With a designated National Pilgrim Paths Day, over 3,000 holy wells and a Pilgrim passport, Ireland is undoubtedly a spiritual land.
The number of Irish saints exceeds 150 and, most of them take the place of honour each year. Thousands of Christian and Pagan pilgrims withdraw themselves from the world to take on a fundamental journey with divine significance. Celebrations, worshipping, gatherings, penitence and masses occur on feast days.
Pack up your walking boots and raining gear to commemorate your cherished saint. To help you out, Over in Ireland has compiled a list of 10 of the greatest pilgrimages in 10 counties of Ireland.
#1 St Kevin’s Way, Co Wicklow
Who is St Kevin?
This Irish Saint was the first head of monastery in Glendalough in the 6th century. Following orders and guided by an angel, he left his devotees to live recluse in a cave for seven years, known as ST Kevin’s Bed. His disciples’ fascination led them to build ‘Kevin’s cell’ nearby his new shelter: the monastic settlement took place. By 540, his name is firmly established and disciples travel from far to seek his counselling and assistance. He spent the remaining of his life worshipping, fasting and sharing his knowledge. He died at the age of 130-year-old and was canonised the 9th of December 1903 by Pope Pius X.
A walk through the scenic countryside where the founder of Glendalough’ Monastery spent most of his life. Climb the astounding Wicklow Gap, the uppermost stage of the journey; pass through hills, flagstones, forests and valleys until you reach the spectacular sacred site. The remaining structures mainly dates back to the 11th /12th century. Kevin’s bed view is enchanting.
|Feast Day: June 3rd||Distance: 30km/ 18.6 miles||Difficulty: Easy to Moderate|
#2 St Finbarr’s Way, Co Cork
Who is Finbarr?
Also known as Fionnbharra, ‘fair head,’ he is the patron saint of the city of Cork. He was the head of the monastery and Bishop of Cork between the 6th and 7th century.
After a pilgrimage in Rome and Wales, he settled for some time on the island of Gougane Barra. He spent about the last two decades of his life developing the learning centre, always surrounded by apprentices and monks in Corcach Mór na Mumhan (now Cork).
Starting point: Drimoleague, Top of the Rock to Gougane Barra Forest
The route begins at the Top of the Rock where, according to the oral tradition, Fionnbharra “admonished the people to return to Christ, went on his way to Gougane Barra”. This path leads through four valleys, three mountain ranges with vistas over Bantry Bay and the coast. It ends to the serene island where the peaceful hermitage proudly stands
|Feast Day: September 25||Distance: 37km/ 23 miles||Difficulty: Strenuous|
#3 Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holiest Mountain – Co Mayo
Why is Croagh Patrick so Special?
Practiced for over 5,000-year-old, this pagan route celebrates the start of the harvest. It is the last of the four Celtic festivals (with Samhain, Imbolg and Beltane).
Known by Gaelic as Lughnasa Festival, the gathering traditionally took place the 1st of August. It shifted to the last Sunday of July as, since St Patrick, the observance adjoined the Christian calendar. Celtic Neopagans make sure the traditions remain alive and honour the ancestral date.
One more thing: Traditional folklore also says that St Patrick expelled all the snakes in Ireland from “Log na nDeamhan,” the Serpents Hollow.
Starting Point: Murrisk for both beliefs
The Christian pilgrimage, also called “Reek Sunday” or “Garland Sunday,” praises St Patrick, who settled 40 days fasting on the holy mountain in 441. Acting for penitence, some pilgrims would climb the 764 metres barefoot and lift a bag of stones to top up the sacred cairn.
Others would carry out circumambulation (a specific sunward walk) around the holy features of the journey. This includes 7 times around Benan’s grave, Patrick’s Bed as well as Mary’s cemetery and, 15 times around the circular summit area. Expect to join 15,000 to 30,000 people on that day. At the top, you will find a church (open all summer) where masses are held twice a year (Reek day and 15th of August).
