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Walking the Pilgrim Paths of Ireland

Steve Barham recommends a selection of short pilgrimage routes in the footsteps of the saints all over Ireland, dating from way back before the popularisation of the European caminos such as the Way of St James to Santiago di Compostela and the Via Francigena to Rome.

Many centuries before a religious hermit stumbled upon the bones of St James in 814AD and kickstarted what has become the most popular long-distance hike in the world, Pagans and then Christians were following ancient paths to sacred sites throughout Ireland.

The pilgrimage to the hallowed peak of Croagh Patrick overlooking the 365 islands of Clew Bay in Mayo was already in existence in 3000BC and was popularised by the Patron Saint of Ireland 500 years before St James’ way got going. It still draws 30,000 people to the summit on the last Sunday in July, or Reek Sunday. Patrick is also associated with an island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, which has attracted pilgrims from all over Europe since medieval times. This was a site so important that, in 1492, on one map of the world, it was the only named place in Ireland.

There are other, less well-trodden pilgrim paths now being promoted as ‘walking trails with a difference’, together they total about a dozen. They cover 250km of tranquil country lanes, stone-paved tracks and paths through meadows and forests, across heather moor and bog and over rocky mountain summits, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. Below is a survey of just a few of them.

The old mass path, St Finbarr's Way on the Ilen River

West of Ireland trails

Tóchar Phadraig (St Patrick’s Causeway)

In County Mayo the 30km Tóchar Phadraig was in use in Pagan times as the Royal Road to Cruachan Aille, the original name for Croagh Patrick. (Ancient stone flagstones which came to light when a local group was clearing the trail have revealed this impressive archeological pedigree.)

The route leaves from Ballintubber Abbey and meanders over low-lying fields and through a serene and timeless landscape dotted with a round tower, holy wells, druidic sites, famine graves, medieval churches, mass rocks and sacred stones, including the miraculous rock of Boheh. This cup and circle-marked stone from around 3000BC is believed to have been a focal point for sun worshippers and used to divide the year into three phases in prehistoric times. If you stand at this spot at sunset on 18 April, or and 24 August, you will see the sun land on the very peak of Croagh Patrick and then proceed to roll or slide down the Northern slope, its trajectory exactly tracking the angle of the slope – a truly jaw-dropping sight. And even if you’re not there at either of those iconic moments, the view of the iconic quartzite cone of ‘the Reek‘, visable for most of the way, will draw you ineluctably onward.

Other ways in the West include the spectacular Slieve League Pilgrim path in County Donegal, with its 400m-high sea cliffs, and, in Connemara in County Galway, the mountain pass of Maumeen – another Druidic sacred site that later became overlaid with Christian significance. Two of the most striking and atmospheric of these age-old paths are in the scenic southwest of Ireland and both can be enjoyed in a long weekend.

Slieve League, Donegal, a pilgrim destination for over a thousand years

Cosán Na Naomh (The Saint’s Road) Dingle, Kerry

The enchanting Dingle peninsula is the northernmost of the five fingers of land jutting out into the Atlantic from Ireland’s southwestern coastline and near its western tip is glorious golden Ventry beach – the trailhead for this centuries-old path. The full route climbs 952m, to the top of Mount Brandon, the highest peak in the country outside of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

The summit of Brandon was, like Croagh Patrick, the scene of pre-Christian revelry celebrating the festival of Lughnasa (in honour of Lug, the God of the Pagan Celts) which falls at the end of July to mark the beginning of the harvest season. With the arrival of Christianity the mountain was appropriated by St Brendan who is said to have spent time on the summit praying for a safe return from his sea voyage to America. He made his Atlantic crossing in a leather-skinned currach nearly a thousand years before Columbus.

