Pilgrim’s progress: Follow our forefathers’ footsteps on these great walks

Explore Ireland’s ancient penitential trails that long predate the Spanish Camino

Until recently, few modern day pilgrims considered Ireland’s sacred trails an alternative to the hugely popular Spanish Camino, so traditionally, Irish people travelled abroad in search of pilgrim walking.

In recent years, however, this has begun to change. Attracted by their mystical resonance, ever-increasing numbers of Irish people and overseas visitors are now returning once again to the ancient trails of our forefathers.

This coming Easter offers an unmatched opportunity to explore Ireland’s ancient penitential trails that long predate the Camino. Now in its seventh year, Pilgrim Paths Week is an Eastertime festival aimed at giving thanks for the wonder and richness of nature’s bounty.

Cnoc na dTobar, Co Kerry (Friday, April 10th)

Pilgrim Paths Week kicks off on Good Friday on a sequestered upland in south Kerry. You may not yet have heard of Cnoc na dTobar, but it is one of Kerry's finest mountains. A pilgrim site since prehistoric times, it was the scene of great assemblies, especially during the Lughnasa festival, which was celebrated on the mountain top. For Pilgrim Paths Week, participants will follow 14 Stations of the Cross along the ancient penitential trail to the summit. Views are magnificent, offering the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Dingle Bay, Mount Brandon and the west Cork hills.


Description: High-level walk to a mountain summit requiring warm clothing, walking boots, food, drinks and a walking stick
Registration: Old Barracks, Cahersiveen at 9.30am
Contribution: €10
Walk distance: 9km
Duration: 5 hours approx
Ascent: 650m
Further information: Cormac, 087-7942134 or email skelligkerry@gmail.com

Cosán na Naomh, Co Kerry (Saturday, April 11th)

Having ascended Cnoc na dTobar on Good Friday, you can have the perfect Easter in Kerry by heading the next day for the weather-sculpted lands west of Dingle. Isolated by mountain and ocean, it is through this unforgettable landscape that the Cosán na Naomh wends its mystical way. From the pilgrims’ landing place at Ventry beach, it traverses ancient fields, fuchsia-rich lanes and passes by many antiquities to reach the foot of lordly Mount Brandon.

Description: The path is at a relatively low level but there is one steepish ascent and descent, so walkers need to be well-equipped and shod while being reasonably fit
Registration: Cosán na Naomh trailhead, Ventry beach (follow the R559 west from Dingle, swing left and continue to Ventry beach)
Time: 10am
Walk distance: 16km
Duration: 5½ hours approx
Information: Fionnáin, 087-2518174 or email: foh@udaras.ie

St Kevin’s Road, Co Wicklow (Saturday, April 11th)

Fear not if you can't make it to Kerry for Easter. You still have a golden opportunity to weave your way along St Kevin's Road to Glendalough, while connecting with the splendour of the Wicklow landscape. Short stops along the way will provide some background about St Kevin's life, while the walk itself allows for many moments of reflection.

Description: An unchallenging trail following quiet roads, riverside paths and forest tracks with one ascent to the Wicklow Gap. Some areas are quite boggy, so be sure to wear waterproof footwear and have rain gear, along with snacks and drinks
Meeting place: Glendalough Visitor Centre car park. Take the N11 from Dublin and follow signs for Glendalough. Bus will then drop participants to the start point
Time: 9am
Distance: 12km
Walk duration: 3 hours
Booking: Advance booking essential at: glendaloughpilgrimage@gmail.com

St Declan’s Way, Co Tipperary (Saturday, April 11th)

Ireland’s answer to the Camino, this walking route stretches for an impressive 115km and is our longest pilgrim path. It links two of Ireland’s most famous historic sites, the fifth-century monastery of St Declan in Ardmore and the Rock of Cashel. The hugely popular annual walk organised by volunteers at Knockmealdown Active is going ahead again for 2020. It will be completed in five fully guided stages with the first stage timed to coincide with Pilgrim Paths Week and involving a walk from Cashel to Cahir. For those intent on completing the entire pilgrimage, the dates for the other stages are May 9th, June 13th, July 11th and August 8th.

