Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Thirteenth Day

Having experienced the beauty of Knock yesterday afternoon, we awoke to cloudy weather and a light misty rain. That, however, did not deter us from boarding our coach – after a hardy breakfast – and heading in a generally northerly direction. Our destination at the end of the day is the city of Derry or Londonderry (depending on one’s political appreciation) in Northern Ireland.

But it wasn’t going to be a clear shot north Our journey would take in a few points of interest along the way, one of which had a particularly interesting spiritual insight to offer.

The first of those stops was to the church and churchward within which WB Yeats, one of Ireland’s great poets, is interred. The Church of St Columba’s, Drumcliff is reputably constructed on the site of an ancient monastery founded by St Columba, and the remains of a round tower and a high cross mark the history of the site. The church building itself is a very interesting design and an example of the kind of neo-gothic architecture that was prevalent in church construction in the very early 1800s.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the lack of a central aisle, and the use of box pews, both of which fit perfectly within a Church of Ireland (i.e. Anglican) ecclesiology and liturgical practice but is entirely foreign to a Roman Catholic approach. What I realised, however, was that when walking into a church building, regardless of the tradition to which it belongs, I was viewing through distinctly Roman Catholic liturgical eyes – and that doesn’t do the building, or the people who use it, justice.

From Drumcliff, we ventured up the road a little to visit something which, at first blush anyway, would seem out of place on a pilgrimage. The insights gathered, however, made the stop at Atlantic Sheepdogs, with Martin the shepherd (who was informative, entertaining, and possessed a wonderful sense of humour) and Bob the sheepdog. It was fun to watch Bob and Martin work a small flock of sheep – the concentration of Bob was unbelievable – and to listen to the story behind the wonderful bond between shepherd and sheepdog.

It was interesting to hear that Bob the sheepdog doesn’t receive a reward for working. Working is itself his reward. He clearly enjoys his work and responds to the movements and commands (verbal and whistled) given by Martin naturally that is enhanced by the training given to him. The way he instinctively managed and controlled the sheep with Martin was fascinating, as was his ‘staring down’ of the sheep was wonderful.

The imagery, however, was perfect. Martin had his shepherd’s crook, and while his sheep were marked with a spraypainted sign, Martin was quick to remind us that he, the shepherd, knew every single one of his flock of sheep (numbering around 100) not because of the sign but individually by face. It is, metaphorically, a wonderful image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who also knows each one of his flock individually and personally, and what those entrusted with the pastoral care of the Christian faithful are also called to emulate – to know their flock, to have the smell of the sheep, to know them not simply as someone who sits in a church building, but one who is known personally. It can be a hard task and a monumental challenge, but the image is there – and one which was reinforced for this pastoral minister by the imagery presented to me by Martin the shepherd and Bob his sheepdog.

One has to wonder though, that if this pastoral minister is called to emulate Martin the shepherd in his knowledge and care of this sheep – who is my sheepdog? And where can I get one of those whistles?!

And so we continue, journey off the beaten track in order to get to our lunch destination – the Sandhouse Hotel at Rossnowlagh – by the seaside. It was a fleeting visit, but the presence of a surf shop and school was a welcoming site.

From Rossnowlagh we moved on towards the city of Derry/Londonderry, where we were treated to a walking tour of the city walls. This, of course, enabled us to hear something of the history of the city, from its foundations through to the renewal that came in the wake of the reconciliation after the Troubles. The city was, of course, a focus of the Troubles, though less than other parts of Northern Ireland, and was a place where reconciliation was allowed to become a possibility. The ‘tensions’ might still be there but the prevalence of violence is negligible. The renewal of the city is made real in the way buildings are being renewed and handed back to the people of the city. One can only hope that peace takes firm root and the city continues to flourish.

After some time to wander around the city – for many of the group an opportunity to grab some Pounds to be used, and restock necessary supplies – we jumped back on the coach and made our way to our hotel for the night (thankfully the last one-night stay of the trip!) which is located a little way out of the city centre. A meal, some conversation, and then off to bed in preparation for our journey tomorrow towards Belfast.