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Five sisters go on the Camino: ‘Losing some HRT patches was inevitable’

One Camino, five sisters, 115 kilometres. Ten feet. 50 toes. Only one blister

“Who robbed my HRT patches?” shrieked one of my four sisters as she laced up her designer walking boots, perfectly matched with her shorts, T-shirt and trendy headband, amid chaos in our guest house on the first day of our 115km Spanish Camino adventure.

Nobody owned up to the crime.

We are five Kilkenny-born women aged between 48-59. There is stuff strewn everywhere in the room. Really, sisters, it’s the Camino not Tamangos. Why did ye bring make-up? And for God’s sake who packed a dress and heels? Losing some HRT patches was probably inevitable. But the hot flush-inducing HRT incident aside, there was not one moment of tension during a memorable, five-day sisterly bonding pilgrimage – the first time we were all together for a significant period of time in more than 40 years.

There were two reasons for the trip. The second youngest sister, public health nurse Cathy, celebrated her 50th birthday in May. And the second eldest, Mag – 58 and a trout farmer, therefore nicknamed “the fishwife” – is living with a blood cancer, Multiple Myeloma. She is a true warrior, having gone through a stem cell transplant, and a firm believer that exercise and a positive attitude is powerful medicine. When she suggested last October that we block out a week or so in our busy lives around Cathy’s birthday to spend some precious time together, with some sort of activity as the focus, we were all in.


In truth, as the eldest sister, (59, a former journalist – once of this parish – and a communications consultant), I was a little nervous about this family “experiment”. I love my sisters dearly. But in our younger years, I had to be the “big bossy one”. Our dad, Ned, died suddenly in 1978 when our mother, Kitty, was eight months pregnant with her 10th child. There were five boys and five girls. I was 14 and took on the role of second mother to the younger siblings. In 1980 our brother Jack (10) died from the measles, and the responsibilities at home increased. When I left home to go to college to study journalism at 17, my youngest sister Jo (48 and working in mental health promotion) was only six. So, I never really got to know her and Cathy growing up.

To put the age gap into context I have a four-year-old granddaughter – whilst Jo has a four-year-old son.

All keen walkers and relatively fit (ironically the “fishwife” sister is the fittest and an accomplished Triathlete) we decided to do the popular 115km Camino route from Sarria to the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. This is the last leg of the French Way, which is more than 900km long, and takes an average of 30 days to complete. That is approximately 1.1 million steps.

Having done this part of the Camino twice before, I convinced the girls to book direct rather than use of one of the many companies who offer Camino packages.

We flew to Santiago on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin and hired a taxi van to drive us the 115km to Sarria, ready to start our walk the following morning.

We all agreed we wouldn’t stay in budget friendly hostels or albergues, as the Camino purists do. There was no appetite for sleeping on bunks in shared dormitories. In January, I booked rooms (a three-bed and a two-bed in each place – similar to our bedroom arrangement when we were kids) in cheap guest houses along our route which started in Sarria and took in Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Arzua and O Pedrouzo.

We also arranged to have our bags transported ahead each morning to our next accommodation, saving on our creaking backs.

It is fair to say that none of the Donohoe sisters are shy, and from our first step we drew attention to our sisterly group. “Did you know we are five sisters from Ireland,” antique restorer and dealer Louise (56) told every walker she met. Word quickly spread along the Camino trail that there were five mad, middle-aged Irish women on the loose. It took some convincing to stop Louise giving out her LF Donohoe Antiques business cards to fellow walkers, for whom antique furniture could not have been further from their minds.

The brilliant thing about the Camino is you can drop into little groups and talk to people from all over the world, and hear and share stories. Or you can opt out of company to walk for miles on your own if you are searching for a peaceful time.

This part of the Camino is clearly signposted and while there is some elevation it is manageable for those with average fitness. We met many incredible people along the way including brother and sister, Ciaran and Fiona from Derry. The were walking in memory of their brother, Seamus, who died from cancer last November. Ciaran had done different parts of the French Way with Seamus over the years, and it was an emotional journey for him. Fiona had a teddy bear tied to her rucksack made from clothes that Seamus had worn on his last Camino journey.

And, we had great fun with Chris, a retired, bearded firefighter from Blackpool. Chris was walking the entire French Way, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, fundraising for a children’s hospice.

We took all of the advice and wore special walking socks and footwear that was well broken in. This paid off because between us all we only got one blister – and that was me on the second last day. Walking to Arzua was the longest (28km) and hottest stretch. When we spotted a river flowing through a small town there was no hesitation stripping down to knickers and T-shirts and diving in – to the delight of fellow pilgrims crossing a bridge cheering on the intrepid Irish Camino sisters.

Another highlight was reaching Palas de Rei early one afternoon and – no alcohol involved, I promise – leading in a spontaneous rendition of the Irish Rover with various nationalities in a little cafe bar.

Undoubtedly our sister bond grew over the five days. There were stories swapped of when we were young. Memories shared. It was also a time of personal reflection and discovery for us all, whilst absorbing breathtaking scenery and meeting the most inspiring of people along the way.

Even though it was only five days we felt a great sense of accomplishment arriving in Santiago de Compostela, the culmination of all Camino pilgrimage routes.

We aimed to make the daily pilgrim Mass at noon in the Cathedral, but arriving at five minutes to 12, the cathedral was so full we were not allowed in. We decided not to share this detail with our mother, Kitty, (88 and still going strong), who still rules the roost.

I ended the trip with renewed admiration for my sisters. For all they have achieved as mothers and in their working lives. And for the wonderful people and supportive sisters that they are.

One of the biggest learnings was that I am no longer the big bossy sister. The dynamic over the years has changed, with the two younger ones now taking the lead within the group. They are the bosses. And I am very happy to hand over that mantle.

DIY Camino

Booking and planning this part of the Camino yourself is easy. But do book accommodation well in advance if you are travelling between May and September. We were stretched for time. It is recommended to plan a day or two at the end in Santiago de Compostela.

Getting there

Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela on different weekdays. There are regular trains and buses from Santiago to Sarria.


The average cost of staying in an albergue (hostel) is €8. The cost of our accommodation in simple guest houses worked out at €144 each for five nights, and that included spoiling ourselves on the last night and booking a small hotel with a swimming pool.


It only cost us €4 each a day to have our bags transported ahead to our next accommodation. Well worth it.

Food and drink

Most restaurants on the Camino route offer a special “pilgrims” three course dinner menu ranging from €10 to €15 – and this includes a half bottle of local wine. And it was a joy along the way to have a great coffee for only €1.20.