Be careful though, the crowded traffic led to the erosion of the religious path. It is good to know that others are safer and will lead you to the top as well; the beginning of a new tradition perhaps?
|Feast Day: Last Sunday of July/ for Celts, 1st of August||Distance: 7km/ 4 miles||Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous|
#4 Rath/Dysert pilgrim path, Co Clare
Starting Point: Rath Church
Located in a 6th century monastic site, St Blathmac’s Church, built 600 years after its locus, will be your next point of interest. Follow then the minor road that leads to what is known as Blathmac’s birthplace: an earthen fortress with stunning views.
Dysert Catholic Church and Castle, Tobar Ortha’s Holy Well (famous for curing eye ailment), Diseart Tola (hermitage) as well as the High Cross and the Church of Tola are amongst the sacred sites of this 2.5 hours route.
Watch out for the fairy badger shackled inside the Poll na Broc Sidhe, the hole he lives in. Banished by residents for damaging the area, legend says that he shows up every 7 years.
Who were St Tola and St Blathmac?
After years of a hermit life, St Tola settled a Roman Catholic monastic society in the 8th century. He then dispatched missionaries, throughout Europe, to spread the holy word.
St Blathmac was an abbot of the Columba monastery (see above) in Iona. The Danes, who came for the relics of the founder, butchered the religious man as he refused to indicate where they were. He is celebrated in Rath as he is the one who captured and chained the destructive fairy badger.
On National Pilgrims Day, a guided walk takes place on this path.
|Feast Day: ST Blathmac, 24th of July St Tola: 30th of March||Distance: 8km/ 5 miles||Difficulty: Easy|
#5 Glencolmcille– St Columba, Co Donegal
Who is St Columba?
Also referred to as Slí Cholmcille, ‘church dove’, he was one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland. This abbot, born in Donegal, is illustrious for crossing the sea to spread Christianism in Scotland.
Contrarily to other saints, his exile was a sentence over multiple offenses that led to the death of many civilians. One of them, acknowledged as one of the first ‘copyright conflict’ in the world, was about a manuscript version he duplicated without having St Finnian’s consent.
This copied psalter, judged in favour of the plaintiff, led to the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, orchestrated by the prosecuted. 3,000 casualties later, he was sent overseas to expiate his sins by converting as many beings this warfare took away.
Starting point: Ardara
This isolated glen will lead you through a great collection of Pillar stones points, Christian monuments and the outstanding Glengesh valley. The trail has an ascent of 1,600 metres (1mile) and passes mostly on paved road, heath and bogs. Expect to be wet and remain careful.
Note: some parts are opened in summer only if permission granted by private land owner
|Feast Day: July 9||Distance: 64km/ 40 miles||Difficulty: Strenuous|
#6 St Brigid Way, Co Kildare
Who is St Brigid?
Born in Faughart, this syncretistic sacred figure is both the Saint Patron of Kildare and a Celtic goddess. She is the most cherished female saint. Her home was always open to heal, counsel and care for people in need.
St Brigid day is an evangelisation of Imbolg, the spring pagan festival. The Celts would feast the days’ elongation (and their warmth), the hearth and the household through fire and purification. A general cleaning would also take place.
Christians, on their side, would craft a Brídeóg (a traditional doll representing the Saint). Girls would then carry it from one home to another. Expecting a potential visit and blessings from the holy Brigid, people would prepare a bed alongside a meal. They would leave some objects and attire outside for her sanctification in case she does not come in. The visit of the nearest holy well was very common as well.
