refurbished it, the bishops of the Church of Ireland laying the foundation stone in 1932. The Catholics were a bit nervous about that, so they renamed the local hill from Slieve William to Slieve Patrick, and they built the largest monument to St Patrick in the world on top of it.”
While Downpatrick and its numerous sites of importance are steeped in religious, cultural, historical, and political significance, it’s not without its quirks. The statue at the top of Slieve Patrick, for instance, represents a “great Christian compromise,” according to Martina. On it, you have the Roman Catholic garments of the archbishop of Armagh and the face of the Church of Ireland bishop of the time. If that wasn’t enough hidden meaning, one shoe is a sandal, while the other is a boot, modelled after those the quarryman who built the statue wore. There is much for the attentive traveller to discover on the way.
As mentioned, Downpatrick is steeped in Christianity, history, and beauty, yet so much of it passes beneath our notice. St Patrick’s Way aims to change that little by little. “Along the way, I do talk about John de Courcy,” Martina mentions. Few people know of this man or his actions, which changed the political, religious, and cultural landscape in the North enormously. He conquered large territories, building forts and enabling the religious to build abbeys during his time there. In fact, Inch Abbey itself was founded by de Courcy. The traces of influential figures such as de Courcy are passed over every day, but St Patrick’s Way can only be fully appreciated with at least some understanding of just how much history, politics, culture, and religion has gone into making the land what it is. Fortunately, the tour guides are well equipped to grant those they take with them a glimpse into this long forgotten world.
“The history, the politics, and the Christianity are all in the mix,” Martina says. So too is the language. An Irish language version of the walk will be running on Sundays, beginning with Sunday July 12. This is a Christian walk from Saul Church to St Patrick’s grave led by Irish language enthusiast, Jean O’Neill. And it is hoped that Irish language enthusiasts turn out to join her. You don’t need to be fluent in the Irish language to participate fully in this alternative; you need only have an interest in it and the way it relates to the land and all it contains.
Linda Ervine, a prominent Irish speaker, launched the walk on the 12th and walked part of the way with the group. The emphasis on Irish is important to Martina and Elaine: “The beauty of the Irish language walk is that the place names in Irish unlock the history of the landscape.” A small insight into this is that the origin of the name ‘Saul’, with reference to Saul Church, is ‘sabhall’, which means ‘barn’ in Gaelic. Saul Church is built upon the site of the barn that the chieftain gifted St Patrick, but a knowledge of the Irish language provides a more direct path to the acquisition of that knowledge.
Martina says: “Patrick succeeded because he knew the language, he understood the people having been enslaved here, and he understood the culture. And so the Irish language is very tied up in the success of Patrick’s mission.” St Patrick’s Way combines all the strands held closest to the Irish heart: God, the land, and the language. It seeks to help us rediscover the sense of Irish mysticism right under our noses. Elaine adds: “St Patrick’s Way is a journey of self-discovery. Walking in the footsteps of the great Apostle of Ireland, we taste the mysticism of Patrick, the great treasures he gave to the world, and we imbibe the beauty and history of the Christian faith. St Patrick’s Way will go some way to help feed the malnutrition of our souls!”
With the Covid-19 pandemic still looming over our heads, turning our gaze back to our own shores is worth considering. Martina shares that herself and Elaine were due to walk the Camino in Spain this May, but when their plans were cancelled, they found an “incredible alternative on our doorstep”. As the tourism sector reels from the blow this year has dealt it, we must consider how we can help those closest to home. The St. Patrick’s Way pilgrim walk is an effort bringing together multiple sources of Irish effort – from The Saint Patrick Centre itself, to Phoenix Natural Gas, who supplied the high viz jackets, to Paddy’s Barn, and more, you’d be doing well to find so many sources of Irish renewal in one place.
It appears as though the walk is set to go from strength to strength into the future, too. Complying fully with social distancing guidelines, sixteen is the maximum party number they’re currently allowing on each outing.
As we move out into an uncertain world, the one certainty is that spiritual nourishment will be more important than ever. The Christianity, the nature, and the experienced and informative guides seek to provide just that. Based on the review of the first group of triumphant pilgrims, the ruins of Inch Abbey, Saul Church, and the stirring panorama from the peak of Slieve Patrick go a long way towards undoing the stress and anxiety that the last couple of months have built up among us. Both Martina and Elaine are hopeful that their latest contribution to Ireland’s spiritual landscape will go some way towards relighting the fire than St Patrick set burning so many years ago.