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Irish Pilgrim Journey 2018: five ancient and sacred routes to follow

Walk for the Weekend: Explore five ancient routes across some of the country’s most captivating landscapes

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path. Photograph: David O’Callaghan

Currently, they are enjoying a vibrant second coming but were, until recently, almost unheard of. This remained true despite strong evidence that in medieval times substantial numbers of penitents journeyed to Gougane Barra, Mount Brandon, Glendalough and Croagh Patrick.

Notwithstanding these robust credentials, the sacred paths of Ireland somehow slipped into the mists of history.

Recently, a reawakening has taken place. Community and volunteer groups have joined forces with an initiative aimed at building awareness of these ancient paths. The result has been that, for the first time in centuries, the penitential trails of Ireland are echoing to pilgrim footfall.

One successful endeavour has been an Irish Pilgrim Passport offering the opportunity to explore five ancient routes traversing some of this country’s most varied and captivating landscapes.

Those who produce evidence of having completed Cnoc na dTobar and Cosáin na Naomh, Co Kerry; St Kevin’s Way, Co Wicklow; St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, Co Cork and Tochar Phádraig, Co Mayo can claim a Teastas (completion certificate) from Ballintubber Abbey.

All the paths are waymarked and may be completed by solo walkers or independent groups. Experience on the Camino shows, however, that many have a preference for the security and camaraderie of a led walk. The volunteer groups have, therefore, come together, this year, with a fully guided pilgrim journey which takes place this August.

Beginning on August 18th from Drimoleague, Co Cork, participants on the Irish Pilgrim Journey follow St Finbarr’s Path by the River Ilen before ascending Mullahhmesha. Here, they will enjoy unforgettable vistas over Bantry Bay and the Beara Peninsula before finishing at Kealkill.

Day 2, involves traversing the magnificent Shehy Mountains before finishing at the enchanting located St Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra.

Next comes Cnoc na dTobar, Co Kerry, which was a pilgrim destination in both prehistoric and medieval times. Denoted by 14 stations leading to an imposing Celtic cross on the summit, this is a place to linger. It offers a majestic 360-degree vista radiating over the Skellig Rocks, West Cork, the Blasket Islands and Dingle Peninsula.

Onwards then to West Kerry and the Cosán na Naomh leading to the foot of Brandon – one of Ireland’s highest and most revered mountains. The attractions here are rooted within people and place and completing this path is one of the best ways to experience the elemental, skeletal topography of West Kerry with many antiquities, historic buildings and religious sites en route.

After a travel day, the trail from Hollywood, Co Wicklow, which commemorates the journey of St Kevin to found a monastic settlement at Glendalough, is the next challenge.

The path rises gently to the sweeping viewpoint of the Wicklow Gap before descending to finish at the ancient monastic site, which was a renowned medieval centre of pilgrimage and learning.

Finally, it is into the West as the Irish Pilgrim Journey concludes with a flourish on the Tóchar Phádraig, Co Mayo. This route follows the ancient royal road from Cruachán, seat of the Kings of Connaught, to Croagh Patrick. Holding many resonances from its pagan past, it was Christianised by St Patrick but remains stubbornly untamed and much as it was for medieval pilgrims.

Overview: The Irish Pilgrim Journey, 2018, takes place between August 18th and 25tn. It involves 5 days walking and 2 travel days.

Suitability: Strenuous at times, the journey traverses a considerable amount of high, isolated terrain. It is suitable only for reasonably fit walkers with good boots, warm clothing and raingear.

Distance: 120km

Map: Not required as walks are guide led.

  • Information on booking the Irish Pilgrim Journey is available from pilgrimpath.ie