Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Last Day

The last day of our pilgrimage dawned overcast and raining which, in one sense, was most appropriate given that our group of pilgrims had started to disburse during the very early hours of the morning. By the time we boarded the coach that was taking us from Belfast back to Dublin, we were down to just twenty-four pilgrims.

We had a leisurely start to the day, though, not being required to be ‘on and gone’ until 11am. This late start gave those travelling on the coach the chance to (re)pack their bags for whatever was happening next, whether it be jumping aboard a flight, popping over to the other island of the British Isles, or to Europe, or … well, you get the idea.

Our coach trip, originally planned as a direct hop from Belfast to Dublin, was massaged so that it now included a visit to the town of Armagh, a town that has the privilege of being host to not one Cathedral of St Patrick, but two Cathedrals of St Patrick – one Catholic, and one Church of Ireland. Our visit, unsurprisingly, was to the Catholic version…and it was stunningly beautiful. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore the cathedral – there was a wedding scheduled…on a Saturday! Who would have thought?! – but there was a still an opportunity to ramble around and take some photographs.

A number of features stick in my mind. Firstly, there was the wonderful set of stairs that make their way from the front gate, up the gentle slope of the hill on which the cathedral stands, and opens into a large forecourt outside the main doors of the building. They are clearly a later addition to the building but add significantly to the overall significance of the building. I would hazard a guess (I can’t be sure because the weather and time constraints prohibited experimentation) that they would also be a wonderful processional route that ends at the door of the cathedral.

The second feature that sticks in my mind is the ‘presbytery’ of the sanctuary area, that space where the bishop’s cathedra is located. It was remarkable because there were permanent seating surrounding the bishop’s chair, symbolic in one sense in the same way that the seating for the liturgical assembly is also permanent. In other words, regardless of whether they are occupied or not, the fullness of the Church is made manifest through the medium of seating – the bishop, surrounded by his clergy, and the people of the diocese for whom he is the shepherd are present and thus, as the liturgical documents remind us, there the Church is made manifest most perfectly. It was certainly worth a thought.

After our quick visit to the cathedral, we headed out of Armagh in the general direction of Dublin (by which I mean, we took a circuitous route), stopping for lunch in the town of Scarva before heading to the seaside town of Newcastle. Our visit to Newcastle was a drive through, largely because of the inclement weather, and we continued on our way towards the town of Newry, and then Carlingford, a small town that stands beside Carlingford Lough. In the journey between Newry and Carlingford, we crossed again from the Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, from miles to kilometres, from Pounds Sterling to Euros.

It was at Carlingford, in the small church dedicated to St Michael, that we had the opportunity to celebrate Eucharist right at ‘the end’ of our journey. With thanks to Fr Brian, the parish priest and a fine Irish gentleman, we celebrated Mass for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, praying for all of the pilgrims whether they were still with us or not, for all those who had need of our prayers, and for the future journeys on the cusp of which we all stood.

After Mass, we boarded the coach for the last time and headed towards Dublin, specifically Dublin Airport, where we disembarked and said farewell to those who would be staying in Ireland, or hopping over to the other island of the British Isles, or to Europe, or … well, you get the idea. We also said farewell to Barbara, our guide, whom we had met at that same airport only two weeks before, but whose presence, guidance, and sense of humour had contributed so much to the experience.

And so, as I said at the end of my last post, the pilgrimage had come to an end, but the journey was about to continue.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Fifteenth Day

A relatively early start today for our first (and only) full day in Belfast. And that was because we weren’t staying in Belfast, but heading in the general direction of Downpatrick, the place where St Patrick (along with Sts Brigid and Columba) is reputed to be buried.

There was something profound about heading to a place so connected with Patrick, the most famous of all Irish saints. During the pilgrimage, we had already been to other places that are associated with other Irish saints – Kildare, Glendalough, Ardmore, Dingle, etc. – so it seemed fitting that a place associated with Patrick was among the last.

The hill on which Patrick is buried, along with his companion saints, is not the home of a large cathedral church for the Church of Ireland. A religious building has stood on this site for centuries upon centuries, and the current building is beautiful both inside and out. The cathedral is set up in ‘choir style’ with each side of the central aisle facing each other. Such a setting can be a challenge for some folks, but it is entirely in keeping with the history of this particular building and its predecessors as monastic foundations – where ‘choir style’ would be the norm rather than the exception.