Slí Bhríde path follows the alignment of prehistorical and post-Christians sacred sites as well as two major locations associated with Saint Brigid. It is a peaceful and enlightening 9-day route, and splits as below:
- Day 1: Faughart to Dundalk, 9.6km (6 miles) crossing the saint’s lands and the legendary sacred well
- Day 2: Dundalk to Ardee, 21.6km (13.5 miles) with no footpath. A stained glass of St Birgit awaits pilgrims at Knockbridge Church
- Day 3: Ardee to Slane, 19km (12 miles )through Ballapousta
- Day 4: Slane to Tara, 22.5km (14 miles) cross the blessed River Boyne and discover the gorgeous country side
- Day 5: Tara to Moynalvey, 16km (10 miles)through Dunsany church exhibiting a stained glass representing the Saint with St Patrick and Mary Mother
- Day 6: Moynalvey to Donadea Forest Park, 22km (13 miles) with Birgid’s well
- Day 7: Donadea Forest Park to Robertstown, 14km (9 miles)
- Day 8: Robertstown to Milltown, 14km (8miles) that follows the canal
- Day 9: Milltown to Kildare, 9km (5 miles) with St. Brigid’s Fire within the eponym Cathedral
|Feast Day: 1st of February Pilgrimage Day: from 27th June-5th July||Distance: 147.7km/ 90.5 miles||Difficulty: Easy to Moderate as mostly on minor road but be careful with the mud|
#7 Slí Mór, Co Offaly
Starting point: Ballycumber
Revamped as a cycling route, walking remains enjoyable as it is not overcrowded. You will pass the Shrine of Saint Manchán mac Silláin, in Boher, where the relics of the wise and benevolent man have been venerated since his death in the 7th-century. The route will then lead you to Clonmacnoisemonastic site, strategically centralised to favour trade and educational exchanges. An Slí Mór, “Great Highway,” is the ancient east-to-west fast traveling route as the Esker Riada splits Ireland in two. The waterway converges with River Shannon, the north-to-south quick channel.
What’s in Clonmacnoise Monastic Site?
After studying under St. Finnian, St Ciarán, born Ciarán Mac an Tsaeir, founded Clonmacnoise in the 6th-century.
Located on the banks of river Shannon, the area encompasses seven churches (known as temples Finghín, Connor, Kelly, Ciarán, Melaghlin, Dowling and Hurpana) alongside a cathedral (aka Temple McDermot), two round towers (O’Rourke’s and McCarthy’s), two complete high crosses and the body of a third one (named the South, North and Cross of the Scriptures). In the 9th-century, it became one of the two most acclaimed academic centre in Europe alongside Clonard.
The graveyard contains the remains of the High Kings of both Tara and Connacht.
Admission Fee: Adult €8, Senior/Group €6, Child/Student €4, Family €20
|Feast Day: Ø||Distance: 22km/ 17.7 miles one way||Difficulty: Easy|
#8 Kilcommon Pilgrim Loop & Mauherslieve, Co Tipperary
Starting point: Kilcommon Church
The 7 kilometres (4.34 miles) making the loop pass along the Old Mass Path. It crosses forests and the Bilboa River. The Holy Well of St Cuimin, located in the ‘Prayers Garden’ is not far. Neither is the ‘Mass Rock’ of Laghile.
The hike to the mountain is wet and very difficult so only experienced hikers should head up to the 543-metre-high (1,783 feet) peak.
Why is Mauherslieve sacred?
At the peak of the mountain lies ‘the Terrot,’a pile of stones brought up by pilgrims hiking to the sacred site. They would take a piece from the foot of the ‘Mother Mountain’ and top up the edifice at each visit.
Legend says that below this cairn lies the body of young man. On a 29th of June, he chose to skip Sunday mass to go hunting instead. Even though it was the beginning of summer, a blizzard hit the lands and killed the deserter. His body was buried and people saw his death as a punishment from God and a sign of His greatness.
|Feast Day: 29th of June Pattern Day: 15th of August||Distance: 7km/ 4.34 miles to the bottom of the mountain||Difficulty: Moderate to the bottom of the mountain and then, ARDUOUS if climbing to the peak|
#9 Mám Éan, Co Galway
Starting Point: Most ‘popular’ one is from N59 parking area
Translated as “The Pass of the Birds,” this off-the-bitten-path walk has been sacred before the arrival of Christianity. Indeed, it was the place of the fiery autumn celebration of Lughnasa. Its meaning changed with the arrival of Saint Patrick.
The Christian route will lead you to the remote St Patrick Shrine. Halfway you’ll find “CiIIin Phédraig:” a tiny chapel where, in line with the legend, the saint bestowed his sanctifications. The myth also say that he stopped at a sacred well (also on the way) and, used to water to bless the lands surrounding him.
