Over the Easter break I got away for a couple of days to beautiful West Cork to fulfil a long held ambition – to complete St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Walk from ‘Top of the Rock’ nr Drimoleague to Gougane Barra over two days. It’s about 40km over some of the most spectacular scenery in Ireland. But more than that, it’s been developed as a Christian pilgrimage route – part of a wider movement to re-discover and re-develop Ireland’s rich legacy of Christian pilgrimage.
It’s been partly developed by friends, David and Elizabeth Ross, who have now just opened a wonderful walking centre on their farm, complete with a ‘pod pairc’ – cosy cabins designed from the Gallarus’ Oratory in Kerry. Read a good piece in the Irish Examiner here.
Pilgrimage has been defined as “a meaningful journey to a place of spiritual significance.” The idea is to provide a space and place for spiritual reflection – walking in beautiful countryside, following in the footsteps of 7th Cent St Finbarr.
I can’t speak highly enough of the facility (loved my pod!), the Rosses’ warm hospitality, the lovely weather, the whole idea of a pilgrimage walk (the idea didn’t take into account my hiking shoes falling apart, but I’ll come back to that).
The walking centre has been carved out of earth and stone and wood – those elements getting rearranged from an old quarry surrounded by fir trees into the wooden pods, crushed gravel yard, stone buildings and walls. This is culture-making: – taking the raw materials of God’s creation and imaginatively re-ordering them into something beautiful and yet also functional – done with much love, prayer and a ton of hard work.
David and Elizabeth are the third generation of Rosses to live at Top of the Rock. David’s grandfather lost both legs in his 60s but kept persevering – and the family think he’d like the idea of the farm he worked so hard to establish being used as a walking centre.
Day 1 was a 22km hike, about 8.5 hours. David sent me on my way with a prayer from Top of the Rock viewpoint (looking north at Castledonovan and the mountain of Mullaghmesha beyond over which the path goes). From its summit you can see the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas snaking their way into the Atlantic.
The route follows Finbarr’s journey north to Gougane Barra (the lake is the source of the River Lee) where he established a monastic settlement. He later founded another monastery where the Lee met the tide – which became Cork city.
From first to last, the thing that struck me was birdsong – incessant, loud, joyful, beautiful. I heard far more birds than I saw and wish I knew how to identify songs – the ones I saw included blue tits, chaffinches, thrushes, wrens, robins, coal tits, pheasants, kestrals, wagtails, martins, some swallows just arriving from South Africa, and up higher in the hills, larks.
This was a warm spring day, with hardly a breath of wind and the land bursting forth with life – hedgerows sprouting, primroses blossoming, fushia hedges budding, sheep lambing, cows calving, the gorse exploding in colour and scent …
Just after this the sole of my (admittedly 20 yr old) right boot chose to remain in the bog rather than attached to my shoe – this with 10 km still to go. I ended up tying the sole onto the shoe with the laces from both feet. A temporary fix that sort of worked if I walked like Quasimodo. [Eventually the loose left boot helped to develop a nice blister on my left foot, and with a couple of miles to go the right boot fell apart altogether and I finished the last section walking the road in my socks ….]
So that’s how to lose your sole on a pilgrim walk 🙂
The last section follows the Meelagh Valley and then up over the hills and down to Kealkil – passing the Megalithic wedge tomb (c. 2500 BC) near the Meelagh River and the Kealkil Stone Circle (c. 1400 BC) above the village.
Day 2 began at Carriganass Castle in Kealkil. This was a beautiful walk up the valley, past the ancient Moughanasilly row of standing stones and remote farms.
The route then cuts across boggy heathland before winding its way past the Kealkil wind farm and up towards Conigar mountain.
The light was diamond clear to begin but the weather began to close in on the mountain as showers developed. The views from the top were marvellous, looking across to Kerry and the Magillycuddy’s Reeks on one side, Knockboy on the other and Bantry Bay lying behind. And also, looking down, the welcome view of Gougane Barra, the final destination, set like a jewel in the valley floor.
The final descent, I don’t mind admitting, was tough going with weary legs, and soaked feet (in runners since the boots had done their last walking). About 5.30 hours in all.
These were a fantastic two days: pristine air, magnificent scenery, extravagant beauty and all in the context of warm hospitality.
Pilgrimage has an integral place within Roman Catholicism, tied closely to devotion to saints. Because of this, Protestants and evangelicals have tended to shy away from pilgrimage – which is a shame. I don’t know about you, but I think more and more are rediscovering the value of a journey: a walk, time to reflect, to pray, to enjoy creation, to go in company, to slow down, to be physically stretched out of your comfort zone, to get away from the incessant clamour of capitalism, 24 hour news and the tyranny of the urgent.
In saying this, it is not as if God is somehow only found in ‘retreat’ and silence – he is there in the ordinariness of everyday life and work. But, sometimes we need a shift of gear, a change from ordinary routines to create space for spiritual refreshment. I can’t say I had a blinding mountain top ‘spiritual experience’, but I do know that I returned physically tired but with renewed joy and peace in my soul ….
Have you a place you go to or a pilgrimage you have done where you have experienced God in a different way?
Two words come to mind after the walk, both talked much about in Psalms of praise – which have most to say about God and creation:
Beauty: Walking gives time to pay attention and to hear creation as well as see it; to get in tune with the surrounding world in a culture of terminal distraction and noise … The words of Psalm 98 of the rivers clapping their hands and the mountains singing for joy at the justice and goodness of God took on new meaning for me in West Cork.
Journey: St Finbarr’s pilgrim path is only two days – it is not quite the Camino yet. But it is a physical reminder of how the Christian faith itself is a pilgrimage – a journey towards a known eschatological destination – a renewed creation where God will be with his people.
At times the path gets hard (a mountain or bog in the way), there are self-made diversions (getting lost by not following the map), unexpected obstacles and temptation to give up (soles falling off), opportunities to help others (being asked to herd cattle along the road), weariness (physical limitations / getting older!) … but the good news is that Jesus promises rest for the weary and burdened.
And that final destination is where beauty and journey meet – and there is no more powerful image for this than the breathtaking valley of Gougane Barra …