After generations of slumber, some of Europe’s oldest walkways are echoing to footfall, as pilgrimage flourishes again in the Irish countryside.
Mostly reaching back to pre-Christian times, the ancient, penitential trails of Ireland long predate the relatively youthful Spanish Camino.
Yet, they were almost entirely forgotten until a revival of interest in recent years, when pilgrim footfall in Ireland increased dramatically.
This will increase further over Easter, when the third annual Pilgrim Paths Week offers an opportunity for all comers to reconnect with a network of ancient trails on a series of fully-guided walks.
Fr Frank Fahey, curate at Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, is a driving force behind the re-awakening of the Tóchar Phádraig pilgrim path, which saw a major increase in numbers following the route over the past five years.
How does he explain the modern desire to answer the mystical call to a pilgrim journey, in an avowedly secular age?
“People are taking the pilgrim challenge in the 21st century for two reasons,” said Fr Fahey.
“First, is the modern trend towards incorporating walking the outdoors as part of a healthy lifestyle.
“But, at a more profound level, people are searching for a deeper meaning that materialism is not giving them.
“They are finding answers, instead, within the simple, but fulfilling, experience of walking an ancient path.”
Drimoleague, West Cork-based David Ross, spokesman for the St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path Committee, has just returned from leading a group of students from Ashbury University, Kentucky, on a contemplative walk.
He speaks of a local tradition in West Cork, which holds it was along the local pilgrim route that St Finbarr journeyed to Gougane Barra, after exhorting the people of Drimoleague to return to Christ. “Since then, pilgrims have assembled at the Top of the Rock on St Finbarr’s feast day and walked the 37km to Gougane Barra”, he said.
“In recent years, however, individuals and groups have begun walking the route throughout the year and 2017 has been the busiest year, so far.”
Discussing the 21st-century allure of this pilgrimage, Mr Ross said: “One attraction is that it is a two-day walk, allowing plenty of time for reflection, while, at the same time, it is possible to complete it over a weekend. And while the origins of the path are rooted in ideas of early Christian spirituality, people of all religious backgrounds and none are drawn here by the timeless serenity of the journey.”
It is envisaged the Pilgrim Paths of Ireland may be set for even greater footfall, with the recent introduction of an Irish Pilgrim Passport offering a unique opportunity to explore some of the most captivating scenery in the landscape.
To meet the requirements of the passport, walkers must produce stamped evidence of having completed 120km of Ireland’s foremost penitential trails.
So, this coming Easter, why not take a break from the stressful clutter of modern life by answering the siren call to our ancient paths?
These are 10 contemplative walks on offer over Pilgrim Paths Week, from March 31 to April 8.
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