Fermoy to Killavullen
I anticipated the walk from Fermoy to Killavullen to cover sixteen miles. At about the two-thirds mark I was greeted with a sign declaring, “Please note the route has been altered.” The guidebook was following the old trail and the map routed the new path. Sixteen miles became almost twenty. Surprisingly, my body seems to be able to handle what it’s being put through. Hmm?
My reflections early in the day’s journey focused on the odd feeling that I will be finishing my walking portion of the pilgrimage in just over a week. Our time in Ireland, in the curious pilgrimage manner, is reflecting the stages of my life. The majority of my “working” life is over. A much lesser time of “going to work” is remaining, and the time after the walk mirrors the days after fulltime employment.
I was reminded again today of the simple notion of focusing on the experience of the moment—don’t run ahead to the next “activity.” What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I feeling? I walked seven hours in the rain. What was I feeling? I saw a family gathering firewood, illegally, what was I seeing? I saw a very large bird swoop through the air and the other birds scatter, what was happening?
Near the end of the day I flagged down a small red car. I needed to get my bearings having walked in the forest for three hours. The woman and her teenage son were familiar with the Blackwater Way.
“Your in luck,” she said. “Killavullen is just a mile and half down this road. Do you want a lift? No bother.”
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“Ah, I know your enjoying the walk. But one can only stand so much forestry. So take this road, at the T-junction, stay left and follow the white line into the village. You’re sure you don’t want to get out of the rain?”
I declined the invitation, thanked her and she and son drove off. In a mile I saw them coming back towards me, she was alone in the car and her son was driving a tractor behind her. They both smiled and waved to affirm I was on my way.
Everyday on the walk I have encountered folks and stopped to chat for a moment. We have talked about the weather, the route ahead, the distance of my walk. I have met dozens of people who I will never see again. Each of these people has impacted my life in a significant way. I have thanked them, blessed them, and prayed for them. Life is too short, the encounters too brief, and the opportunities too important not to slow down enough to enjoy what I am seeing, hearing, and feeling and remember the faces of blessings I am meeting along my pilgrimage.
The fifteen-mile leg of the Blackwater Way from Araglin to Kilworth was a beautiful walk. The path moved from sweeping farmlands, down two grassy bog covered hills, through a lovely pine forest, along the gentle Douglas River, and into the pleasant village of Kilworth. Fermoy, where we are staying, is only a few kilometers away and a larger city with more options for accommodations. The Blackwater Way is so named for the river I will be walking parallel as I go west tomorrow out of Fermoy.
The Irish weather is quirky. Yesterday I experienced some lovely clear sunny skies, then three times a single low swinging dark cloud scattering good showers lasting about ten minutes (long enough to require the rain pancho), then some cool breezes and back to the sunshine.
After a few days of road traffic, backtracking, and feeling frustrated by my poor map reading skills, it felt nice to just walk and let my mind meander through the lovely Irish countryside. I was told this part of the walk wasn’t very exciting. Honestly, I was ready for a little mundane stroll. Sometimes, quiet, easy, stress free days are preferred to high drama. The day was just plain Irish at its best.
We’re enjoying our day off in Fermoy, relaxing and doing a little planning for the rest of the pilgrimage. We’ve traveled 220 miles at this point. The plan now is to walk nine consecutive days to the coast and end at Glenbeigh and Dingle Bay. The path should take me another 130 miles past some of Ireland’s most ancient history. I’m looking forward to the experience. After the walk there will be some time to write more extensively about the experience and to be just plain tourists.
Clogheen to Araglin
I wonder if Jesus had been a Boy Scout? Well, “No, of course” for the one reason regarding Scout Master requirements, but aside from that “Huge” detail—question is, did Jesus know how to use a map? I was a horrible Boy Scout.
Maps are important on a pilgrimage—even when following Way markers. On the route from Clogheen to Araglin, I was using a map, a guidebook, and trying to follow the Way markers. My map wanted to take me west, the guidebook was directing me south and then west, the Way markers were confusing me, good thing my compass worked well. I was never lost, I knew exactly where I was at all times. I just couldn’t figure out how to get to where I wanted to go. Like the old adage, “You can’t there from here,” that seemed to be my apparent fate.
The climb out of Clogheen was steep, just a foretaste of coming attractions. After three hours I had barely gone three miles. Struggling up through the Kilballyboy Woods I reached a glistening ancient lake, Bay Lough. Some say the lake was glacial and is bottomless. By the time I reached the legendary pond I felt as if I had been walking since before time. I was also very discouraged because I just knew I was on the wrong path and would have to backtrack all the way to Clogheen in order to reach Araglin.
Fortunately, it was Friday and there were some folks at the lake on this fine sunny day. The first two people I talked to confirmed my worst fears that I was indeed unable to get to Araglin from the lake and would have to go all the way back. However, the second man suggested I talk to his wife who knew the area much better than he. His wife was at the other end of the lake about fifty yards sitting on a rock getting some sun. She looked at my map, listened to my story, and suggested there surely was a better way than retracing my steps, but she didn’t know what that way would be. As a started to walk away, she asked to see my map again, and suddenly remembered seeing a marker at the top of the opposite hill where they had parked their car. She thought she remembered the marker being for the Blackwater Way that I was hoping to be on. I climbed the hill and indeed there was my marker. I could get to there from here, but it would be a long and arduous walk.
The sixteen-miles took me eight hours over wind-whipped rocky hills, steep inclines, and wet clumpy grassy covered bog. At one peak two mountain goats stared at me in disbelief. I wondered when the last time they had seen someone where I was walking. The pilgrimage took me to the breathtaking top of Knockclugga revealing an incredible 360-degree panorama of five counties. The pictures I took will never give justice to the spectacular majesty of the view.
From the top of Knockclugga the remainder of the walk was a long downhill trek. An hour later I passed Crow’s Hill, a knob of place compared to where I had been. There I met a straggling group of Irish Boy Scouts who had walked from the area I was heading. The best news they offered was they had been walking two hours, meaning my destination would be achieved.
At one point earlier in the day I wondered if my dream of walking across Ireland was going to be derailed at the worse, delayed at the best. My heart was beginning to sink into the thought of failure. Others confirmed my worst fears. But, there was one woman, sitting by an ice-age lake who offered a tiny glimmer of hope, but only if I would climb one more hill. At the top of that hill I found a monument to hill walkers and a statue of Saint Mary. Each day of the pilgrimage, during Morning Prayer, I have offered a prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help—today, she was present, sitting on a rock by a lake.
