Rothar Routes

Cycle routes & pilgrim journeys in Ireland and Europe …..

Inis Cealtra – Holy Island

Holy Island Round Tower and St Colum’s Church

Plenty is known about the main pilgrimage routes and sites across Europe and, closer to home, about such places as Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. Pilgrimage to these major shrines and places was usually a once in a life time undertaking which very few of the ordinary people of the country could not contemplate.

But there were many other sites, which were more local in nature that filled a yearning in people for hundreds of years. Inis Cealtra, aka Holy Island is on Lough Derg in County Clare (though once part of County Galway) and it’s a beautiful place to visit.

St Brigids Church

There is little recording of the act of pilgrimage in Ireland apart from some historical references in the Annals to the death of someone on pilgrimage in Ireland. Seamus Heaney accounted for this best when he talks about ‘peasant pilgrimage’ – the goings on of the ordinary person about their daily lives. Going on pilgrimage and retreats was very much a feature of Irish life that did not get recorded, yet was a very important part of living. When you visit a place like Holy Island, you can feel the importance of the place as you as you set foot on it. Holy Island is one such place.

Access to Holy Island is by boat and no better man that Gerard Madden to ferry you across

The island consists of approximately 18 hectares and is accessed by boat from Mountshannon, a pretty little village on the western edge of Lough Derg. There are extensive monastic ruins, including a Round Tower and a number of small Churches – St Caimin’s, St. Colum’s, St Michael’s, St. Mary’s and St. Brigid’s. The monastery was originally founded by St Colum around the year 520 AD.. He is often referred to St. Colm of Terryglass, which is on the other side of the Lake. He was a pupil of St Finian of Clonard – who was originally from Myshall.

The monastery though is mainly associated with St. Caimin who is still revered in east Clare. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, his mother, Cumman had 77 children! One of the stories about Caimin, concerns a meeting he had on the island with his half brothers Guaire Aidhne, and Cummine Fota where they talked about what each wished the Church to be filled with. Guaire hoped for it be filled with gold and silver so that he could be generous to the poor, Cummine hoped for it to be filled with books so that students could learn but Caimin wished for the church to be filled with evert conceivable sickness so that all these diseases could be inflicted on his own body. All three wishes were fulfilled, Guaire got wealth, Cummine learning and Caimin was inflicted with illness!

Holy Island

There are a number of important artefacts on the island among them a Holy Well, also called ‘Lady’s Well’; the Bargaining Stone, where deals were sealed by shaking hands through the hole underneath the stone; some bullaun stones and some important cross decorated stones in the Saints Graveyard.

‘The Confessional’, one of the unique buildings on the Island – was it a hermits cell?
Holy Island Video

It’s a shame we don’t have better historical records as many of the monks who lived in these monasteries went on to be major historical figures in Europe and in the history of the Church. One such monk was Donatus. He was educated here and later travelled to Italy where he became Bishop of Fiesole. Margaret Stokes wrote extensively about the Irish Saints in Italy in her book ‘ Six Months in the Appenines: Or a Pilgrimage in Search of the Vestiges of The Irish Saints in Italy’. Donatus travelled with Andrew the brother of St Brigid. All three have links with Italy. I was fortunate to spend a little time in the area a couple of years ago and sought out these links. It was very rewarding!

Tomb of St. Donatus in Cathedral of Fiesole
St. Brigid’s Cave under the Church in the village of Santa Brigida, north of Fiesole.
St. Brigid’s Church, Holy Island

The Vikings of course visited here too and, led by Tugesius, plundered the monastery before going on to inflict more carnage on Clonmacnoise, further up the river. The island is also associated with Brian Ború, High King of Ireland and the man who got rid of the Vikings for good in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf. And I might add his son Turlough O Brien, King of Munster, buried his wife Gormlaith on Holy Island in 1076!

