Time to unlock tourist potential of our pilgrim paths

Ireland well placed to capitalise on timeless search for meaning

The Cross of the Scriptures in front of the cathedral at Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, taken from Ireland’s Ancient East – A Guide to its Historic Treasures by Neil Jackman, published by The Collins Press

The Cross of the Scriptures in front of the cathedral at Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly, taken from Ireland’s Ancient East – A Guide to its Historic Treasures by Neil Jackman, published by The Collins Press

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In centuries past, the practice of faith became highly formalised. Major religions offered a one-size-fits all model – a type of spiritual yellow-pack where adherents were instructed about what or who to believe in.

Secularisation in western society has now greatly weakened these monolithic structures. Anglicanism, the established church of England, accounts for just 17 per cent of the British population while surveys in Ireland suggest weekly Mass going is below 20 per cent. Such trends are almost universal across the western world and have led some to dub this the “post-religious age”.

But it is too early to proclaim the death of religion, for if defined as a struggle to find meaning for our existence, then it is difficult to see how we can ever abandon it. Recent decades have, certainly, been characterised by a new spirituality: people seeking understanding and deeper meaning within less formalised structures – believing without belonging as it were.

Individuals, who wouldn’t otherwise give the time of day to formalised religion, readily sought renewal this Easter by rising in darkness to witness the first rays of sun illuminate a darkened mountain top. Others will have heeded the siren call of ancient mysticism and been drawn towards enigmatic places like Lough Crew, to witness light flooding the chamber during the equinox.

Clearly, the timeless search for meaning, beyond the now, remains but has been greatly informalised. Holidays devoted to mindfulness, meditation and spirituality are much in vogue as people seek some personalised way of believing, but the primary manifestation of the quest for a new spirituality has been the phenomenal growth of pilgrim walking.

Treadmill of life

In many ways pilgrimage is similar to long distance trail walking: it offers an escape from the treadmill of life and an interlude when we maintain just one ball in the air rather than the several we must generally keep airborne to cope with over-busy lives. But following ancient penitential tracks reaches beyond exercise and escape.

Consciously or unconsciously, people come to these routes seeking deeper meaning and to view life with new simplicity.

There is almost always a contemplative or symbolic element with many aspiring to discover themselves by uncovering a more fulfilling purpose to living. Others will journey in remembrance of a loved one, while for some, it will be appreciation for a favour granted.

This exponential growth in pilgrimage isn’t a temporary fad, like hula-hoops and break-dancing, but symptomatic of a paradigm shift to a new informalised spirituality. It manifests itself with a desire to move away from the unfulfilling world of conspicuous consumption and come closer to natural, simpler environments.

It is also a rapidly growing area of international travel that we are well placed to take advantage of, since the tradition has long had deep resonance In Ireland. Early Christians came to Clonmacnoise; medieval penitents journeyed to Lough Derg, Holycross and Glendalough, while others sought personal transformation by visiting Skellig Michael or climbing Croagh Patrick

It is also a rapidly growing area of international travel that we are well placed to take advantage of, since the tradition has long had deep resonance In Ireland. Early Christians came to Clonmacnoise; medieval penitents journeyed to Lough Derg, Holycross and Glendalough, while others sought personal transformation by visiting Skellig Michael or climbing Croagh Patrick.

Historic reputation

Despite this tradition and Ireland’s historic reputation for piety, there was until recently, little footfall on Ireland’s penitential trails with the country not regarded as a destination for spirituality motivated travel. With the objective of addressing this, Pilgrim Paths Ireland (PPI) was founded in 2013 as an umbrella body for the volunteer groups promoting Ireland’s penitential trails.

In 2016, a PPI initiative linked five medieval routes under a national pilgrim passport which must be completed to obtain the Teastas Oilithreachta (Pilgrim Certificate) from Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo.

A considerable success in attracting worldwide interest, the passport offers an opportunity to explore the ancient landscapes of Kerry, west Cork, Wicklow and Mayo, but Ireland still lacks a linear, multi-day path similar to the Camino. This is being put right in 2018 with the opening of this country’s longest pilgrim path. Dedicated to Saint Declan, this 104km spiritual trail has linked the ancient monastic city of Ardmore with royal Cashel since, at least, early-Christian times.

Clearly, Ireland offers many advantages that could now be used to robustly support a proposition aimed at positioning this country as a destination for new spirituality tourism.

There is the mystical aura surrounding many of our great pre-historic sites such as Newgrange; our reputation for rechristianising Europe during the so-called Dark Ages: the fact that we have a suite of fully waymarked medieval pilgrim trails to suit all fitness levels and the enormous advantage that, relative to our size, we have one of the world’s largest diasporas.

Very often the most successful branding doesn’t involve the creation of expensive new attractions but rather the repositioning of what is there. The time has come to recognise the riches our ancient pilgrim trails have bestowed and begin rebranding Ireland as a world leader in the area of new spirituality tourism. Information on the Irish pilgrim paths at pilgrimpath.ie

John G O’Dwyer is a tourism consultant and guidebook author.

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