Modern-day pilgrims are rediscovering our ancient pathways

The pilgrim paths of Ireland are once again echoing to pilgrim footfall as a new imitative offers a chance for Irish people and overseas visitors to rediscover their pilgrim inheritance.

The Mid-Tipperary Hillwalkers on the Pilgrim Path, above Gougane Barra in Co Cork.

Until recently, few modern-day pilgrims considered Ireland’s sacred trails an alternate to the hugely popular Spanish Camino.

This remained true despite strong evidence that substantial numbers of medieval penitents journeyed to Lough Derg, Mount Brandon, Glendalough, Skellig Michael and Croagh Patrick.

Ireland’s sacred trails had almost totally slipped into the mists of history.

Then a new organisation, titled Pilgrim Paths Ireland, was formed in 2013 by volunteers from the country’s sacred trails.

Immediately declaring itself non-denominational, its stated objective was to promote re-engagement with Ireland’s medieval pilgrim paths while extending a welcome to walkers of all religious backgrounds and none.

Its first ventures were the National Pilgrim Paths Day of 2014 and 2015. Conceived as unifying events reaching back to a time when there was but one Christian Church, the invitation to rediscover almost forgotten pilgrim paths greatly exceeded expectations.

Organisers declared themselves pleasantly surprised when 3,000 people came out to reacquaint themselves with Ireland’s mystical trails.

Now, Pilgrim Paths Ireland has come up with another initiative. Its new passport offers the opportunity to explore a collection of way-marked penitential routes traversing some of the most captivating Irish scenery.

Walkers who produce evidence of having completed 120km of Ireland’s pilgrim trails are entitled to obtain a teastas oilithrerachta (completion certificate) from Ballintubber Abbey.

The initiative is aimed, not only at re-awakening the ancient spiritual tracks of Ireland, but also attracting tourism spend to rural areas.

Initiated last March, the passport has proven a hit with over 200 walkers having already taken up the pilgrim challenge. Thirty walkers from the Mid-Tipperary Hillwalkers have set themselves the task of becoming the first group to complete the Irish pilgrim journey.

Having completed Cnoc na dTobar and Cosáin na Naomh, Co Kerry along with St Kevin’s Way, Co Wicklow, they are returning to the South-West to begin their last two paths.

Starting on Monday from Drimoleague in West Cork, they will walk St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, while led by local guide David Ross.

Transferring to Co Mayo they then hope to complete the Tochar Phadraig before having the teastas oilithreachta presented to the group members who have succeeded in finishing the challenge.

The ceremony will take place in Ballintubber Abbey church as part of the 800 anniversary celebrations of the abbey foundation.

To find full information on completing the new Irish Pilgrim Passport Challenge visit www.pilgrimpath.ie.

  • John G O’Dwyer is author of Pilgrim Paths in Ireland — a Guide, published by the Collins Press.

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