Clonmel to Clogheen
The sun was out and it was a nice day for a good stretch of the legs. I left the track of the Munster Way and walked the fifteen miles directly from Clonmel to Clogheen. I had planned on walking the Munster Way, which was a two-day circuitous route to Clogheen. But, taking the direct route saved one day, which I will use next week to divide forty-five miles into a three-day walk instead of two days. The trail next week has some standing stones and circle stones I definitely want to spend some time exploring.
The countryside I walked through the last few days has been covered with farms. There were lots of hay and some wheat. I saw one vegetable farm where they had planted several acres of onions and cabbage. The onion fields reminded me of the Mayfield’s onion fields in Buckeye. The Mayfield’s told me they once traveled to Ireland in support of some vegetable farmers. So, I had to wonder if the Irish onion farm I saw was the result of the Mayfield’s visit.
A stretch of about four miles of the road I walked was closed due to timbering work. The trees had been cut and now the men were using a rather precarious method of dragging the felled trees up the hill. I suspicioned my safety conscious father-in-law who had been the president of Arizona Sand and Rock might not have approved of their “techniques.” I moved along quickly.
The road was not consider a major highway, but it was a well traveled two lane road where the legal speed was eight kilometers per hour, meaning everyone, including the trucks and buses, drove much faster. Since there are so many farms, the traffic also included a sundry of farm equipment. Typically, in America, a farm tractor will slow traffic to a slow crawl. Not in Ireland. Tractors here must be super-charged!
The side of the road mostly had space of a foot or two for me to walk. However, more than a few times the tall thorny brush had grown right to the road. Only once a car and a tractor were traveling in the opposite directions where I had to squeeze into the hedge and become friends with the thorns. Fortunately, my backpack was my cushion and I didn’t suffer a scratch. Tomorrow I’m looking forward to getting back onto the mountain and pastoral trails. Somehow my concern of walking down the wrong forest road has significantly diminished.
Ah, life is all relative, isn’t it? The pilgrimage has slowed me down. It has also taken me out of my comfort zone, at least for a bit. To walk is to see the lumbering operation and fondly remember my father-in-law and the rare vegetable farm my friends Carrie and Gary Mayfield. Walking down a busy highway has reduced my worry about walking down the wrong forest trail. Everyday I walk the pilgrimage I have learn something about myself and have been reminded of things I have let slide in my life. It is time to slow down my life’s pilgrimage to mirror my walk across Ireland.
Carrick to Clonmel
One of my dad’s best sayings is “You have to monitor and adjust.” Since my mom died on March 11, 2012, I’ve watched my dad live into his own motto. After enjoying life to the fullest with my mom for sixty-four years, he has had to monitor and adjust quite a lot for a man eighty-two years old. The pilgrimage of life is indeed a series of re-evaluations and changes in course.
A pilgrimage of any kind is no different and today my pilgrimage was filled with several “opportunities” to monitor and we have made some adjustments. I crossed 175 miles entering Clonmel. For those of you familiar with Ireland, Clonmel is the home of Bulmers Cider. I think the distillers of Tullamore Dew make Bulmers.
The day started simply enough. I was walking along the banks of the Suir River. Several men were fishing from the bank of the tidal river or were standing in the edges of the rapid water fly fishing, or angling. I enjoyed watching them and took a few pictures. The sport requires practice and skill and it appears to be relaxing as well. I was reminded how much I enjoy playing golf for the same reasons and how little I have played golf over the last seven years. Maybe I need a little “monitor and adjust”?
Everything was going lovely the first twelve kilometers to Kilsheelan. I decided to leave the Munster Way at a bit past mid-point and continue walking down the Suir. The guidebook and the map said this was possible. I asked five people if I could walk the river path all the way to Clonmel and they all agreed it was doable. I walked under the bridge at Kilsheelan and for the next two kilometers (a bit more than a mile) all seemed well enough though the path kept getting progressively narrower. I came to a point where the trail disappeared and I was walking in waist-high wet overgrowth. Quickly my pants were soaked. I was using my walking stick to push back the barbarous vines. Suddenly, my left foot slipped. I barely caught myself by planting my walking stick in the mud. When I collected myself I realized a fall would have slide me down into the swift and deep river. It was time to monitor my situation because the path was impassible. I adjusted by backtracking to Kilsheelan.
At Kilsheelan I had three choices. Return to the Munster Way, taking me almost ten kilometers out of my way, walk up an alternate and unmarked road, or walk down the major road to Clonmel. I choose the later. Cathy had driven down the road and felt it had enough side area to be safe. It did. Interestingly, I have been walking for thirteen days in the quiet of the Irish countryside, now my senses were being assaulted by the hustle and bustle of a major highway. I think I walked about four or five miles into Clonmel, though I’m not sure. The Irish signage is poor at best. At Kilsheelan it said it was nine kilometers to Clonmel. Then about a mile or so later I saw another sign indicating it was still nine kilometers. I later went by a marker further down the road notifying me I still had eight kilometers to go. What made me laugh was walking by three different signs at least a kilometer apart declaring it was seven kilometers to Clonmel. The last one was at the Bulmers distillery. Maybe the sign makers had stopped at Bulmers along the way for a pint or two?
The night before, along the walk, and then again tonight, Cathy and I monitored the purpose of the walk. Yes, the goal is to walk coast-to-coast, that remains the same. The adjustment comes in the route to get there and the destination of the final coastal city, these will be determined as we make our way across the second half of Ireland. Indeed, life is a series of monitoring the progress and adjusting to hopefully fulfill the purpose, even if you have to backtrack a few miles, more than once. Life is too short not to do a little angling.
Mullinavat to Carrick-on-Suir
Before the halfway point I imagine I could throw in the towel. Before reaching the halfway mark is like wrestling the opponent who has me in an irreversible submission hold, giving up saves a whole lot of pain. But going past the halfway mark, well, is a different matter. To quit after completing half of the trail would be like huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely all the way to the very peak of a steep hill and then telling myself, even though the rest of the way is downhill, I’m done. Today is awfully close to the mid-point of my walk across Ireland. It feels like I’ve gone too far to let go of the spiritual, emotional, and physical journey now.
