GO WALK:Skip the Camino’s crowds and head for Tóchar Phádraig, Ireland’s medieval pilgrimage, writes JOHN G O'DWYER
A FEATURE OF VIRTUALLY all ages has been an unshakeable urge to seek deeper meaning by journeying to some distant place of elevated spirituality. These days, every second person seems to be seeking the sacred or just chasing the zeitgeist along the Camino of St James. Yet Ireland has an equally evocative pilgrim trail that long pre-dates the Camino but unaccountably receives little footfall. The original penitential route to Croagh Patrick can be completed in one long day and you won’t have to worry about crowds, Spanish heat or the idiosyncrasies of airport security.
The Tóchar Phádraig begins from Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, where you are reminded that medieval pilgrimage was a wearying return journey without assistance from such modern fripperies as boots and rain jackets. Immediately you pass the remains of foot baths where penitents bathed after their barefoot walk to Croagh Patrick.
Now follow the path through low-lying fields and across minor roads and streams until you reach easier going along the banks of the Aille river. The lamentable mischief making of past agricultural policies may have created great dairy prairies and green deserts of monoculture but here the small fields and wild flowers thankfully remain much as they were in ancient times when, lured by the promise of immortality, medieval pilgrims trod this selfsame soil.
Eventually, you abandon the Aille and ascend higher ground where you’re well rewarded. Filling the horizon is the perfect quartzite cone of Ireland’s holiest and handsomest hill. Surely a moment of joyful epiphany for fatigued medieval pilgrims and today an excellent place to pause awhile and just smell the flowers. Reminding yourself that life is a journey not a destination, you now let slow motion time drift past on diaphanous wings while you absorb the timeless sensations and colours of the Mayo countryside.
Next the path meanders onwards with almost every wood, lane, massrock and stream laden with sagas from history. The jewels of Connacht are, for example, reputed to be secreted nearby the route in caves beneath the cliffs of Aille. Later, the path traverses the viewing point of Cloondachon Hill before descending into picturesque Aughagower, which contains a medieval church and 10th-century round tower for exploration.
Beyond Aghagower, enjoy commanding views as you descend through fields and join a road. Here the going changes noticeably for now it’s mostly along serene, tree-lined country lanes that you approach the mountain. Eventually, you dive off-lane to pass by the Boheh stone, a pre-historic scene of druidic worship that was reputedly also a massrock for St Patrick. One last excursion through fields and a crossing of the Owenwee river brings you to a tiny road skirting the overwhelming emptiness of Croagh Patrick’s south face. Continue along this, crossing the Western Way en route, until you reach a base for Mayo Mountain Rescue. Here a path leads you steeply upwards to join the modern pilgrim trail on Croagh Patrick. Some hardy souls may decide to continue to the summit but, to complete the Tóchar, all you are now required to do is descend to Murrisk carpark.
Tóchar Phádraig Walk
Start point:Ballintubber Abbey is located just off the N84, about 14km from Castlebar. Here you must register for the Tochar walk. This costs €10.
Finish: Car park at Murrisk
Suitability:Low-level walk, generally well way-marked. Attains an altitude of almost 500m on Croagh Patrick.
Time:About 10 hours. Route can be completed in one challenging or two more leisurely days.
Distance: 30km Map: Map available from Ballintubber Abbey. OSi sheets 30 and 38 also cover the route. Hospitality: Accommodation and food available from several pubs and BBs near Murrisk. Otherwise, nearby Westport offers abundant options. (Westport tourist office Tel: 098 25711.)