You will also pass next to a cross, held in a pile of rock, called the Mass Rock. It was used by Roman Catholics to pray with the utmost secrecy as the practice of their faith was outlawed. You’ll also discover all the cross’s stations (as the pile of rocks are still in place) and St Patrick’s Bed.
|Feast Day: 1st of August (Lughnasa) 17th of March (Saint Patrick)||Distance: 1.5km/ 0.93 miles from Parking||Difficulty: Easy|
#10 Mount Brandon, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry
Why is Mount Brandon Sacred?
This Cosán na Naomh, “Saints Road” has been popular amongst both Christian and Pagan pilgrims. Located on the Dingle peninsula, it owes its success to being the last place the sun sees before it sets; the perfect spot for Lughnasa fire festival.
The Celts venerate the giant Bran as he spent his life fighting to protect his people. At the time, beheading the defeated was common practice. It was believed that the spirit remained in the severed head. If one shows extreme consideration towards it, then the dead will support them in the otherworld.
Folklore tells that the war leader, poisoned by a dart during a battle, asked his men to cut off his head to prevail as their guardian in the afterlife.
The Christian version seemed to have found its sources in the myth of the behemoth. His story, however, portrays “The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.” For 7 years, he left his native land in search of the Promised Land. He took on his journey along with 14 monks (all fasting) and discovered several islands:
- one with foodstuff and no humans
- one with a boy who fed them
- one with sheep during the Holy week
- Jasconius where they sea-hunted both whales and fish, feast on Easter and commemorate the traditional Mass
- A bird paradise where the feathered creature sing sacred verses and worship God. The voyagers returned to this island later and received an omen “they will find the Promised Land (the island of Saints) only after they’ll achieve a 7-year trip.
- The magical isle of the silent Monks of Ailbe who make wizardry bread and never become older. The perfect place for Christmas
- One where water puts you asleep for up to three days
- The island of St Paul who, fed by an otter, lived recluse without apparel for over 60 years
He came back home after the realisation of the bird prophecy. A large assembly of pilgrims alongside students expected him and multiple religious sites where built around. The Saint offered his spiritual guidance until his last breath. Brendan is the saint patron of voyagers and sailors.
It is also said that the navigators discovered America long before Columbus and that the latter, inspired his travels from the stories of holy Brandon.
Starting Point: Faha car park, Ballynahow, Ballybrack or Kilvickadowning (aka Cill Mhic an Domhnaigh) from Ventry Strand
The walks are some of the wildest in Ireland: glacial valley, vistas over the Dingle Peninsula and the Blasket islands, Faha ridge, pure valleys and lakes.
Your route will end either at the bottom of the mountain or at Brendan’s Oratory, aka Séipéilín Bréanainn, at 952 metre-high (3123ft). This small chapel is where the Saint drove into seclusion to meditate before his long trip. St Brendan’s holy well, penitential cairns, stone structures await on the apex.
The restored marked-route stops at the foot of the mount as the state believes it is dangerous to climb. If you do, prepare yourself (at your own risk) to a steep hike with a potential baffling mist.
|Feast Day: 1st of August (Lughnasa) Last Sunday of July (Pattern Day) 16th of May (Saint Brendan)||Distance: 9 Km/ 6.6 miles from Ballybrack 15km/ 9.3 miles from Faha or Ballynahow 18km from Ventry Strand||Difficulty: Moderate (Ballybrack) Arduous (Faha/ Ballynahow) Easy to Moderate from Ventry Strand|
More Pilgrimages in Ireland
- Slieve League – the Pilgrim’s Path, Co Donegal. Also named Cosán an Oilithrigh, this 5.5km (3.5 miles) route is perfect for any levels. Those seeking for a longer and dizzying walk can carry on to the One’s Man Pass.
- Lough Derg, The Sanctuary of St Patrick, Co Donegal
- St Patrick’s Way, Co Mayo
- Caher Island, Co Mayo
- Croghan Hill, Co Offaly
- Pilgrim’s Path, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
- St Declan’s Way, Co Waterford/ Tipperary
- The Saint’s Way, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry
Other Important Religious Sites for Pilgrims
- Knock Shrine – one of Europe’s main shrines to Virgin Mary
- Monasterboice – St Buithe ascended into heaven
- Our Lady’s Island
- St Brigid Well in Co Clare
- Skellig Michael
- Drogheda head of peter plunkett a saint