I met three young lads in Piltown. They were old enough to be interested in the two young lasses they were talking to on the sidewalk and old enough to get into trouble. As I walked by I said hello and one retorted by mockingly asking why I would be hiking through Piltown. I said I was on my way to Currick. One of the boys moo-ed like a cow and then did his best impression of a rooster. In a silly harmless way, they meant to make fun of me and impress the girls. But I’ve heard it all before, I was amused, only internally, and kept walking. They decided to follow me. “Can we hike with you?” they chided. “Sure,” I said. One said he couldn’t hear me. So I stopped, turned around and faced them, “You can walk with me if you like.” I knew they just wanted to talk.
“Why you going to Currick?”
“I’m walking across Ireland. I started in Dublin and I’m finishing in Kerry.” Got three set of raised eyebrows and I knew we could chat. One had a shoulder in sling, injured playing hurley he told me and yes I know the game. One asked about all the rings on my fingers. I get the same question in America. As advice, the three warned me about the lads in Currick. “A different breed,” they counseled. I assumed maybe they learned such things in a match on the pitch. I told them I would “mind myself.” The talker of the group put his head down as to acknowledge something said to them and not about myself—it is an Irish way of speaking I have learned from the wiser men I have listened to along the Way. The encounter made my day.
My conversation with the young has abounded in Ireland. Asking directions, meeting in pubs, chatting in the restaurants, everywhere I turn I am greeted by the old and the young. Two young women we met at dinner tonight were very interested in Cathy and me and our journey. They were curious to hear our story and then free to offer good advice about the Ring of Kerry, Dingle, and the Burren. We will heed the counsel and mind their words. I could only imagine the one young redheaded lass could have been my own grandmother at twenty. The young worldwide desire the same thing we all crave—someone to listen. I have considered myself somewhat of a listener, but walking alone, listening to the silence of the Irish countryside has deepened my soul’s capacity to breathe in the meaning of sound and to swallow the power of the word.
I could not stop my pilgrimage now—tomorrow, I imagine, will bring some new Word to experience that will enhance my power to hear another person, the Spirit, and the Raven.
Inistioge to Mullinavat
Saturday, three different Irishman said to me, “Laddie, you’re carrying a mighty heavy burden.” Each was referring to my backpack. They could have said something about the size or weight of my pack instead they suggested I was carrying something much more.
So, today was a good day to set down my burden—my pride, in the form of a large green pack. For some reason I had equated “walking” across Ireland with “carrying” a large and somewhat heavy backpack with me. My stubborn pride had caused my left knee to scream with most every step and two toes on my right foot have suffered about all they are willing to endure. So, I switched to my lighter day-pack. Ten less pounds over seventeen miles sure makes a lot of difference. My knee stopped complaining so much and my toes cried less often.
I spent much of the day walking in the fog. Right now you are saying, “Gil, you’re in a fog everyday.” Today, I was in a literal fog. No seriously, I mean it. I walked in the clouds. Okay, that sounded weird or was it wyrd?! Some of the scenes I saw reminded me of a dark and frightening werewolf story. The only wolves I encountered were my own demons of getting lost.
I must admit the trail was fairly well marked, though some important Way signs were hidden in the undergrowth. On more than one occasion at a road juncture, I would spend a good five minutes looking at the map, reading the guidebook and searching in the brush to eventually discover the marker. Surprisingly, I only got off the trail once and then for a short time before I came to another juncture where I realized I had decided not to make a turn about 500 meters back, which I should have taken. Going with my first hunch has been a good judge to rely on, that and the map, guidebook, and a raven now and again helping me find the Way sign. I have now started, not only saying, “Thanks be to God,” for every Way marker I see, but also blessing it and whoever put it there.
Walking alone six plus hours a day gives me a lot of time to think. There are very few distractions, other than staying on the trail. The time has been valuable to evaluate what burdens I am carrying and which ones I need to set down.
A Day of Rest at Inistioge
Sunday is good day for Sabbath, rest for the whole of my being. Outside there is a chill in the air. A misty cloud hangs over the farmhouse where we are taking a day off. The wind has made even the cows lie down with their calves.
We’re relaxing in the conservatory of the two-hundred-year old Georgian family owned farmhouse just outside Inistioge. Nellie Cassin manages the B&B and husband Pat the farm. The location, the view, and the hospitality provide a perfect place to set down the pack and let go of the walk for a day.
Reflection is a harbor for the soul. And a room of dry light is a place to rest and allow the body to restore. I’m feeling the odd sensation of my body internally renewing itself. I’ve been an athlete and done quite a bit of heavy training throughout my life. But, now, at my age and the workload of the walk, I can feel the inner movement of muscles being reknit and joints refueled. There is such a rush of inner activity that for a moment I imagined I could see clearly without my glasses. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking?
Later in the afternoon we did a little site touring, visiting the nearby ruins of Jerpoint Abbey in Thomastown, County Kilkenny. The abbey was founded by Benedictines in 1160 but then populated by Cistercians in 1180. The monastery was a thriving place with 36 fixed monks and 50 laymen. In 1217 the abbot was deposed for instigating the “Riot of Jerpoint” involving four other abbots. Eventually, in the “Conspiracy of Mullifont,” all the Irish abbots were removed. Finally, in 1540 the Dissolution of the Monasteries turned the 14,500 acres of property over to James, Earl of Osmond. Church history has been harsh and at times cruel on the Irish. Faith in God here is strong, but the institutional church, that is another matter for consideration.
Visiting the abbey moved our hearts. The stone altars were still intact in the chancel and smaller side chapels. Abbots and other dignitaries are entombed in the now open ruins of the chancel and nave. Some graves stones revealed 18th Century dates. The cemetery is still active with the most recent burial in 2011. The ancient abbey ruin is a holy site and yet, in another way, a conflicted place. There is a feeling here of being unsettled. But, such feelings seem acceptable in this place. To which, a dozen raven feathers found my soul within the confines of the sanctuary.
Living in the desert for a lifetime dries out the moisture of the soul leaving me with an almost constant fear of being without a bottle of water. Such a lust for water feels somewhat unnatural, but necessary to survive. To be in a place like Ireland where the soul can soak in the not only the moist and luscious air but also the appetizingly delicious and succulent spirituality of the land and the culture of the people who inhabit the ancient way of living is like having a tall delicate glass of satisfying holy nectar that soothes the thirst always at hand. We have indeed traveled this far and tomorrow we begin again.
