Increasingly popular with solo and non-religious travellers, pilgrim routes offer a chance to find inner peace and reconnect with the natural world. Joan Scales recommends some of her favourite Irish walks and ways
The most famous camino or pilgrimage is that to the Cathedral of St James in Santiago in northern Spain, also known as the Way of St James. There is no doubt this pilgrimage owes much of its fame to the media – through Martin Sheen’s 2010 film The Way, the BBC’s celebrity challenge, Camino: The Road to Santiago and the best-selling German book Ich bin dann mal weg (I’m off then). Audiences have not only discovered the different ways to get to Santiago – among them the French route, the Spanish route, the Portuguese route – but they have also discovered its charms.
Formerly, the concept of “going on pilgrimage” evoked many ideas, from fulfilling a religious obligation to undertaking a journey to serve a personal purpose. Whether the hope is for healing, miracles, peace, or even weight loss, people choose to walk the gruelling 500 miles of the Camino, with the bare minimum of possessions. Irish pilgrims can begin their journey at the church of St James on St James’s Street, Dublin, where they can receive an official passport and the first stamp on their trip. A pilgrim passport is part of the Camino experience but not strictly necessary – the stamps (there is space for up to 54) are a great memento of the trip. Formerly pilgrims in the 13th-century displayed a scallop shell to prove their pilgrimage.
However, there’s no need to leave Ireland to participate in a pilgrimage or reap the benefits of an extended walk. New walks are appearing and old ones becoming significant again. The national trails register is maintained by Sportireland.ie and it lists all the active trails around the country; www.sportireland.ie. This year, THE BLUEWAYS were freshly labelled by Fáilte Ireland, a network of stunning routes that run alongside rivers, canals and lakes. These trails can be hiked or biked. There are Blueways along the Shannon Erne Waterway and Lough Derg and the Boyne, with plans for more around the country; www.bluewaysireland.org.
The route of the inaugural eight-day DONEGAL CAMINO, initiated by Peggie Stringer, in 2021 was from the northerly Malin Head to the stunning Slieve League Cliffs in the south of the county. Participants, including Daniel O’Donnell and Mickey Harte, raised over €26,000 for Cancer Care West services. This year’s camino returns from September 4-10 and is being organised with help from Deirdre McGlone and Noel Cunningham. Of her experience last year, McGlone says it’s the wonderful stories she remembers from people she met along the way that has remained with her. “Everyone brought something to the Camino and went away with more.” www.donegalcamino.ie.
The 115km ST DECLAN’S WAY was officially opened last September. The path, from Ardmore to Cashel, passes through Aglish, Lismore, Cappoquin, Ardfinnan and Cahir and replicates the route Declan took to meet Saint Patrick in the fifth century. Mount Melleray Abbey in Cappoquin is on the route, where the Trappist monks welcome guests for contemplative stays; www.stdeclansway.ie.
On the WATERFORD CAMINO, which might include a mountain trail one day or an old coastal path the next, the experience is not about covering vast distances but taking time to soak in the beauty of the scenery. Participants can opt for a three-, five- or seven-day tour to explore the way with accommodation and meals along the journey; www.waterfordcamino.com.
Of course, the last Sunday in July is traditionally Reek Sunday when thousands climb the 764m peak of CROAGH PATRICK, Co Mayo. However, you can do it on any fine day. It’s a steep climb but worth it for the feeling of success when you reach the top. This pilgrim route became even more well-known this year when Irish broadcaster Charlie Bird and thousands of supporters climbed the Reek to raise funds for the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and Pieta House.
THE SAINTS ROAD and CARRAUNTOOHIL is seen as a rite of passage for Kerry people. I did the 18km walk from Ventry to the foot of Mount Brandon some years ago as an honorary Kerrywoman – my late partner’s family was from the Black Valley. We crossed Hag’s Glen and went up the steep Devil’s Ladder. It was tough and by the time we reached the top, bitterly cold. There was just time for a few photographs before we came back down by the ZigZag route. Though that was hard on the legs, the real reward was a sense of inner strength.
One memorable walk I did with Awesome Daytrips (www.meetup.com/AwesomeDaytrips) was the so-called Stairway to Heaven, the LEGNABROCKY TRAIL in Co Fermanagh. The Sheridan family own the land – the biggest unspoiled blanket bog in Europe and an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The Sheridans have made a boardwalk across the bog and a stairway to the top of Cuilcagh Mountain at 665m. It’s an 11km round trip to the summit and back and takes around three hours. The views from here are breathtaking. The Staircase is an amazing way to share the landscape and yet preserve it.