Description: Low level walk on unchallenging terrain
Meeting place: Cahir House Hotel at 9am, for bus transfer to Cashel (take Junction 11 from the M8 motorway)
Walk distance: 21km
Duration: 4 hours approx
Booking: Advance booking essential at: stdeclansway.ie
Contribution: €30 (includes bus transfer to start of walk)
Further information: Kevin, 086-3541700

Tóchar Phádraig, Co Mayo (Monday, April 13th)

This is the genuine pilgrim article. Once a prehistoric druidical pathway, the Tóchar still offers many resonances from its pagan past. Christianised by St Patrick, it remains stubbornly untamed and much as it was for medieval pilgrims making their way to Croagh Patrick. Among those who have walked it is former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. She afterwards wrote: "A very special experience. Walking the Tóchar was every bit as wonderful and prayerful as the Camino."

Description: Walk will follow the pilgrim route from Aughagower village to Ballintubber Abbey. This section is at relatively low level, but there are some challenging underfoot conditions, so walkers need good footwear and rain gear
Departure: 11am
Distance: 17km
Meeting place: Ballintubber Abbey, located off the N84 about 14km from Castlebar
Walk duration: 5 hours approx
Booking: Advance booking essential: info@ballintubberabbey.ie
Further information: 094-9030934

Scattery Island, Co Clare (Monday, April 13th)

Scattery Island is situated near the mouth of the river Shannon off the coast of Kilrush, Co Clare. It has long been considered a sacred site and still contains an early Irish round tower and a Celtic monastery founded in the early sixth century by St Senan.

Description: Easy, inspirational walk in a memorable location with experienced guide, Pius Murray
Meeting place: Scattery Island Tours, Kilrush Marina, Kilrush
Time: 10am
Duration: 4 hours
Booking: Advance booking essential to pius@walkwithpius.com
Further Information: Pius, 087-9828173

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path, Co Cork (April 18th-19th)

An authentic and well laid-out pilgrim path that justifiably carries the moniker “Camino of Cork”. The route recreates St Finbarr’s journey from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra where he founded a monastery. This two-day walk in Finbarr’s footsteps provides the perfect opportunity for a weekend exploring the wonders of west Cork.

Offering a memorable outing, the route crosses three mountains and four isolated valleys. Sweeping views over Bantry Bay, the Cork coastline and a rich archaeological history are overshadowed only by the final spectacular descent into Gougane Barra.

Description: Extended, but vastly rewarding mountain route suitable for experienced pilgrim walkers with good fitness levels
Meeting place: Top of the Rock Walking Centre, Drimoleague, Co Cork on Friday, April 17th at 8.30pm for a walk briefing. From Cork city, take the N71 to Bandon and the R586 to Drimoleague
Walk departure: April 18th at 9am from the Top of the Rock
Distance: 37km
Duration: Two days
Booking: Advance booking essential: info@ballintubberabbey.ie

All-in accommodation packages from Gougane Barra Hotel, 026-47069 (gouganebarrahotel.com); or pod park packages from David Ross, 086-1735134 (topoftherock.ie)

The Irish Pilgrim Passport

Pilgrim Paths Week makes an ideal opportunity to begin completing the Irish Pilgrim Passport. The passport requires that participants walk five Irish pilgrim paths with a total distance of 125km and produce evidence of completing each, in order to receive a pilgrim stamp.

When fully stamped, the passport is forwarded to Ballintubber Abbey to obtain the Teastas (completion certificate) similar to the Compostela for the Spanish Camino.

The paths that must be completed are: St Kevin's Way, Cnoc na dTobar, Cosán na Naomh, the Tóchar Phádraig, and St Finbarr's Pilgrim Path, Co Cork, all of which are being walked for Pilgrim Paths Week. Further information on where to obtain a passport is available at pilgrimpath.ie.

John G O’Dwyer’s latest book, Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands, is published by Currach Books.