Worthy of particular mention, however, is the recently renovated sanctuary area. The altar table and other sanctuary furniture are both in keeping with the other furniture of the cathedral and yet are not entirely. The styling of them highlights the sanctuary area in a way that might not otherwise be possible and so it is a fitting ‘fit’ for this particular building. Our guide noted that the lectern from which the Scriptures are proclaimed, and which is of a similar pattern to the altar table, was a gift from the Benedictine monastery located not too far away from the cathedral – a fitting gift to highlight the Benedictine origins of the building that stands on the hill.

The grave of St Patrick (and the other two) is located outside the cathedral atop a little mound accessible by a few stairs and a little pathway. It is marked by a large stone that is marked simply with the saint’s name. It was wonderful to stand there, around that stone, on a spot that is so significant to the Christian history of Ireland and spend a few minutes in prayer. It was, fittingly, a nice way to begin to draw our pilgrimage together and to an end.

After some time in prayer, we wandered down the hill to the St Patrick’s Centre, where we had the opportunity to delve into the history of St Patrick and Christianity in Ireland – and to have some of our presuppositions about Patrick, in particular, quashed. It was good to hear something other than the myths associated with Patrick, though I will now have to reassess my whole sense of preparation for 17 March each year.

Reboarding the coach we headed back to Belfast where the afternoon was essentially ‘at leisure’ – basically meaning we were free to do whatever we wanted. A goodly number of our group went to explore the now decommissioned Crumlin Road Gaol. Personally, I went and had a nap.

Our dinner that evening wasn’t our usual approach to dinner. Tonight we celebrated our last night together by adjourning to a local restaurant for a festive meal to mark the end of the pilgrimage. The meal was wonderful, the company was terrific, there were thankyous, and there were some farewells – because we would start to dissipate from early tomorrow morning.

As the meal drew to an end we started to say goodbye to those who would leave us here in Belfast – and it was tough! Over the last two weeks we have experienced a journey across Ireland that has been both enjoyable and spiritual. We will always share that experience for no other reason than we have journeyed together.

So as the pilgrimage comes to an end, the journey continues.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Fourteenth Day

Arising from slumber in Derry, we made an early start for our drive to Belfast. Roadworks required the occasional detour, but that did not deter our merry bunch of pilgrims: we were on the coach and ready to go (or ‘on and gone’) for a 9am departure. The trip was uneventful, and we arrived in the city of Belfast in good time.

Our first stop today was the ‘Titanic Quarter’, a place of very significant investment in recent years in the light of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. The target of our journey was the  Titanic Museum, which is built on the site of the shipyard in which the Titanic was constructed over 100 years ago. The museum is a very interesting building, with a shape that resembles the prow of that iconic vessel.

The exhibition on the inside of the museum focuses less on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic and more on the construction of the ship and the city of Belfast as it was at the time. Clearly, shipbuilding was one of the major economic mainstays of the city, along with linen, and the display made it clear why Belfast was selected as the home of construction for Titanic and her sister ships.

My only ‘complaint’ was the layout of the exhibition: the sheer number of visitors didn’t make progressing through the displays in an easy fashion, and there were times when the volume of visitors seemed to outweigh the space available. Or at least that was how it appeared to me.

We lunched (and shopped) at the museum, before boarding our bus again for a tour around the city, taking in some of the significant sights and exploring some of the tumultuous history of the city, particularly during the times of the troubles. We visited the Peace Wall with its murals, and drove through the neighbouring areas populated by Catholics and Protestants – and it was very obvious which was which. There are still the scars of the Troubles, and the tensions seem only just below the surface. We can only pray that violence, particularly violence that is determined on the basis of religious affiliation (though of course, the causes are much more complex), is able to benefit from the ongoing attempts at reconciliation, rapprochement, and renewal.

After touring, we made our way to our hotel, a place which would be our last ‘stay’ for the pilgrimage journey. We had some ‘free time’ before our dinner that evening, so members of our merry band of pilgrims went this way and that as their preferences took them; I, personally, had a quick nap.

Our dinner that evening was a melancholy moment because it would our last ‘ordinary’ meal together. We ate, however, and then eventually retired to sleep, perchance to dream, but most especially to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures.

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.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Twelfth Day

We started our day still in the city of Galway, and although we had an ‘early’ start to the day, we spent most of the morning in and around Galway. We had the opportunity to wander and ramble and explore the inner city until just after lunch, and so we did, each going their own way – although it was surprising how many times we could cross each other’s paths as we did so. Funny about that.

Mum and I explored the inner city across the pedestrianised streets, visiting the occasional store. The highlight of the morning for me, however, was the return to the Cathedral, to experience, once more, the ambience – the prayerful and welcoming ambience – of that glorious building. I wanted to go to the Cathedral bookstore (and yes, I did purchase something – no surprise!), but that was the ‘excuse’ (at least in my own mind) for wandering back into the warmth of that building, a warmth that was both physical and spiritual.

