In Ireland, the pilgrimage dates to early Christian scholars who travelled to Clonmacnoise, and medieval penitents who journeyed to Lough Derg, Holycross and Glendalough. The more adventurous set sail for the Skelligs or climbed Croagh Patrick barefoot.
Despite this venerable tradition, many of these pathways have fallen into disuse. Ireland is no longer an important destination for spiritually motivated travellers.
But that is about to change. This year, Ireland’s first National Pilgrim Paths Day will raise awareness of the country’s network of pilgrim routes.
Drimoleague Heritage Walks have reactivated the ancient St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, 37km leading to the sixth-century island heritage of St Finbarr, at Gougane Barra, via the village of Kealkil, and some fabulous scenery and historical sites. This very special walk begins on April 19. Walkers will congregate at The Top of the Rock farm and walking centre, which belongs to David and Elizabeth Ross, just outside Drimoleague.
Influenced by the work of the Council of Europe on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Pilgrim paths project was initiated as part of the Council’s Millennium project. Its purpose was to raise awareness of the abundant heritage of these pathways and to contribute to tourism and community development. Seven pilgrim paths were initially chosen in Ireland and have been developed according to guidelines of the country’s National Waymarked Trails.
They are identified by black-marker posts bearing a yellow pilgrim symbol, and an image of a pilgrim, to ensure who is wearing a tunic and carrying a staff.
Stretching from the Top of the Rock to Gougane Barra, this two-day walk follows in the footsteps of St Finbarr, who visited Drimoleague in the sixth century. The walk passes through the village, of Kealkil taking in Carriganass Castle, and eventually arrives in Gougane Barra, not by road, but by the Beara Breffni Way, a steep and spectacular descent, as St Finbarr’s hermitage gradually comes into view below in its serene lake setting.
While researching his excellent book, Pilgrim paths of Ireland, author John G O’Dwyer wrote in the Irish Times: “On a rainy day, I crossed the Sheehey Mountains on the sublimely redeveloped St Finbarr’s pilgrim path. It struck me that the time is surely right to bring our ancient pilgrim paths back into the nation’s consciousness, acknowledging our shared Christian heritage as a unifying occasion for Irish people and overseas visitors alike.”
Then he wrote: “Arriving at Kealkil village, I concluded that if the mythical hidden Ireland exists, I have surely crossed its heartland.”
David and Elizabeth have recently completed a beautifully landscaped Pod Pairc, for campers, and are now open for business. They are looking forward to the Easter St Finbarr’s walk. David told me about the couple’s love of walking and their busy lives as farmers.
>>“Hopefully, quite a bit. The pods are beautiful and blend in with the scenery so well. We farm beef and suckler cows, so that keeps us busy, of course. And we have five children. But we always managed to find time for walking. The scenery is amazing and, of course, we are very excited about the Easter walk. Our family roots go back many generations in West Cork. And, for many years, we have been involved with pastoral, church and community work.”
>>“Yes, we were. And it’s been an exciting project. We have people visit here from all over the world now, and it’s marvellous. The pods offer quality and affordable farm accommodation, with a very warm welcome, and just 1km from Drimoleague, the walker’s junction, in West Cork. The ground floor of the Walking Centre consists of toilets and a shower block, a self-catering kitchen, a laundry and games room, and a covered, outdoor eating area... There is also a small shop with walking books, maps, pilgrim books and walking gear for sale. And there are panels detailing every walk in West Cork.”
>>“Seven camping pods, ranging in size from luxury to standard. Each has its own ambience and theme, a picnic table and a barbecue area. And there’s an animal farm, too, which children love. So it’s an ideal place for a family holiday.”
>>“That’s right. They are a Dutch breed and they are called Zwartble. They are black with a white stripe and they have a lovely fleece. There are five acres of our land that is used for bird cover, and a bird hide along the side of the river. Caring for the environment is a very important part of what we do here.”
>>“Yes, we are. We have a package in place in conjunction with the Gougane Barra Hotel. We think its going to be very special. It’s a contemplative walk, something that St Finbarr initiated all those years ago. And along the way there is some truly magnificent scenery and spectacular views. And a chance to experience peace, companionship and spirituality. People who are interested in joining us can book in advance and we will be very happy to see them.”