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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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Opinion: I became a long-distance walker at 70 and have now covered thousands of miles

After my wife died of cancer in 2007, I wanted to raise much-needed funds for Cancer Treatment and Research. This summer, I will walk in support of European peace.

Donal Corcoran

AFTER MY WIFE, Doreen, died of cancer in 2007, I thought of all the care that she got in St James’s Hospital, under the care of Dr John Kennedy, and I felt that I should do something to raise much-needed funds for Cancer Treatment and Research.

So, at 70 years of age, I decided that I would walk 1,000 miles on the Camino of St James from Le Puy in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

So as a complete novice long-distance walker, I set off with my too-heavy backpack from Le Puy. Taking it easy for the first few days, I soon got into the swing of this long distance walking.

I was rarely on my own

As I progressed down through France, even though I was walking on my own and not part of an organised group, I soon found out that I was rarely on my own on the Camino. Every day, most of the pilgrims that I met became a friend and email addresses were exchanged. Regional foods were sampled, washed down by the local wines at communal meals.

The usual schedule for a day’s walking meant getting up about 6.30 am at the latest. Breakfast of bread, butter and jam and yogurt and coffee. The backpack prepared the previous night was put on my back, straps adjusted, and away I went. The weather was usually cool in the morning, but as soon as the sun came up it got very hot, so sun cream and a hat were essential. Hopefully, the day’s walking would be completed by 1.30 pm to 2.30 pm, but sometimes it could be 4.00 pmbefore a day’s walk was done.

Checking into the pilgrim hostel was always exciting, meeting other pilgrims for the first time. Then into the shower for a well-earned wash; followed by washing of clothes, usually in cold water, in an area designated for that purpose. Then hopefully finding a space available to hang up the wet clothes, if not the nearest bush, before a rest on the bunk for an hour to recharge the batteries. After that, it was tome to go out around the town or village sightseeing, finding what shops, cafes, bars and restaurants were there.

Stories were told, songs were sung

The evening meal was usually at 7.00 pm and went on for about two hours, with plenty of wine. In some hostels, called Gite d’Etap, in France and Albergue in Spain, an evening meal would be supplied as well as a bed for the night. If this wasn’t the case, pilgrims would find a restaurant that gave a pilgrim meal at a pilgrim price. There, people who had only met each other hours before would have the most sociable meal that you could imagine. Sometime language was a barrier, but this wasn’t something to get worried about – more to be laughed at. Stories were told, songs were sung and dances were danced.

And so on down through France, sometimes walking for days with the same people but then having to say good bye for various reasons. One such goo bye was in Moissac, a lovely Abbey town in the Tarn et Garonne department. I had been walking with three ladies, an Australian, a Swiss and a French lady. Two were finishing in Moissac and the third was walking a shorter distance, so I wouldn’t see them again. After dinner that night in the old Abbey, Ancien Carmel, I sang a farewell Irish song called “We had the best of times” for the ladies and there were tears from them – tears of sadness, I think, but maybe it was my bad singing. I also sang the Camino Pilgrim song that I had been taught that morning by one of the volunteers, working there, a Belgian, and a lot of the pilgrims knew the song and joined in.

Four days later, I was lying in my bunk in Gite de Etap Halte Pellerine in Lectoure in severe pain after suffering a herniated disk. Waiting to be repatriated home, I was greeted by a French pilgrim. “Were you in Moissac?” she asked. When I said that I was, she said, “They are still talking about the singing Irishman there”.

The inaugural European Peace Walk

So home I went, had a spine operation, recuperated and returned to Lectoure within the year and continued my Camino to Santiago de Compostela a total distance of 1,000 miles.
Since then I have returned to walk from Coimbra to Santiago on the Portuguese Camino, and also from Ourense to Santiago and from Santiago to Finistera and Muxia.

This year, I will be one of the one hundred international peace walkers who have been picked to walk the in the inaugural European Peace Walk from Vienna to Trieste a distance of 550 km. This will commence in Vienna on 28 July 2014 the Centenary of the start of WWI.

We will walk through five countries: Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. I have also been honoured by the European Peace Walk, by being appointed the Irish Ambassador of the Peace Walk.

After returning from the Peace Walk, there will be no resting! I will return again to Portugal to visit Fatima, and walk again from Coimbra to Santiago. After that, I will go to Lucca in Italy and walk with friends from there to Rome.

Donal Corcoran born in Bishopstown, Cork, over 73 years ago, but living in Naas for the last 50 years. A retired teacher, he is widowed and took up serious walking when he was 70. He has always tried to keep fit and has run 10 marathons.

On 28 July 2014, to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of WWI, the European Peace Walk will be launched. Starting in central Vienna, the first walkers will begin their 500km transnational odyssey through five European countries, ending three weeks later in Trieste, Italy. These pioneers will co-design and create Europe’s first permanent route dedicated to our present culture of peace and integration.

Column: Remember those who fought in WWI – they were as diverse, and Irish, as any of us

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About the author:

Donal Corcoran

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