After a spot of lunch, our group of pilgrims reassembled and reboarded our coach, heading out of the city of Galway in the direction of Knock, and to the Shrine of Our Lady that is located there. It was only a short journey to the place where we would both stop and pray, and spend the night.

The Shrine at Knock is ‘huge’, located around the original parish church where the apparition occurred and stretching to encompass a basilica, a reconciliation chapel, museum, bookstores, facilities, etc., etc. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to simply wander the site, experiencing the wonder of this particular place that attracts so many visitors and pilgrims each year.

The highlight of the visit to the Shrine, however, was the opportunity to celebrate Mass with the members of our pilgrimage group (and some others) in the Chapel of the Apparition, the addition to the original parish church built out from the wall where the apparition was witnessed. You can see a photo of the sanctuary of the Chapel in the picture at the top of the page. It was a poignant moment in our pilgrimage journey; we had visited so many places of spiritual significance – Baggot St, Glendalough, Ardmore, the Gallarus Oratory, to name but a few – and had experienced such beauty and grandeur in the landscape we had travelled across, that, in one sense at least, this was the perfect ‘next stop’ on our journey through Ireland. To visit and to celebrate our faith’s most significant sacrament in this place of pilgrimage just simply ‘made sense’.

The basilica that stands on the site is an architectural and liturgical marvel. It can seat thousands, all of whom will have an uninterrupted line of sight to the sanctuary that stands at the very centre of the basilica. The artwork within the building is artistically beautiful as well as liturgically evocative, and there is a real sense of prayer and worship present in the very building itself. One cannot help but wonder what a liturgical celebration in that place would be like. Alas, we didn’t have the chance to experience it, but it is nice to wonder.

Our hotel for the night is located in the grounds of the Knock Shrine, and so it was a short walk to where we would be sleeping for the night. After dinner together, we adjourned at various points to our comfortable rooms, ready for another early start tomorrow as we continue our journey…venturing now into Northern Ireland.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Eleventh Day

What happened to the tenth day I hear you ask?

The answer is, I’m afraid, that I was out for the count. I woke up in the morning feeling so dizzy I could neither sit nor stand. Thankfully it was a day when I was able to stay in the hotel room, to lay down and recover. Which I did by the end of the day, thankfully.

Our day was an early start, leaving Tralee before the sun was really up and shining (not too hard at this time of year this far north mind, especially given that daylight saving is still running in Ireland). Today we were heading to Galway, via Limerick and the Cliffs of Moher. There was a lot of ground to cover today, along with a few things that had to be seen.

We arrived in Limerick on time for our tour of the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, the Church of Ireland (i.e. Anglican) Cathedral for United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe. It was founded in 1168, which means that when we walked into this building it had been a place of worship for 850 years. The building was interesting, not only architecturally, but also because it has, as our guide intimated, trying to fill two functions in order to be maintained as a place of worship.

The congregation is small, and the burden of ensuring the upkeep and maintenance of the building falls on them. Because they wish to maintain the Cathedral as a place of worship – instead of handing it over the State to be preserved as a public building of national significance – the congregation regularly allows their place of worship to be used for other purposes, such as musical recitals. It is, unfortunately, what needs to be done in order for them to maintain ownership and control.

As a result, the building ‘suffers’. There are compromises necessary in such fields as the ability to keep liturgical furniture in place, as it needs to be moved when the building is used for purposes other than divine worship. Necessary perhaps, but still unfortunate.

The present shape of the Cathedral has undergone many changes over the centuries, and our guide was happy to share the history of the building which, not surprisingly, is also caught up in the history of the City of Limerick and the surrounding area. Of particular interest to me was the ‘high altar’, which was discovered in the churchyard in the 1960s, having been removed by the troops of Oliver Cromwell when they occupied both the city and the cathedral.

The altar is made from one single piece of limestone, is over four metres long, and ways in excess of 3 tons. It was, to say the least, spectacular. It was further adorned – as if it needed it – with a frontal that has been hand embroidered in the kind of Celtic knotwork one would see in the Book of Kells, and in the most striking of colours. When combined, it becomes a wonderful focus for the whole building in its primary role as a place of worship. There will be some photos coming showing the embroidery on the altar frontal – but you’ll have to wait.

