The route to spirituality

Tóchar — Walking Ireland’s Ancient Pilgrim Paths

Ireland has some of the most interesting sites of Christian pilgrimage in Europe, from the three-day barefoot ordeal that is St Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island, to the awe-inspiring heights of rocky Skellig Michael, the wooded splendour of St Kevin’s Glendalough, and the dark waters of Gougane Barra.

Darach MacDonald, a former editor of the Omagh-based Ulster Herald, lives in Castlederg, Co Fermanagh, just across the border from Lough Derg in Donegal. It is here that he starts his year of hard walks and prayer, in which he will exchange jaded cynicism for inner peace.

MacDonald grew up as a Catholic before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, when blind obedience and adherence to what he calls ‘religious rite without reason’, was expected of all. He describes himself as a typical à la carte Catholic, who turns instinctively to the old religion in times of personal crisis.

But he admits to a fundamental spiritual appetite, and a feeling of awe in the presence of ancient spiritual practices that have survived Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. This is the impulse that sets him on the pilgrim’s path.

Like many before him, MacDonald is both pleasantly surprised by the camaraderie that is quickly established among those observing the all-night vigil on Station Island, and overwhelmed by the physical discomfort of praying on the rocky “beds”, and the sheer exhaustion of the long vigil. Ever the journalist, he calculates his prayer total while on the island: 846 Our Fathers, 1,413 Hail Marys and 261 Creeds. Buoyed up by meetings with friends of friends, and the shared experience of his fellow pilgrims, he leaves the island aglow with the revitalising effect of the penitential experience.

Another high point of MacDonald’s year of pilgrimage is the 32km Tóchar Phadraig, an ancient trail from Ballintubber Abbey up the inland slope of Croaghpatrick to the summit, and down the Clew Bay side to Murrisk.

After Mass at Ballintubber Abbey, he lights a votive candle before setting out, and is told by the priest that the hardships of the long walk must be endured without complaint, but instead greeted with the invocation ‘Thanks be to God’.

Chapters on Lough Derg and Skellig Michael are the highlights of the book. Too many lesser pilgrimages are described in a flat present tense, over laden with detail.

The community of Ardmore gets full marks for making its heritage accessible to visitors, but it is a shame that the author missed the newly way-marked pilgrimage route from Drimoleague to Gougane via Kealkil, a two-day walk rapidly gaining popularity, proving his point that there is an appetite for spiritual experiences outside the aegis of organised religion in today’s Ireland.

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