Walks of life – John G O’Dwyer on Ireland’s pilgrim paths

An Irishman’s Diary

St Kevin’s Way, Wicklow. Ireland’s Pilgrim Paths are now open, fully waymarked and awaiting footfall. Photograph: pilgrimpath.ie

St Kevin’s Way, Wicklow. Ireland’s Pilgrim Paths are now open, fully waymarked and awaiting footfall. Photograph: pilgrimpath.ie

 

Seeking meaning beyond materialism, the numbers of modern pilgrims walking the Camino of St James has risen from fewer than 1,000 in 1985 to an astonishing 350,000 in 2019. For most, the Camino, with its emphasis on simplicity, mindfulness and reflective experience, is as much a voyage of inner discovery as a physical challenge.

Until recently, however, few of these 21st-century pilgrims would have imagined Ireland as a destination for contemplative hiking. Conventional wisdom held that this country possessed little in the way of worthwhile penitential walks.

On the contrary, Ireland actually has a dense network of mystical paths and a vibrant pilgrim tradition, with most of these routes long predating the Camino. Lough Derg was, and still is, one of Europe’s foremost pilgrim destinations, while medieval penitents also journeyed to Glendalough, Skellig Michael, Gougane Barra and Croagh Patrick. Despite past popularity, however, Ireland’s sacred trails were almost totally forgotten for generations, since virtually nothing was done to maintain them or reignite awareness of their existence.

It is often said that the past never completely vanishes, but sooner or later revisits us. And so it is that pilgrim walkers are now returning in increasing numbers to Ireland’s most revered and ancient tracks.

The major factor in this resurgence was the foundation in 2013 of Pilgrim Paths Ireland. An umbrella body for the voluntary groups involved with promoting Ireland’s main spirituality-based routes, the objective of this non-denominational organisation is to generate increased pilgrim footfall, while maximising tourism spend within rural communities.

In this, the new organisation was successful, with initiatives such as Pilgrim Paths Week each Easter and the Irish Pilgrim Journey in August. Another Pilgrim Paths Ireland initiative is an Irish Pilgrim Passport, offering an opportunity to explore five waymarked penitential routes through some of the most captivating scenery in the Irish landscape. Those who undertake the passport journey must produce evidence of having completed 120km of Ireland’s spiritual trails and obtain the required stamps en-route.

Resulting from these initiatives, the ancient paths of Ireland began to echo once again to the sound of pilgrim footfall. Then along came Covid to upend all worlds. Despite being one of the safest activities available during the pandemic, the Irish pilgrim paths fell victim to the general lockdowns. No organised activity took place on the paths in 2020 and the first half of 2021 was also lost.

Now we are, we hope, set to emerge from pandemic darkness to the sunny uplands of a post-pandemic landscape. It is likely, however, that things will never be quite the same again – human habits have been altered by the crisis and what we seek from life will be profoundly different in the future.

One shift has been a new appreciation of the outdoors. People are, not only walking in much greater numbers, they are seeking more interaction with our green and contemplative spaces.

We are now likely to see a reduction in demand for hugely expensive to create indoor attractions such as Titanic Belfast and the Guinness Storehouse and more demand instead for greenways, blueways and pilgrim paths. It seems the pandemic may yet prove a blessing in disguise for rural tourism as outdoor attractions can be created on a highly cost-effective basis. Titanic Belfast required an investment of over £100 million, while this year’s reopening of St Declan’s Way linking Ardmore with Cashel cost a modest €230,000 and is already proving hugely popular with walkers.

Ireland’s Pilgrim Paths are now open, fully waymarked and awaiting footfall. They are very much in step with the changing demands of present-day tourists, but despite valiant efforts by local committees, are still relatively unknown even by Irish people.

With almost 300 km of fully waymarked pilgrim paths now available in Ireland, a golden opportunity exists to create a contemplative walking product to rival the Camino. Relatively modest investment is required to build international awareness of Ireland’s mystical trails and to provide the necessary infrastructure to support the paths. Incentives should be provided to encourage the development of small rural guest houses and B&Bs that are close by the trails to allow for unsupported walking. Looking ahead to our new world, it may be that it is from the past we will find most answers for the future. pilgrimpath.ie

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