After the chance to grab a coffee and stretch our legs, we were back on the coach heading to the Cliffs of Moher, a must-see for any pilgrim (or tourist). There will be photos coming of this too, but it is a place of natural beauty that must be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. Despite the heavy winds and the overcast conditions, walking up to view the grandeur of the Cliffs of Moher is enough to bring one’s attention firmly to the existence of the Divine.

Yes, I know it is the combination of water and wind over centuries and millennia that bring about the physical beauty of the Cliffs. I know that rationally. But if one is attuned to the Transcendent even a little bit, it is possible – all but impossible! – to recognise the hand of the Creator in the formation of what one takes in with one’s eyes. Despite the crowds (there were plenty) and the weather (which wasn’t the best) my visit to the Cliffs of Moher was a spiritual experience for me, reminding me of the grandeur of a universe that for me, as a believer, has its origins with God.

After lunching at the Cliffs, we continued on with our journey towards Galway, experiencing the uniqueness that is the Burren, that particular geological and floral feature that must be traversed in order to arrive in Galway. Arriving in Galway right on ‘peak hour’, we nevertheless successfully navigated the coach to the Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed Into Heaven and St Nicholas.

And this brief experience was mind-blowing. The Cathedral is simply stunning. And the atmosphere that awaits the person who walks through the door is warm and inviting, and exudes a feeling of peace and serenity. The main cathedral space, the various chapels, even the Stations of the Cross, all contribute to a sense of the transcendent, but for me, the most significant feature that does this is the central dome. Rising above the elevated sanctuary space (elevated so that worshippers in all form arms of the cruciform shape can see) the dome is covered with mosaics and bathed in a soft blue light. It is hard to avoid having one’s eyes drawn heavenward. It is breathtaking.

Our short visit to the Cathedral marked the end of our days activities. We adjourned to our hotel, to dinner, and to bed. Because tomorrow we push onto the Shrine of Our Lady at Knock.

Ireland Pilgrimage 2018 – The Ninth Day

Today, we set out from our hotel in Tralee towards the Dingle peninsula.

Our first stop was to the village of Dingle itself, where we not only had the opportunity to explore the township for a couple of hours (including lunch) but also got to experience the local food festival which was in full swing on the day we visited. The town was pumping with visitors and locals all wanting to experience something of the culinary delights of the town.

I took the opportunity to visit the local church – it’s kind of what I do – and discovered a gloriously constructed local building. It was different to what one might expect in an Australian town of similar size, yet for some reason, it was perfectly suited for a local village in an Irish town. It was beautiful in its simplicity and yet simple in its beauty.

After our visit to Dingle town, we ventured forth via coach to take in the Slea Head Drive around the Dingle peninsula, and this for me was the absolute highlight of the day and the place where once again I encountered the spiritual history of the island of Ireland.

As we drove around the peninsula, all the time admiring the physical beauty of the landscape, our first stop was to the site of a monastic settlement based on beehive huts, conical huts built entirely of stone from the local environs grouped together and once occupied by a community of ‘monks’ who wished to walk away from the world and devote themselves to prayer and communing with God. It would have been a tough existence, not for the fainthearted. The settlement was basic, with nothing that would resemble even the basics of human comfort.

I doubt, strongly, that I could have survived such an experience, and yet there is something appealing about the concept of devoting oneself completely and entirely to God, relying utterly on God’s providence, and by moving away to a place where humanity is remote, and where the habitat is such that one is confronted by God’s presence in the rough, barren yet beautiful environment that surrounds the preferred place of locating the settlement.

Moving on from the beehive huts, we continued our journey around the Slea Head Drive, navigating the narrow roads and occasionally requiring traffic coming in the other direction to either pull over or reverse in order to do so. It was amusing in one sense. We stopped from time to time to take in the scenery, which from my perspective was simply stunning (watch this space for photos once I get home!).

The other stop that I found particularly moving was our short visit to Séipéilin Gallaruis (the ‘Gallarus Oratory’), a small stone building about 1300 years old, that was built by early Christians on the peninsula as a place of prayer. It was moving beyond words to enter into that place through the low narrow door, a place where prayer had seeped into the very walls of the séipéilin, in a way that, for me at least, was palpable and alive. Standing in that place I could feel the prayers that had been offered there, the worship that had been directed towards God there, and the petitions raised on high within those walls. I was moved, almost, to tears, aware of the history of faith that that simple example of dry rubble masonry represented.

I wanted to pray. I wanted to breathe in the prayers that were already there. I wanted to stay.

After being forced to leave that place – if only because the coach was leaving and it was a long walk back to Tralee – we made our way back to Tralee in time for dinner. And the opportunity to retire to bed in preparation for tomorrow’s adventures.