Dropping anchor for the night in Kerry having aquaplaned my way through a deluge transforming roads to rivers, I had few positive expectations of the coming day. However, Ireland’s unmatched ability to tantalize with the unexpected revealed itself next morning. A blue sky July day greets me as I head west through the wind-sculpted, Irish-speaking lands beyond Dingle to the tiny settlement of Ventry. Here, I seek a place used by medieval pilgrims to disembark before dutifully walking the ancient Cosán na Naomh (Saint’s Road) to Mount Brandon.
Eventually, I find it in the most unlikely of places: a hedonistically insouciant beach, complete with surfers, kayakers, and even a couple of bikini clad sunbathers. There is a strong temptation to literally throw in the towel and just hang out on these magnificent sands, but recalling the fortitude of pilgrims past, I resist and pursue instead the signs for the Cosán.
The ancient pathway dallies along pleasant back roads and fuchsia rich lanes with many echoes from the past in the form of ringforts, monastic sites and a ruined medieval castle. After mutating into a typical Irish boreen, the route offers the immediate reward of stunning views north over the Three Sisters peninsula.
A serene path through wildflower-rich fields then has me in a contemplative mood, which means I lose the route. Chancing upon a local with the parched skin of one who has seen many a winter storm, he inquires “Where are you off to?" When I respond, “Along the Cosán”, he replied “That’s a quare way you’re going alright”. Then he tells me to “go back to the end of a lane. It’s a lot aesier that way.” His directions prove correct and soon I reach the greatest archaeological jewel of the Dingle Peninsula.
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Bereft of its original purpose as a place for worship, Gallarus Oratory has mutated into a visitor attraction. Startlingly uniform and puritanically unadorned, while not having admitted even one drop of water in its thousand year plus existence, it is in the interior twilight that it truly comes alive. I gaze upwards in awe at the sublimely corbelled roof and wonder how early Christian masons constructed such a symmetrical arch without it collapsing on their unhelmeted heads.
Onwards and upwards now to the ruins of Kilmalkedar Abbey, which resonates with intangible mystery and a stay-awhile charm that immediately marks this serene backwater as a place apart. The atmosphere of surreal spirituality has an American couple informing me they felt moved, on arrival, to renew their commitment, by clasping fingers through an opening in an ancient standing stone.
Next, it’s on to the summit of Reenconnell Hill. For pilgrims past this would have been their first close-up of the Promised Land with the great rampart of Brandon filling the horizon and the green and welcoming lands of Feohanach laid out below.
Here, a rocky outcrop displays a, recently discovered, piece of rock art. Created as a perfect spiral motif, this artifact long pre-dates Christian pilgrimage, but I still can’t help wondering as, I sit in the sunshine, who was the artist who long ago chanced this way. Why did he, or perhaps she, feel the urge to linger and create an eye-catching object of simple beauty that still speaks to us today? I have no answer, so instead it’s downhill to join a country lane and then on for about 3km to complete my pilgrim journey beneath Mount Brandon’s great head at Ballybrack shrine.
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The Emerald Isle Camino
Pilgrimage has been defined as “a meaningful journey to a place of spiritual significance with the practice being almost as old as history. It was in the medieval period that Christian pilgrimage had its greatest flourishing. Penitents journeyed to many shrines in Europe and the Holy Land. Less well known is the fact that they also traveled in considerable numbers to sacred destinations in Ireland.
The good news for those wishing to recreate these Irish penitential journeys is that this year a new “Emerald Isle Camino” has been created by a coming together of five of Ireland’s pilgrim paths, with the Cosán na Naomh included.
Completing 120km of these ancient trails entitles walkers to a Teastas Oilithreachta (Pilgrim Walk Certificate) from Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo. To provide evidence of walking the required paths in accordance with local custom, an Irish pilgrim passport has been introduced with stamps available locally for those showing evidence of completing each walk. Full details of the Emerald Isle Camino passport are available at www.pilgrimpath.ie.
* John G O'Dwyer is author of "Pilgrim Paths in Ireland – a guide," which is published by the Collins Press; www.collinspress.ie.