Borris to Inistioge
7.21.12 South Leinster Way
Today was the longest walk. I covered about seventeen miles. The first third of the day was spent walking along the Barrow River, the longest waterway in Ireland save for the famed Shannon. The Barrow has several old locks at the convergence of tributaries where the weirs are particularly rapid and roaring. I did see a few small boats traveling the river. At Graiguenamanagh the Way leaves the river and turns to walk along the shoulder of Brandon Hill. The weather was gorgeous, a bit of sun and a slight breeze, my first hill crossing without pouring rain and gale force winds.
Crossing over Brandon Hill down into Inistioge is a very long walk through forest, farm fields, and a finally into the ancient village. The town had recently become famous from the filming of the “Circle of Friends.”
The walk today was less about traveling by foot and more about the wandering of soul. I’ve been having some knee and foot issues and wondering if my body will hold up the next two hundred and fifty miles. What I began to experience is that my walk is training me for the next stage of the journey of my life. Each day of walking, even though my body is showing its age, I gain spiritual power, inner strength, and soul wisdom. Every raven feather that finds me provides a mystical energy I have yet to experience. My steps are training me, preparing me, instructing me, to become who I am being called to become, a new spiritual being. I am nothing special, I am just who I am.
My newfound wisdom manifested itself near the end of the day. The Way had been well marked most of the journey, much better than yesterday. I was physically weary, but checking diligently at every juncture for a Way marker. At a more obscure turn onto a boreen I didn’t see a marker so I assumed I should continue to walk straight through. However, just walking past the juncture I felt something, or someone, tell me to look to my right. I did. There hidden behind some overgrowth was a marker signaling me to turn down the other less traveled path. The feeling, the guidance from the raven, the inner voice of soul wisdom, moved me. Still, the next few kilometers were tough going, mucky tracks with pools of water. I imagine that even the horses rode down this path struggled, leaving deep hoof prints.
Just past leaving the muddy path onto a more traveled and drier boreen I saw a raven flying high is the sky slightly ahead of my path. I gave thanks for the feather that had found me this day and for the ravens I had seen on my journey. I also gave much thanksgiving for the new insight I had received about my pilgrimage. At that moment the Raven turned and flew directly overhead casting a sweeping shadow over my soul providing me what felt like a blessing and unforeseen sense of connection to the world beyond the mist.
Clonegal to Borris – The South Leinster Way
The local knowledge about the South Leinster Way is that it’s not marked very well due to the fact it doesn’t get much foot traffic. Both those statements are fairly accurate. There are places where markers appear though the markers are so far apart it’s easy to miss them. And because the trail is not well traveled some markers have been overgrown with brush. I quickly learned I need my map, guidebook, friendly locals, the ravens, God’s speed, and some luck to make it down the trail.
Today’s fourteen-mile walk was up the shoulder of Mt. Leinster, the highest point of Southern Ireland. White, black, brown, and spotted longhaired sheep roam the steep, grassy, and treeless slopes. Large outcropping of quartz boulders litter the hills. Thankfully, the walk was around the shoulder, which in itself was a good upward climb. The height of the trek was to a spot known as Nine Stones. There are nine two-foot stones standing on end. The stones form a line about twelve feet long. The Nine Stones overlook a long sweeping hillside rising above a deep and wide valley. One story about the stones is they are pre-Christian. The other story is the stones are markers from the thirteenth century made for nine shepherds who tragically lost their lives near the spot. Whatever is the story there is plenty of room for lots of imagination and possibility.
Nine Stones is the halfway point of the walk. The rest of the walk is downhill working its way into the valley where Borris resides. The problem is, where is Borris? Like where’s Waldo. That depends on whom you ask, or which map you rely on, or which guidebook you study. Fortunately, today, there were plenty of friendly souls along the way who would stop their car when I flagged them down, or open their door when I knocked, or would talk to a stranger backpacking down the road. Everyone was generous with information. Every offer of directions included a story, an alternative route, and a question as to where I was from, where I started the day, and why I was walking. Thankfully, today I made the trek without getting lost, off track, or having to backtrack.
The most joyous site of the day was as I finally entered Borris, Cathy was turning the corner in the car she has named “Cocoon.” There she was, her smiling face and warm greeting, just in time to give me a lift to the B&B, which happened to be a bit out of town. Cathy has done an amazing job of traveling from small village to tiny hamlet, most without locations on the map or names for the roads she must travel. She stops and asks a hundred questions for every ten miles traveled. She does all this with great joy. I imagine she has made at least forty new friends on her own pilgrimage. Besides that, she finds me the best energy bars and little snacks to take each day, arranges for our next B&B, and brings wonderful, loving joy into my life. I couldn’t imagine making the trek coast to coast without her.
Shillelagh to Conegal—End of the Wicklow Way
What was supposed to be an easy day to end the Wicklow Way’s final twelve miles turned into a bit of a lesson. The way is not marked as well south from Glendalough to Clonegal as the first three days north of the holy monastic ruins. Today that fact caught up with me.
To start the morning, I walked up the sharp incline of Stooken Mountain that revealed a spectacular view of the valley where Shillelagh resides. And yes, Shillelagh is where the Shillelagh Sticks are made. We stayed at Liam Kelay’s B&B and he is a maker of the famous fighting and walking sticks, which he told us he sells world wide.
Except for lumber lorries I didn’t see anyone until Moylisha Hill. I have taken to the idea in Ireland the descriptor “hill” equates to “the wind will be blowing.” Though, today wasn’t as bad as White Hill. In fact, the wind dried out the moisture on my boots and pants I had collected from walking through a few miles of very damp grassy lanes. Just before leaving the Hill I encountered two young adults from Sweden. Today was their first day on the walk and they were curious about what was ahead. The conversation reminded of many of my daily conversations at home. Yes, I am the guy with the grey hair and the experience, thank you very much. I call it a gentler name, “spiritual direction.”
Through some mild trekking I entered the Newry Forrest. Shortly into the path I had the feeling I had missed a marker somewhere. I had passed two junctures and had not seen a Way marker. Even for a poorly marked walk, this was unusual. After a mile or more, I decided to back track to the last marker I had seen. A mile back I saw I had missed a marker turning up a small forest path. This will be a good reminder for me tomorrow to pay extraordinary attention when I start walking the South Leinster Way, a very sparsely marked trail. The best part of my “extra” journey was I didn’t get upset or even frustrated, it was simply a matter of getting myself back on track. For me, this was a good response to the type of things that usually send me over the top. I do pray this lesson follows me home.
