At the end of August, Michael Kenning, a Diocesan Lay Reader in Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, based at Carrigrohane Union of Parishes, led a small group of young men from Carrigrohane and Christ Church, Bray, Co. Wicklow, on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Patrick. Michael had been planning to walk the Camino Inglés in Northern Spain, but due to Covid-19, was inspired to walk an Irish alternative route instead!
The group walked the Saint Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland from Navan Fort (Emain Macha), the ancient capital of Ulster, just outside Armagh City, to Downpatrick, the traditional burial place of Patrick. The 132 km (82 mile) pilgrim trail was developed a few years ago by Alan Graham, a veteran of Alpine and Arctic expeditions. It is designed to take in locations associated with the life and ministry of St. Patrick and to emulate the Camino de Santiago in an Irish setting through the provision of a Passport that pilgrims can get stamped at key locations along the route and keep as a souvenir after wards.
The pilgrimage took seven days to complete and each day the group used a liturgy and bible reading plan together as they walked, to help guide their prayers and provide the walk with a spiritual focus. They also stopped off where possible, to pray in churches, such as Newry Cathedral.
The route takes in a surprising diversity of scenery and history along the way. It begins with the ancient Irish literary associations of The Táin and the Ulster Cycle connected with Emain Macha and the rich spiritual history of Armagh, continues with the industrial heritage of Ulster where the walk follows the 250-year-old Newry Canal, rises to its highest elevation amongst the rugged beauty of the Mourne Mountains, traverses the estuarine and coastal habitats at Murlough Nature Reserve and Tyrella beach before concluding beside the Cathedral at Downpatrick, where Patrick was buried in A.D. 461. Along the way the group also examined the restored 16th century Bagenal’s Castle at Newry, the Anglo-Norman ruins of Dundrum Castle, the 7,000-year-old stone circle at Ballynoe and even an 18th century neo-gothic hermitage at Tollymore!
Although I am originally from Co.Down, I learnt many new things about St. Patrick and the heritage of my home area. For me, it was much an interior pilgrimage into my past as it was a physical walk. It was a special privilege to travel with such an impressive group of young men, who taught me so much though their maturity, spiritual insights and perseverance. They were such a joy to spend time with.
Jonathan Stanley from Bray said
I started the St Patrick’s way with a list of decisions I had to make in my life. I hoped that this would be a good opportunity to sort them out with the Lord. Instead, I felt God encouraging me to simply enjoy his company and marvel at his creation as I walked. The Mournes were stunning and beautifully silent but I particularly enjoyed walking along the sea at Murlough Nature Reserve at dusk, listening to the sound of Oystercatchers and the sea. By the end of the walk I still hadn’t made a single decision, but I was pleased that I had “wasted” several days resting and enjoying a companionable silence with God.
The pilgrimage concluded at Saul Parish Church, which is the traditional site of the first church in Ireland that Patrick started in the barn of a local chieftain called Dichu. It was a special privilege to meet both the Rector of Saul, the Very Rev. Henry Hull and the Bishop of Down and Dromore, the Right Reverend David McClay, who despite a busy schedule took the time to meet the pilgrims, listen to their personal stories and pray with them. It was a fitting end to a wonderful and personally challenging pilgrimage.