Go Walk: The Pilgrim Path, Co Clare
Tackle a devotional trail offering a mystical experience
The Pilgrim Path, Co Clare
Getting there: From Corofin, take the R476 and the first right onto the R460. Go left for Dysert Castle and follow the first right to Blathmac’s Church.
You pant over the Pyrenees to complete the Camino, struggle up rivers of scree on Croagh Patrick and fight altitude crossing the Alps on the pilgrim path to Rome. So, give or take a rucksack carrying service, I still believed modern pilgrimage remained essentially penitential. Then, I was invited to check a devotional trail offering a mystical but unchallenging experience suitable for almost everyone.
Greeted by local man Pius Murray in Corofin, Co Clare, we immediately head to the start of the Rath/Dysert Pilgrim Path at St Blathmac’s Church (see panel). Here, Murray knowledgeably indicates the fine Romanesque stone carvings and also a marvellously incongruous sheela-na-gig that seems to mischievously mock the surrounding piety, before recounting fables of a legendary broc sighe or fairy badger that once dwelt in nearby Rath Lake.
Such tales are easy to dismiss nowadays, but remain important, says Murray, as they explain how past generations made sense of the surrounding world.
Then it’s off through the visual mosaic of the Clare landscape where almost every field and lane holds a bank of secrets. Traversing green paths and quiet roads bisected by carpets of soft grass, we follow the footsteps of 100 pilgrims who, as part of the recent revival of interest in penitential trails, came here, last April, to celebrate National Pilgrim Paths Day.
Our curiosity is then captured by an earthen fort commanding sweeping vistas over the undulating Clare countryside, which is reputed to be St Blathmac’s birthplace. Tagging the ancient Poll Bán, which once linked Ennis to the monasteries of north Clare, we continue until another dreamy highway, known as Bealach Ársa, conveys us through a landscape little altered from medieval times.
Near Dysert Church, we are jolted to the 20th century by a poignant little cillín. Cillíns were segregated burial grounds for unbaptised children considered unworthy of Christian burial. Immeasurably sad to relate, this one was in use up to the 1940s. Such places remain an unsettling indictment of our recent past so I am glad to move quickly towards the more cheerful ambience of Tobar Oireachta, Holy Well. Once a place of pilgrimage offering a cure for eye ailments, it is still reputed to hold the sweetest water in Dysert.
Later we pass, St Tola’s Well, which continues to attract pilgrims every March 30, before coming to our journey’s highpoint at Diseart Tola – an 8th century monastic settlement founded by Saint Tola. Murray points out the sublime Romanesque doorway and 12th century round tower.
More captivating, however, is St Tola’s Cross, (photographed above) a richly illuminated high cross in a nearby field that represents the lofty flowering of 12th century Irish craftsmanship.
Afterwards, as we ramble serenely past the muscular ramparts of Dysert Castle towards our start point, I am forced to concede that mystical paths don’t require sweat and blisters to capture the soul. Rath Dysert truly makes an ideal outing for pilgrim beginners wishing to explore Ireland’s dense heritage of sacred trails.