Finishing the Wicklow Way in Clonegal had a few very pleasant surprises. The Way ends at the foot of St. Brigid’s Church. Just outside the path to the church is a shrine to St. Mary and St. Brigid. I have been praying to Our Lady of Perpetual Help each morning. I was blessed to see her greet me at the end of the Way. I was also able to get a certificate at O’Connor’s Pub acknowledging my completion of the 131-kilometer (82 mile) walk. To top off the day we had a marvelous meal at the award winning restaurant Sha-Ro Bistro. Who knew a village of a few hundred Irishman would entertain an internationally acclaimed fine dinning establishment.
Tomorrow begins another leg of the pilgrimage. The path of life is full of junctures and “Y’s” in the road. In a way, like life, I am putting away the map of an easier trek and pulling out the road markings for a more difficult walk. I’m sure I’ll get off track a few times, but I’ve learned some lessons that will serve me well on the rest of my pilgrimage.
Moyne to Shillelagh
The fifteen-mile walk has lots of slow hills through grassy lanes along rock fences. The fields of hay have all been freshly cut. Cows, sheep, and horses populate these larger farms, by Irish standards. The day started with a bit of rain, then sun, then clouds, then a few showers, and finally a nice breezy day with a light cloud cover when I needed it the most. My friends the flies were around a bit, but not too much.
The southern part of the Wicklow Way south of Glendalough is not well traveled and the Way markers are further apart and sometimes obscured by the brush. I didn’t meet any walkers this day. Though, I was walking down several lanes by farmhouses and through tiny villages and saw plenty of folks.
At Mangan’s Wood, about six kilometers into my day, I got a bit off the Way. Walking through the woods down a small grassy path, I came to what seemed to be the road to take, turning down a farm road instead of through a gate. I realized pretty quickly I had taken the wrong way. Coming upon a farmhouse I asked for directions. The lady was very kind and familiar with the local treks. She sent me back the way I came and pointed me in the right direction. She even complimented my “proper boots” for walking in the muck.
When I returned to the point I had departed from the trail I was faced with two gates, one slightly above the other. I stopped for a few minutes checking my map and compass hoping that the way I would choose would be the right way. I opened the gate, closed it behind me and as I turned to start walking, a raven flew up out of the middle of the path and straight down the lane for quite a bit. I now knew I was indeed walking the correct way. I also started giving thanks for every Way marker I saw.
Much of the next six kilometers was slogging through the mud, black earth saturated beyond tolerance. The path was very narrow and livestock and hiker had walked what lane did exist. At many points the only choice was to walk in ankle deep muck. Thanks be to God for proper boots.
Eventually the soaked trail turned into a small country road and the remainder of the day was spend walking on tarmac, which after awhile is hard on the feet. Near the end of the day, walking down a small rock-wall lined road, I was able to look back on the terrain I had covered. It’s a good feeling to see how far I had traveled. Not too far down that road I saw a dead raven by the way side. I stopped to offer a pray of thanksgiving for the life of the raven and the help I received this day. At that moment two ravens circled, cawing, over my head. Today was a day of learning to say, “Thanks be to God” for every bit of help, the Way markers, the farmer, the proper boots, and the raven.
Glenmalure to Moyne
The valley of Glenmalure is a seven-mile glacial gorge. Rising above the valley is the Slieve Maan, a long slow climb of over 500 meters. To begin the walk I passed by the halfway marker of the Wicklow Way. I’ve walked sixty-four kilometers in four days and now I will cover the same distance in three days.
Today was what I would consider a normal day of life, mundane if you will. Lots of slow climbing, a work requiring stops to catch my breath. No rain, a blessing, yet replaced by the humidity and the annoyance of flies, fruit bees, and gnats. I had make friends with the flies by telling them they could ride on my cap, which seemed to work. I walked alone with my friends the flies, only seeing one timber lorrie (truck) and six other walkers going in the opposite direction.
I encountered one hill walker struggling up a hill about halfway into my day. He looked to be my age, nearing sixty. He was short, middle-aged extra weight but not heavy, carrying a small pack and leaning on a branch he had found to make into his walking stick. His face was bright red and he was breathing heavily. He had stopped and so I stood by him for a second while he caught his breath.
“Is this the Wickow Way?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I got lost on the turn after the bridge and walked two miles out of my way before deciding to come back to the bridge,” he said.
“That’s rough,” I said.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“The US, and you?”
“Denmark. It’s just like this, wet and humid and lots of flies,” he said. “Where are you headed tonight?”
“Do you know where you’re staying?”
“At Kyle’s Farmhouse B&B,” I said.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “Can you take these back. I left in a fuddle this morning. I started out lost I guess.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Nice to meet you and good walking,” he said.
“Blessing and I hope the rest of your walk is better,” I said.
Sometimes we are in the right place to offer assistance and the person, in turn, gives us the key we need. It turns out that the key he gave me was to room Cathy and I would need for our room that night. Twice during my walk I prayed for the man from Denmark.
The rest of the Way I double-checked all the markers and signs to make sure I was walking the right direction. I even went back once after a hundred yards, doubting I had gone in the correct direction, only to discover I was indeed going the right way.
There are no mundane days and there are no chance meetings. Every day is important. Every encounter needs attention. I learned today that every person I meet might have the key I need.
Glendalough to Glenmalure
The climb out of the Glendalough Valley is breathtaking. The Poulanass waterfall pours off The Spine feeding the Lake of the Angels in Glendalough. Past the waterfall the slow climb continues steadily through Darrybawn Mountain eventually reaching Lugnaquilla, Wiclow’s highest mountain at 925 meters.
Walking through Lugduff Gap, an important ancient path from Glendalough to Glenmalure, I encountered a tall, graceful, and curious deer. She spotted me first about fifty yards up the road. I stopped and quietly took a few pictures. It was as if she waited for me to get closer. I eased up the road stopping at intervals thinking it would be my last picture before she would dart off. She let me get within twenty feet and take a picture before she crossed the road. She stood there, turning her head, checking me out to see if I was safe. I took a final portrait before she decided she leisurely eased up the opposite side of the mountain. I could not help but believe her visitation was a sign of peace, joy, and affirmation I am the right pilgrimage. I needed her strength during the next several miles.