From the beach it’s a relatively flat 18km walk along tranquil, fuschia-lined backroads and fields to the grotto at the base of Mount Brandon from where a more arduous 3km hike to the summit will reward you with breathtaking views of the dramatic coastal and mountain scenery (if not shrouded in mist and cloud, which, to be honest, it often is). The best plan is to leave a car at Brandon before you start, or arrange for a taxi to pick you up, which makes for a good 24km day walk – otherwise it’s another 18km back to Ventry beach.

The route will certainly envelop you in the mists of time and takes in many ancient sites of interest including bee hive huts, holy wells, Churches, Ogham stones and the iconic Gallans Oratory whose dry stone sloping roof and walls have been keeping out the driving rain for a thousand years. The route across this beautiful Irish landscape is well marked with posts with a yellow pilgrim symbol and directional arrows.

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way, West Cork

Stage 1: Drimoleague to Kealkill 22km; Stage 2: Kealkill to Gougane Barra 14km

Starting at the Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, this 2-day, 36km walk follows in the footsteps of Cork’s patron saint St Finbarr who visited this area in the 6th century before setting off to Gougane Barra to set up his monastery in what was to become Ireland’s first national park.

The fine walking centre at Top of the Rock dispenses information on the many walks in the area as well as offering transport, luggage transfers and accommodation for campers or in a range of wooden glamping ‘pods’ and makes a good base. They will pick you up at the end of Stage 1 and take you back for Stage 2 the next day if you wish as there is no accommodation at Kealkill – only two pubs for refreshments. There is also accommodation at Bantry if you can get a taxi or a lift into town.

Reckoned by John G O’Dwyer, author of Pilgrim Paths in Ireland, to be the finest of them all, this route showcases some of the best scenery in West Cork and crosses three mountain systems and four river valleys. Serene and gentle at times alongside rushing streams and through lush green meadows the way becomes more demanding when it rises on old bog roads and forest tracks to cross the higher uplands and open mountainside before reaching the cliffs overlooking the tranquil lake of Gougane Barra. This variety of terrain, combined with far-reaching views of Bantry Bay and the mountains surrounding it, is what makes this such a special walk. It well rewards the effort put in on the inevitable rocky and boggy stretches.

The gateway to St Patrick’s oratory at Maumeen

Trails in other parts of Ireland

Although most such routes are in the wild western counties there are pilgrim paths in other areas. For example, in the south, the 96km St Declan’s Way, from Ardmore in Waterford to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, crosses the Knockmealdown Mountains, and, in the east, Saint Brigid’s Way, rediscovered or created in 2013 follows a 112km route linking the saint’s shrine and holy well in Faughart, County Louth to her monastic city in Kildare, passing a variety of sacred sites along the way.

Also in the east is St Kevin’s Way in County Wicklow, starting either in Valleymount or Hollywood where the saint is said to have slept in a cave and ending at Glendalough. Both of these routes are less than 30km and take about six hours. Although this way includes a fair bit of road walking the second half from Ballinagee Bridge up over the Wicklow gap, down along the Gendasan river and into the hauntingly beautiful lakeside valley of Glendalough, make it worthwhile. St Kevin came here to retreat from the world and spent his life in quiet contemplation and after his death in AD618 his followers developed it into a thriving monastic centre that has now become a tourist hot spot owing to its proximity to Dublin.

And in the centre of Ireland is Clonmacnoise, another medieval seat of learning and artistic culture and the destination of countless thousands of pigrims over the centuries. Now known as the Pilgrim’s Path the way follows the ridge of the Esker Riada, a glacial gravel deposit that afforded the traveller a dry route raised above the wetlands of the Shannon Callows. Starting in Ballycumber the flat route takes 25km to reach the monastic site of Clonmacnoise which sits on a mighty River Shannon and so has always made it a busy transport hub. The route has now been developed as a cycle way, rather than a walking route, but it is nevertheless worth making a pilgrimage into the tranquil heartland of Ireland.

Details of these and other routes, and the annual organised pilgrimages along them, can be found on the Pilgrim Path website.