by Amanda Wagstaff, Hut2Hut Pilgrimage Editor
March 22th-29th, 2016 is Pilgrim Paths Week in Ireland. This national event, which takes place simultaneously at various pilgrimage sites, first started on Easter Saturday 2014 in an effort to revive interest in Ireland’s ancient pilgrim paths. It’s been growing ever since. Not only do many Irish citizens walk these paths, but many foreign visitors, including myself, have been attracted to these ancient pathways, many of which date from prehistory.
The initial efforts to restore pilgrim paths came from local residents who wanted to preserve their local history and create economic opportunities by attracting tourists and holiday walkers. The Heritage Council joined their efforts in 1997, with the beginning of the Pilgrim Paths project to connect these local efforts and create a national network of pilgrimage walks.
Irish writers have also contributed to the pilgrim path revival. When I first began my research here in Ireland, I read Darach McDonald’s travelogue “Tóchar: Walking Ireland’s Ancient Pilgrim Paths” in which he chronicles his pilgrimage experiences. Another such writer is John G. O’Dwyer, who writes extensively on walking and pilgrimage in Ireland. His guidebook “Pilgrim Paths in Ireland” has been a valuable source of information for planning my own trips. He is also a regular contributor to The Irish Times with a series of articles called “A Walk for the Weekend” and an article from last fall, “Why are pilgrim walks popular again?” This article gives a brief overview of the revival of pilgrimage in Ireland over the last 30 years as a result of several interconnected factors: a longing to preserve, restore, and reconnect to local heritage and the environment, and also recent recreation and lifestyle trends.
Though some modern-day pilgrims are seeking spiritual experiences, many walkers are simply seeking activities that promote physical and mental well-being. This is part of the growing popularity of long distance walking in general, not just pilgrimage, as evidenced by the success of walking holiday companies and books like “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, both recently adapted into films.
I think the restorative effects of walking are especially attractive at this time for a number of reasons. Today more than ever, we understand the destructiveness of our sedentary lifestyles, and we are experiencing the serious effects of environmental degradation caused by human activities. As the social, economic, and political fabric of our societies seems to be stretched to the point of ripping apart – we seek meaning. Pilgrimage offers a personal way to address these concerns. In a way, it is comforting to know that pilgrimage paths have survived the test of time despite centuries of change, conflict, and upheaval. Ireland, with both its rich pilgrimage traditions and contemporary pilgrimage revival, feels especially welcoming.