Shortly after being with my deer friend, I was met with a poster saying “Only Authorized Personnel Past This Point!” Now I was having second thoughts if I was on the right road. I hadn’t seen a Wicklow Way marker for more than a mile. But, I was positive I hadn’t pasted another path. My doubts were mounting as I entered a logging operation. No one was in sight, but piles of logs were stacked along the side of the road. The road ahead was a steep climb. My doubts loomed large. If I was on the wrong path and had to turn around and go back I was going to cost myself a long painful walk out of the way.
I trusted my feeling about the encounter with the deer so I kept walking. About a mile along the way I saw two figures up the road, about half a mile. I trusted they were pilgrims so I kept walking. It was another mile or more before I finally saw another Way marker. I stopped there and gave thanks to God and to the deer.
The Ludguff Gap Borenacrow lie ahead. As I would soon find out, the gap is White Hill, Jr. A long barren mountain top with whipping winds and driving rain. This time my new rain gear, thanks to Kris Burgess and the hardware store at Roundwood, held true. Though wet, I was not soaked. Time for another prayer of thanksgiving. I had to take my time, the path was steep, the grass was slick, the mud thick, and the road slippery. Even slow going, I slipped a few times, but was able to catch myself with my walking stick and free hand. Time for another prayer of thanksgiving.
Leaving the gap the road flattened out as I walked along the Avonbeg River. I was able to see water rushing down the side of the mountain hundreds of feet into the river. Nature’s power on display.
I was greeted in Glenmalure with an inviting lodge built in 1801. This area was home to leaders of countless uprisings against the British from the 1200’s through the nineteenth century. The Wicklow’s are a good place to plot and to stay hidden. The place has the air of insurrection. I can’t help but feel slightly akin to the place and the people. What does that mean? Time will tell.
Eucharist and Wedding Renewal in Glendalough
On Sunday, Cathy, Chad, Jana, Kris, Robbie, and I celebrated the Mass in the ruins of St. Mary’s Chapel, just outside the monastery walls. The tiny chapel, twelve feet wide by thirty feet long, was probably built in the early 10th or 11th Century. The grounds surrounding the church were filled with small cross headstones and graves three feet in length. This was the church where unbaptized babies and children were brought for burial. Nuns or female priests were the only clergy serving the grieving families at St. Mary’s. The families of the unbaptized were sent to St. Mary’s because the Roman Church told them their unbaptized children could not be buried in consecrated ground, in other words, their children were not Christians, and their eternal resting place was in perilous question.
Admittedly, it is impossible for me to image that the Church could turn away a parent holding her dead child in her arms, telling her the child of her womb could not be buried in consecrated ground. We decided to celebrate Sunday morning Mass in the ruins of this chapel to revere the work of those female priests and to celebrate the blessings of our own children.
I brought my mother’s green hanky and used it as the corporal for the Eucharist. Her presence, now gone in the physical sense, is always with me in the spirit. She would have loved being with us in the misty joy of the Irish morning gathered around a stone altar in a thousand year-old ruin. I poured wine into a plastic cup and the freshly baked brown communion bread had been a part of the morning’s breakfast. We chanted the psalm, heard the gospel, prayed for the people, and shared a sign of peace. The Spirit, the lush green scenery, the land of Ireland, our walk, inspired the Eucharistic prayer.
Then we wandered through the cemetery and the monastery ruins. We took pictures, wondered about the stories of the people buried under foot, and tried to imagine living in the sixth century.
From the monastery we walked two kilometers up to the Lake of the Angels where Saint Kevin resided in his aesthetic cell hone out of rock ten feet above the water. On the opposite side of the lake from the monk’s cell we found a spot by the lake that I was familiar with from previous visits. Saint Kevin’s cell is off limits, so in order to see it you have to know what you are looking for and the only vantage point is the opposite side of the lake.
We had to hike down a fifty-foot slippery trail to a lakeside stone, which jutted out into the lake waters about ten feet. The large stone was a perfect place from which to see the cell.
My intention when leaving home was to find this special spot from my past. And I had brought rosaries for just this moment. From here, I was able to lie down on the stone, lean over its edge and dip our rosaries into the revered lake.
It was here on the stone by the Lake of the Angels that Kris and Robbie decided to renew their wedding vows. Part of their pilgrimage to Ireland was the opportunity to share an intimate moment of renewal with each other and with friends in this land of mystical passion. To conclude the ritual, I tied the couple’s wrist together with a rosary rope that had been blessed at Eucharist and ‘baptized’ in the lake. It was a joyous and teary moment for the participants and the witnesses.
I am on this pilgrimage to discern what the Spirit is saying. This morning the Spirit was speaking clearly into my soul that my calling as priest is stronger than ever. But how that ministry looks continues to evolve. My dream last night had me making a sign that read, “Called to Walk the Wicklow Way.” So, I am on the next leg of the pilgrimage, down the path towards Glenmalure.
Some places I have seen and it was good. And some of those places I would like to visit again, to see something I missed the first time. Then there is Glendalough, the land I am irresistibly drawn to over and over again.
It’s a mere eleven-mile walk from Roundwood to Glendalough. The terrain is fairly gentle, a few hills to negotiate, mostly grass filled fields with sheep nearby. The sharpest incline is the finale that leads to a stunning view of the holy valley where the ruins of Saint Kevin’s monastery lay nestled. From our viewpoint we could see the sixth-century stone chapel with its rare rock roof, built to sustain the Norsemen’s fiery arrows. Standing over the chapel like a beacon of light to the weary pilgrim is Saint Kevin’s watchtower. Above the monastery grounds are the two Lake of Angels where Kevin kept his stone cell and where he stood in the icy water to pray while ravens built nests in his hair.
We stopped at this point to take in the majesty, first with the soul and then the camera. I stepped away to allow the others to take pictures and I was overcome with emotion and a few tears. This is my fourth time to Glendalough, second by foot. I have been here on pilgrimage, each time at some crossroads in my life. At this particular juncture I’m not fully sure what the optional roads are because the paths lying before me are not physical options, like career or vocation, no these choices are related to spiritual paths, more mystical and elusive to discern.
