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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
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Opinion Thousands of Irish people go on pilgrimage every year... but why?

The weekly mass-goer and interested agnostic can walk alongside the person who privately explores their spirituality.

NUMEROUS TRADITIONS SURROUND the Irish summer, before we know it we are talking about the Leaving Cert, the GAA Championship fixtures and the prospect of whether ‘this is the summer now’ or not. But among these, is one that is less discussed: pilgrimage.

Annually, thousands of Irish people go on some form of pilgrimage. While the plane loads venture to Lourdes or Rome and others walk lengths of the Camino de Santiago, there are even more people who travel to pilgrimage sites across Ireland every summer.

Over 12,000 people climb Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday, approximately 15,000 people go to St Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg and the Novena in Knock can attract several thousand pilgrims each day. Also, it is not just the elderly that you will find at these places, people of all ages and backgrounds are involved. It seems pilgrimage still has an important role in Irish society.

Despite a noted decline in general religious practice in recent years, why are pilgrimages still occurring on these scales? What is their continuing appeal? A visit to different pilgrimage sites provides some of the answers.

An opportunity to withdraw from the world

St Patrick’s Purgatory, or Lough Derg, in Donegal is considered to be one of the most challenging, but also rewarding, pilgrimages in the Christian world. Pilgrims spend three days on a small island going barefoot, practising centuries-old prayer patterns, keeping a 24-hour vigil and fasting by eating only one meal a day – of black tea/coffee, with dry bread/toast and oatcakes. Despite the seemingly harsh conditions, the pilgrimage actually presents a rare opportunity for people to withdraw from the world, taking a break from everyday life and reflecting on the things that matter most to them. In this regard, Lough Derg seems to speak to a deep-seated human desire for retreat and contemplation, which has fuelled people to go on pilgrimage for millennia across all major cultures.

The call of pilgrimage is similarly found in holy wells spread all across Ireland, which are the sites of local journeys and worship. They are usually associated with local Celtic patron saints, although some have pre-Christian origins. Today, the wells are the location of diverse practices, showing the importance of the religious-spiritual in many people’s lives. Annual Pattern Days and masses are organised at wells, but so are Neo-Pagan and alternative spirituality events.

Also, streams of visitors travel for very intimate reasons, leaving memorial cards and small votive offerings (anything from coins and shells, to family photos and toys) at these shrines. The wells are important places of religious-spiritual activity, showing how pilgrimage, a looser form of devotion, can accommodate different perspectives. The weekly mass-goer and interested agnostic can walk alongside the person who privately explores their spirituality.

The holy mountain

A large variety of people are found on Croagh Patrick too, especially on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July. From before dawn, crowds from all over Ireland and beyond climb the ‘holy mountain’. Rosary beads and staves mix with county jerseys and tin-foiled wrapped sandwiches, as families and groups ascend ‘the Reek’, with a few traditionalists doing it barefoot. Some get mass and confession on the summit, while others just take in the views of Clew Bay (on the clear days).

Afterwards, the stalls and chipper vans, as well as the local pubs, await the weary. Central to Reek Sunday is tradition. It, like many other pilgrimages, is based on family, community and national traditions. People bring their children or they climb because their grandparents always did it. Also, larger heritages are at work, as the Croagh Patrick custom stretches back to the pre-Christian era, with late July being the Celtic thanksgiving feast of Lughnasadh. The pilgrimage tradition seems to still resonate today on the Reek.

While traditions, religious-spiritual beliefs and the appeal of being a pilgrim are among the main reasons for the continuation of pilgrimage, it is also true that the motivations are probably as diverse as the people involved. Although I cannot untangle all of these threads, I can say with certainty that this summer thousands of Irish people will get on buses, put on walking boots or take off their shoes as they go on pilgrimage.

Richard Scriven is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, UCC and an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. His research explores pilgrimage in Ireland. For more about Richard’s work or to contact him go to his website or follow him on Twitter @CorkGeog 

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