WB Yeats wrote about pilgrimage on the island in his poem ‘The Pilgrim’:

I fasted for some forty days on bread and buttermilk,
For passing round the bottle with girls in rags or silk,

In country shawl or Paris cloak, had put my wits astray,
And what’s the good of women, for all that they can say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man, and though, I prayed all day
And that old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck,
And that should mother seek her son she’d have but little luck
Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away;
I swear to God I questioned them, and all they had to say
Was fol de rol de rolly O.
A great black ragged bird appeared when I was in the boat;
Some twenty feet from tip to tip had it stretched rightly out,
With flopping and with flapping it made a great display,
But I never stopped to question, what could the boatman say
But fol de rol de rolly O.
Now I am in the public-house and lean upon the wall,
So come in rags or come in silk, in cloak or country shawl,
And come with learned lovers or with what men you may,
For I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

Máméan Part 11

Having walked Máméan on Saturday last, I got engrossed in reading Christopher Somerville’s ‘Walking in Ireland’ (buy it if you don’t already have it!) earlier this evening. I then looked up his website to see had he covered this magical walk at any stage from his great series in the Irish Independent. He did of course, back in 2009 and below is the beautiful sketch map of the walk and the highlights of the route:

‘I always felt close to Máméan,’ observed Fr. Micheál McGreal down the crackly phone line from Mayo. ‘My grandparents had their sheep on Binn Mhairg, and I’d spend my summer holidays with them as a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s. So I always loved that place.’

I’d called Fr. McGreal as soon as I’d got home from Connemara after walking over Máméan, the Pass of the Birds. Who wouldn’t be enthused to bursting by this peach of an expedition through the wild and lovely Maumturk Mountains? It was my walking companion on the day, Tom Fitzgerald – a Kerryman by birth, but a Co. Galway resident these 30 years – who told me, as we climbed the stony path to the pass, of the priest and his revival of a famous, perhaps infamous, pilgrimage.

The 12 Bens of Connemara stood high and handsome behind us across the Inagh Valley, Bencorr in front, with Beanna Beola and Benbaun peeping over her shoulders. Ahead the slopes of Binn Mhór and Binn Mhairg cradled the rising path, their quartzite rock now glinting dully as cloud shadows brushed through, now gleaming dazzlingly as sunlight struck across. Up at the pass stood a tiny chapel, an altar and the cave-like recess called St Patrick’s Bed. A statue of the saint brooded over the path, a sheep at his heels. Had the good shepherd Patrick once walked these slopes, blessed the holy well nearby and slept in the cave? Many down the centuries thought and felt that he had, and they forged a pilgrim path to the pass with its breathtaking views over the Inagh and Maam valleys.

Three or four decades ago, as Tom Fitzgerald told the story, the pilgrimage had all but died out, partly owing to the hostility of the clergy towards the pilgrims’ indulgence in poitín, partly to competition from Reek Sunday – the Máméan pilgrimage shared the last Sunday in July with the hugely popular gathering at Croagh Patrick only 30 miles away. Then Fr. McGreal took a hand, as he himself recounts: ‘I had a youth organisation camp up there one day, a terrible wet day. I said Mass under an umbrella, and thought to myself: This could go on from here! So I got formal permission to say another Mass up there. Afterwards the people pushed a whole lot of money over the rock at me – I didn’t want it, but they insisted. So we built an altar with it. I wanted to put a strong Christian message on the place, without interfering with all the pre-Christian wells and stones and the other sacred sites there.’

The other component parts of the site followed over the years: Stations of the Cross, a small chapel, the statue of St Patrick with the sheep, stained glass windows for the chapel, all built or contributed by local people. Wandering round the Stations and the penitential beds of pebbles, dipping at the holy well, savouring the mighty rushing wind and the never-ending Connemara march of pelting showers, sunbursts and rainbows, one catches the power and pull of this high place.

Tom and I upped anchors eventually and went on down the northern side of the pass, with one of Tom’s extra special home-made blackberry and apple pies the promised prize at the end of the walk. It was a magically beautiful descent with the Maam Valley stretched out at our feet, and a farmer and his dogs gathering sheep on the green slopes of Binn Mhairg as young Micheál McGreal helped his grandfather do some seventy years ago.

‘As long as I am a priest,’ says Fr. McGreal, with quiet determination, ‘I’ll say Mass at Máméan once a year. It’s a remarkable experience. Nearly a thousand people can be up there. I like it when they pray in total silence – but you have to be very tolerant of the way people worship their God! When they are all quiet, it’s beautiful, even in the wind, the fog and mist – just beautiful.’

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 37, 38, 44; downloadable map/instructions at http://www.discoverireland.ie/walking.

TRAVEL:
Road: A 2-car walk. Park one car at Keane’s pub, Maam Bridge (junction of R336 and 345); drive other car R336 to Maam Cross, N59 towards Clifden. Entering Recess, just before bridge, right on country road (OS ref. L 873475; ‘Slí Chonamara, Máméan’ sign) for 2 miles to parking place at foot of Máméan (OS ref. 892495).

WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow yellow ‘walking man’ waymarks for 2½ miles up over Máméan pass and down to road (922519); ahead for 1¼ miles to Cur/An Chorr; right for 2 miles to R336; left to Keane’s pub.

LENGTH: 6 miles: allow 3-4 hours

GRADE: Moderate

CONDITIONS: Steady climb and descent on rough mountain path, then country roads

DON’T MISS … !
• views back toward the 12 Bens
• Tobar Phádraig at the pass
• views to your left, while descending, up Gleann Fhada to Barr Sliabh na Ráithe

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic at the pass

ACCOMMODATION: Rosleague Manor, Letterfrack (095-41101; http://www.rosleague.com) – very comfortable, stunningly located.

GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: Slí an Iarthair, the Western Way in Connemara by Joss Lynam, Justin May, Tim Robinson (Folding Landscapes)

HOLY DAYS AT MÁMÉAN: St Patrick’s Day (1.30 pm, Mass); Good Friday (3.00 pm, Stations of the Cross); 1st Sunday of August (3.00 pm, Mass)

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: http://www.discoverireland.ie/walking; http://www.coillteoutdoors.ie

INFORMATION:
Tourist Office: Oughterard (091-552-808; http://www.discoverireland.ie/west)

csomerville@independent.ie

Cillin Phádraig

Máméan Pilgrim Path

4th Station. An Mac agus an Mháthair

Pilgrimages are never meant to be easy! Pilgrim sites are often located in remote and difficult places to access. Yesterday I visited the stunningly beautiful Máméan situated in a mountain pass in the Maamturk Mountains. Máméan (Pass of the Birds) is one of the those really ancient sites that stretch back into the mists of time. It certainly feels like that when you reach the Chapel.

The act of pilgrimage is back in vogue or certainly the major walking routes such as the Camino routes in Spain and the Via Francigena are; the reasons are many but for modern pilgrims religious reasons are less likely than those of self discovery, spiritual reasons and a sense of adventure.

Here in Ireland Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg and Knock Shrine are three long established and extremely popular pilgrimages. But there are many other lesser known places of pilgrimage which as Louise Nugent points out in her book, ‘Journeys of Faith’ a local pilgrimage reinforces the bonds of the local community and acts as a cohesive force.

Statue of St Patrick with Maam Valley in back ground

Today is Reek Sunday, when thousands normally flock to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain but due to Covid Reek Sunday has been cancelled. This site is also associated with Saint Patrick. There is a well close by the Chapel named after our patron saint. Patrick is reputed to have come up the Pass from Joyce country, down in Maam Valley, and to have blessed the lands of Connemara and converting it to Christianity.

The path across the mountain is much older and it can be tricky to traverse! It’s possible to experience four seasons weather up here in the space of a few minutes and there is plenty of water under foot.

Slippery under foot as water cascades downhill

The pilgrimage to Máméan fell into disrepute in the 19th century due due drunkeness and fighting, no doubt fuelled by the plentiful supply of locally made poitín! Many of these pattern days were closed down by the church during the 18th and 19th century but his allowed the purely religious aspect of the pilgrimage to survive and prosper (Peter Harbison, ‘Pilgrimage in Ireland’). Máméan was revived thanks to the great work of a local priest who family had sheep on the mountain, Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, and there are now three pilgrim dates on the local calendar – St Patrick’s Day, Good Friday and the first Sunday in August.

Statue of Saint Patrick created by Cliodhna Cussen in 1986

The site also features a mass rock which was used during the time of the Penal Laws, when it was forbidden to say mass in Ireland. There are also stones of the cross spread across the site.

Cillin Phádraig
Lot of water on slippery rocks on the way down. Caution required!

Whether you have an interest in pilgrimage or not, this is a pilgrim path worth visiting. The views are stunning in all directions and the route is part of the long distance walking route, The Western Way.

The Path
The path up from Maam Valley
On the way down, a hill runner passes me!
Starting point of pilgrim path to Máméan

Pat Kearney’s Big Stone

‘A pilgrimage within a pilgrimage’

While approaching the end of my 680 kms cycling pilgrimage along the proposed Turas Columbanus I took time to make a mini pilgrimage to Goward Dolmen in the Parish of Clonduff, County Down.

The reason being my aunt Madge is married to Pete Kearney and they have lived in Mittagong New South Wales for many years. The Kearneys originally hailed from Goward, but there are no Kearneys living in the old parish now.