Maybe, for my current pilgrimage this is why Glendalough is a beginning and not the destination. I have walked from Dublin to Glendalough with trusted companions, true friends. For them, Glendalough is the destination and they will be leaving tomorrow for a few last tourist days in Ireland before heading home. For me, I begin walking the next twenty-four days alone. Cathy will be driving ahead, scouting out a place to stay and finding the best pub while I make the twelve to twenty miles a day through the Irish countryside, praying, thinking, and observing what the Spirit is saying. And I will watching for the raven.
Oh, what luck! We get to walk across White Hill on Friday the 13th. From Knockree to Roundwood is about fourteen miles, a nice stretch of the legs. The climb is steady and at times can suck the wind of you. Walking over Djouce (don’t pronounce the D) affords a glorious view of the Powerscourt waterfall of 250 meters— except today when we were walking in the cloudy mist bringing a haunting feel to the hike. Our view was limited to six feet and we could only hear the waterfall. The trek took us above the waterfalls in order to cross the Dargle River. The bridge had been washed out in November, leaving a quickly constructed replacement over the rapids.
Crossing a roughly made bridge gave a foreboding to White Hill. I had crossed this treeless high point of bog in Ireland six years ago. That particular day the gale force wind blew the rain sideways, making it a monumental struggle to see my fellow walkers a few feet ahead. Today the wind was howling, though less than my last journey. However, the rain was more severe and because this has been Ireland wettest summer on record, the trail was a running stream of mud. To say the least, staying afoot was at times like riding a skateboard over rocks downhill.
At one point, my two partners stopped to tie down their ponchos. It was a feat of no small proportion to keep our rain gear intact and tied in place so it didn’t beat us in the face and entangle around our packs. We were soaked and getting wetter, if that is possible.
We finally up the mountain for the two-mile walk across railroad ties. The top of White Hill is a bald bog, inhabited only by a few daring sheep. The bog was so saturated that the sheep had taken to walking on the man-made path. The trail consists of two railroad ties strapped side-to-side and covered with chicken wire, giving you twelve-inches of walking space. I can’t even imagine the tricky work it took to construct this long balance beam.
Carrying a backpack, using a walking stick for balance, battling the cold rain, thrashing wind, and perilous walking path can test the best of hikers. On this day we prevailed. Not without a good drenching. I think the only thing on me that wasn’t wet were my feet. My raingear failed. But, my boots were victorious. We still had a good four-mile walk down the Wicklow Way to Roundwood.
I felt a sense of accomplishment today. Teenagers and folks older than me travel White Hill every day—so, it’s not necessarily a great physical achievement that was providing with my good feeling. I believe, for me today, walking over White Hill was a spiritual affirmation of my choice to walk Ireland coast-to-coast. At fifty-eight years old, I am still learning about my inner self and my body. I have much still to discover. For that, I am thankful and ready to keep walking.
Dublin to Knockcree
Day One of the Wicklow Way
It was a rare day of beautiful Irish sunshine and mild summer breezes. It was a perfect day for us to begin walking the Wicklow Way. The path begins in Marlay Park, a lush field of grass. The park is a lovely playground for children and adults alike. Surrounded by tall forest pines, the open area is the size of four football fields, a varietal of green oasis in the suburbs of southwestern Dublin.
To begin our pilgrimage, we offered prayers read a piece from John O’Donohue about the journey becoming a sacred thing. Julie O’Brien had given us the poetic narrative as a means of sending on our way with her prayers.
We walked more than a mile to make our way out of the park. We made a final “pit stop” at the parks golf course knowing we wouldn’t see a proper toilet until arriving at the Knockree Youth Hostel fourteen miles and seven hours later. Just as we were returning to the path, two young adult women from Israel stopped to ask if they were on the right trek to the Wicklow Way. We assured them they were on the right path. They stopped to use the facilities and we keep walking.
Leaving the park we started the 1600-meter climb out of Dublin. The ascent is gentle, winding up the lush sides of the Dublin Mountains. The first three miles we encountered several locals out for a day’s hike. This early part of the Wicklow Way is intertwined with the Dublin Mountain Way, a series of day walks. At one juncture we must have missed the sign marker for the Wicklow Way and got onto the Dublin Way. But after a mile, we stumbled back onto a Wicklow Way marker taking us to the top of mountain.
Turning back we could see a spectacular view of the bay of Dublin and the entire sun splashed city. We started our descent onto a log rock path cut across a treeless mountainside covered with a dark green impassable shrub growing in the bog. A mile across the barren looking landscape we came to a T-junction with a signpost pointing two directions for the Wicklow Way and the Dublin Mountain Way. We debated which path to take and finally decided on the turn to the right based on the arrows. About a hundred yards down this path we met the two girls from Israel walking up the path. They saved us from walking probably a few miles out of the way. Ah, thanks be to God for “chance” encounters.
We walked through the cloudy mist hanging over us like a protective wrap and across the top of the Glencree Mountains through the dark forest and down along the barren landscapes where trees once stood, now harvested. Ravens arrived at a most needed time to offer encouraging words. My companions, Chad and Jana kept telling each other our pictures fail to capture what we have seen, and of course my words do still less.
Now we are on this morning to walk across Djouice Mountain and the infamous White Hill.
I have been asked repeatedly why I am going on a pilgrimage—actually it’s “Why would want to do such a thing?” My family and friends have asked me out of curiosity. Acquaintances question as if to check and see if this is the deal breaker in our fragile relationship, as in, “Are you crazy?” There are the Irish folk who are simply straightforward and ask, “Are you daft?” The “thing” they all question, is walking 360 miles across Ireland. I’ve had three friends walk the Camino de Santiago and each told me it was something they felt they had to do, as if the Way, was calling out to them. I could say the same for Ireland itself, I feel as if the land is beckoning me, as if I belong here on the isle of the forty shades of green. Ireland is, after all, my mother’s ancestral homeland.
However, I think pilgrimage is about more than just the place, whether the Camino, or the Wicklow Way, Spain or Ireland, there is something about the pace and the mystery of the walk.
To walk with a backpack is to slow down. The pace averages about thirty minutes a mile. At first, carrying a pack, weighing about twenty-five pounds, takes some getting used to—after a few days, you feel as if you can’t walk without it. The pace and the weight provide time to think, pray, and observe. Walking the way allows you to see things you would never experience otherwise, the landscape, the flowers, the wildlife, meeting people along the roadside. To walk is to experience the land. When it rains, you get wet and you keep walking. When it’s hot, you sweat, and you continue. When the wind blows, you feel the intensity and draw upon your own strength to lean into the wind. To walk is to taste the air, feel life, and to commune with the terrain of mother earth.
