Arguably, Ireland’s most famous pilgrimage trail runs to the top of Croagh Patrick. More than a million pilgrims climb the holy mountain every year. (Adobe Stock)
Arguably, Ireland’s most famous pilgrimage trail runs to the top of Croagh Patrick. More than a million pilgrims climb the holy mountain every year. (Adobe Stock)

“Not all who wander are lost,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkein in his 1954 novel “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Making pilgrimages brings meaning to life for Christians around the world. Walking a pilgrimage adds an even bigger challenge and can serve to unite pilgrims with creation as well as the life of saints who lived in a world without technology or automobiles. Many know Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago. But what about some of the other walking pilgrimages in the world? Ireland, for instance, can offer visitors a hike through beautiful landscapes and historic places, often along ancient trails.

Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick is perhaps Ireland’s best-known walking pilgrimage. Tradition says the holy mountain overlooking Clew Bay in western Ireland’s County Mayo has been climbed by pilgrims for more than 5,000 years.

Pagans were thought to celebrate the harvest season there. For Christians, however, the mountain has special meaning. It was at the top of Croagh Patrick that Ireland’s patron saint, St. Patrick, fasted for 40 days in A.D. 441. The pilgrimage in honor of St. Patrick has been practiced ever since.

The 4.4-mile out-and-back trail climbs 2,457 feet to the peak. The heavily trafficked path is considered arduous. It is a mountain after all. The trail includes some difficult areas with loose stone, and many recommend having hiking books to traverse it. The mountain is one of the highest peaks in western Ireland and offers beautiful views of the surrounding area.

It draws about 1 million pilgrims each year. At its peak, there is a modern church where Mass is held and confessions heard.

Our Lady’s Island

In Ireland’s southeast county of Wexford, Our Lady’s Island is home to an ancient pilgrimage. The island lies in Our Lady’s Lake and is connected to the mainland by a causeway. For more than a thousand years, it has been a pilgrimage site and was established as a location for St. Abban’s monastery in the sixth century. It’s one of the oldest and most important Marian shrines in the country.

Today, pilgrims walk around the island reciting the rosary. More than 50,000 come to the island between Aug. 15 and Sept. 8 each year.

The trail circumnavigating the island comes in at 1.24 miles. For those wanting to extend their walking in County Wexford, there is a trail along the coast that connects Our Lady’s Lake and nearby Tacumshin Lake. The 11-mile out-and-back trail includes only 500 feet in elevation gain.

Caher Island

County Mayo’s Caher Island, or Isle of Saints, doesn’t offer an official hiking trail. The 128-acre uninhabited island off Ireland’s western shores does, however, offer pilgrims spirituality in nature and a bit of a challenge. Surrounded by treacherous waters, it can be reached only by experienced boatmen. It has no pier, so pilgrims must quickly scale rocks to get off their boats.

Once there, pilgrims can explore the serene island, which was home to an early Christian monastery dating back to the sixth or seventh centuries. The island is said to have been visited by St. Patrick and believed to have been his most westerly excursion. Pilgrims will find a chapel, crosses and stones and what is believed to have been a hermitage site. Across the island is the well of St. Mary Ever Virgin.

Local fishermen believe the island to be the most holy one along the coasts of County Mayo and County Galway.

Boats run to Caher Island from the nearby island of Inishturk. Pilgrims often come to the island after climbing Croagh Patrick around the feast of the Assumption. 

St. Kevin’s Way

Near Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains of County Wicklow is St. Kevin’s Way. The 18-mile one-way trail allows pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of St. Kevin, one of Ireland’s great monastic saints. The hermit lived out his life in the solitude of the Glendalough valley, which today marks the location of an ancient monastic city with some structures dating back to the 11th or 12th centuries. Pilgrims have been coming to Glendalough along St. Kevin’s Way since medieval times.

Pilgrims can walk the 18-mile trail in one day, but splitting it into two provides a more leisurely walk. The trail climbs a little more than 1,900 feet, making it a moderately difficult one.

Walkers begin hiking at Hollywood, traveling through forests, hills and valleys, passing ancient pilgrimage sites before arriving at the ruins in Glendalough.

St. Finbarr’s Way

County Cork’s St. Finbarr’s Way is a 22-mile hike crossing over three mountain ranges and through four valleys. Pilgrims begin their walk at The Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, where it is believed that St. Finbarr, in the sixth century, cautioned people to return to Christ before traveling to Gougane Barra. This is the route that marks St. Finbarr’s Way. The trail ends at St. Finbarr’s hermitage, sitting on an island in the middle of a serene lake.

The journey is considered strenuous and is recommended only for experienced hikers.

This is just a selection of some of Ireland’s pilgrimage walks. There truly is a walk for every experience level, all surrounding pilgrims with beautiful scenery, history and spirituality.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org