While cycling out of Hilltown in the rain recently I asked an elderly lady if she knew of Pat Kearney’s Stone and she gave me good directions. But she wasn’t aware of any Kearneys from the area. As I turned onto the laneway I could see that the furze bushes had been cut and the lane was littered with thorn branches. Between the rain and the thorns I decided not to venture the mile or so off route and planned to visit on my next leg of the journey.

On Tuesday I completed Turas Columbanus to Bangor and on my return via Hilltown, I drove to Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.

Pat Kearney's Big Stone
Pat Kearney’s Big Stone

Pete’s father, also Peter, carried out detailed research some years ago, along with his wife and established where their ancestors were from and he came across a photo of his great grandfather sitting on a ledge beside the big stone.

Petes’ brother Michael sitting alongside the Stone, recreating the photo of his Great Grandfather from 1850

The first member of the family to visit the Stone was Pete’s son, and our first cousin, Jason, who was sent on a mission by his Grandad to visit the Stone and take photos. Pete and members of his family subsequently visited the area some years back and completed walks from Kilbroney to the Stone thus honouring their ancestors and their home place. Pete just provided me with the following detail about the Kearney family of Goward and Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.

Turas Columbanus Stage 11 – Final Stage!

After crossing the Mourne Mountains I thought was finished with hills but this is drumlin country and it was constantly up and down, though while none of them very high, it was draining.

There is lots of coastal scenery – stunning on a good dry day, sunny in the early stages.

The Mournes from 12 Arches Bridge

Most of this 110 kms stage was on local roads where I availed of the signposted Cycle routes 99, 20 and 93. The route follows the coast around through Dundrum to Ballykinler – where Down GAA are due to locate their Centre of Excellence on the site of the British Army base. Lots of gunfire could be heard from the base, presumably from the firing range. The Isle of Man was clearly visible out in the Irish Sea.

Near Ballykinler
Lots of Biblical messages along the roads of Down!

The route winds its way around the coast and up and down the many drumlins but it’s easy pick up the right turns as this route is well signposted as Route 99. It’s well selected as the roads are extremely quiet and the views are outrageous! Ballynoe Stone Circle was an interesting stopping off point and you can sense the magic of the place. Continue on for about 5kms to arrive into Downpatrick, resting place of our national saint, Saint Patrick.

Burial site of Saint Patrick
Ballynoe Stone Circle
Near Ballykinler
Strangford Lough

When you get to Downpatrick it is important not to follow this route out of Downpatrick and instead pick up Route 20 – I missed that and ended up on main road for 7 kms where I then rejoined route 20. This is a great route over to Mahee Island and on into into Comber. Mahee Island was stunning and worth the diversion even if it added 15kms to the journey with Nendrum Monastic site so beautifully located with stunning views of the Lough. This was a very important monastic site and would have been associated with Bangor Abbey and possibly our main man Columbanus. Definitely one of my favourite sections of the entire route.

Nendrum Monastic Site
Nendrum Round Tower Ruin
These videos will give you a good idea of what the route is like in Down.
Nendrum Monastic Site is at the end of Mahee Island – a really impressive site

Return back to the turn off for Mahee and take a right which brings you into Comber where you pick up Route 99 again but make sure you head towards Newtownards! Its a quiet road but with a good pull to Scrabo Hill which is adorned by the Scrabo Tower, a landmark you will have seen from Mahee Island. It is a nice downhill into Newtownards, with is a major urban centre and easy to get lost in. Change to Route 93 here and head up Mountain Road towards Crawfordsburn. Saw a herd of deer up on top! The route crosses the main Belfast – Bangor dual carriage way and winds its way along the coast. However time was slipping away on me and I took the most direct route into Bangor.

Finally I had arrived in Bangor where Columbanus spent many years as a monk before heading for Europe in his 50th year or later!

Turas Columbanus, also known as the Columban Way, traces the journey of Columbanus, in the late 6th and early 7th century through Ireland but also France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy from his birth place in the shadow of Mount Leinster in Carlow to his resting place in Bobbio, south of Milan in northern Italy.

The Turas Columbanus is the Irish section of this pilgrim walk / cycle through countryside, pathways, villages and towns from Ireland’s Ancient East through the monastic and medieval foundations from Myshall, Carlow, through the midlands, to Cleenish on Lough Erne, Armagh and Bangor.

For me it is important to keep the memory of this great Irish “Man of Letters” and “First European” alive in the 21st century and aspects of his life which are of significant interest to those who work towards an integrated Europe open to all.

France is next!

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