The mystery of the walk, now that is the allure fetching me to take on the ache of weary feet, the pain of a tired back, and the changing uncertainty of the elements. “What will happen?” is the unknown, the adventure, and the excitement. Walking the Way is not the challenge of climbing the Alps, but it has its own set of risks. But, the real “What will happen?” is the question I ask of my inner being, “What will happen to my soul?” Will my worldview change? Maybe I could even be so bold as to ask if I will be transformed by the experience?
An elder friend in my church was intuitive enough to tell me not to change, “We like the old Gil,” she said. Her concern is honest and forth telling. Both she and I know, I will change, something will be different within me, and the old Gil will become the new Gil. How? I don’t know. It’s mystery.
I started planning this pilgrimage a few years ago, picking the time, plotting the course, collecting my gear, and training my body. Most recently, I have spent time praying that I will be aware and attentive to the experience. I start walking in the next few hours. I am excited. Admittedly, I am a bit nervous. My anxiety doesn’t have anything to do with the physical risk. The anxious feeling I have is, what if I walk 360 miles and the only “thing” that happens to me is my feet hurt. I guess I’ll have to take the chance and find out.
Dublin, Ireland 7.11.12
Tomorrow begins my pilgrimage. I’m walking Ireland Coast to Coast from Dublin to Kerry about 360 miles. Cathy and I are in Dublin enjoying a few days in this lovely city that we adore. Having been a few times it’s nice to be able to check out some of the smaller venues and museums off the beaten path like the Writer’s Museum.
Writer’s write by writing, everyday, no matter what, where, or when. Carrying a journal, making constant notes, capturing character traits, events, mental pictures—especially in a place like Ireland, is a must because this place is a writer’s cornucopia. Dublin is an international city with the distinctive ancient culture. Breathing in the soul of the past and present is intoxicating.
Admittedly, I’m very excited about beginning the walk tomorrow. And, I am anxious a bit. I am 58-years-old after all. I need for my body to cooperate. I’ve trained, prepared, worked on my mental outlook, and now it’s time to start. My prayer is St. Patrick’s Breastplate—God be my ever companion and always present.
Are you daft?
When I answered the phone at five o’clock in the morning the voice on the other end of the line asked if he got me out of bed. “No,” I said, I’ve been up about fifteen minutes. And then the young man began to apologize profusely in a lovely Irish brogue. He was calling to confirm my booking for our first two nights in Dublin. Then he asked if I needed any further booking in Ireland. I told him not at the moment.
“Kind of short trip, eh?”
“I’m walking coast to coast, from Dublin to Kerry,” I said.
“Are you daft?” he laughed and then apologized, telling him he was bicycling the Ring of Kerry the weekend we arrive. “May I ask you why you would do such a thing?”
“It’s a spiritual thing, I guess. Just something I feel I have to do,” I said.
He said, “I wish you the best and I honestly hope to meet you.”
Beginning July 12, 2012 I will be walking over 360 miles, starting out of Dublin on the Wicklow Way and then east along four other historic paths. It will take me twenty-seven days including taking Sundays to rest.
For me, the pilgrimage is indeed a spiritual journey. Not to find God, but to be with God. Walking six to ten hours a day through the Isle of the forty shades of green, I am anticipating an experience, a presence of the seen and the unseen, and a connection of the conscious to the unconscious. I have no idea what I will encounter. My past experience has convinced me, though, that I will have the knowledge something fresh in my soul, in my spirit, in the place where the mystical is breathed in like the smoke of an ancient pipe.
A holy woman told me last week I was at a “Y” in the road of my life’s journey. She said I would not know which road I would take until I faced the choice on my pilgrimage. I pray I will recognize the moment, and hear what the Spirit is saying.
The Rev. Julie O’Brien gave me a small journal for the trip. I have asked whoever would like to write their name in the journal. And I have committed to praying for each individual on the journey. When I feel it is the right moment, I will pray for each person by name and I will write in the journal the location I prayed for him or her. I am carrying many of you with me on the pilgrimage of life.
Here is my intended path. I will try stay connect via Facebook and my blog. Blessings and slainte!
Wicklow Way 86 miles/7 days (one day off)
7.12 Dublin to Glencree 13 miles
7.13 Glencree to Roundwood 16 miles
7.14 Roundwood to Glendalough 10 miles
7.15 Sunday off in Glendalough
7.16 Glendalough to Glenmalure 10 miles
7.17 Glenmalure to Tinahely 22 miles
7.18 Tinahely to Shillelagh 15 miles
7.19 Shillelagh to Clonegal 11 miles
South Leinster Way 63 miles/4 days (one day off)
7.20 Clonegal to Borris 15 miles
7.21 Borris to Inistioge 17 miles
7.22 Sunday off in Inistioge
7.23 Inistioge to Mullinavat 18 miles
7.24 Mullinavat to Carrick on Suir 13 miles
East Munster Way 43 miles/3 days
7.25 Currick on Suir to Clonmel 18 miles
7.26 Clonmel to Newcastle 11 miles
7.27 Newcastle to Clogheen 14 miles
Blackwater Way – Avondhu 47 miles/4 days (one day off)
7.28 Clogheen to Araglin 13 miles
7.29 Sunday off
7.30 Araglin to Fermoy 17 miles
7.31 Fermoy to Killavullan 16 miles
8.1 Killavullan to Bweeng Cross 20 miles (staying in Mallow)
Blackwater Way – Duhallow 43 miles/3 days
8.2 Bweeng to Mushera car park 18 miles (stay in Millstreet)
8.3 Millstreet to Shrone 14 miles
8.4 Shrone to Muckcross 12.5 miles
8.5 Sunday off
The Kerry Way 67 miles/4 days
8.6 Muckcross to Black Valley 12.5 miles
8.7 Black Valley to Glenbeigh 22 miles
8.8 Glenbeigh to Cohersiveen 17.5 miles
8.9 Cohersiveen to Portmagee 15.5 miles
8.9 – 8.16 Kildysart with Father Mike O’Grady
8.16 – 8.20 Dublin