I booked my flight to Dublin on Sunday, August 13th.
Two days later, on the Feast of the Assumption (and, less notably, my 28th birthday), I was saying goodbye to my friend and fellow pilgrim, Charles, at the BART turnstiles. I’d packed a small backpack and wore a new pair of used boots that would support me through five hikes around the Emerald Isle.
The Pilgrim Paths are Ireland’s response to the Camino de Santiago (first walked by St. James in the first century AD, and now travelled by thousands of pilgrims every year). This year, for Irish heritage week (Aug. 21–28), the five most prominent paths were offered with guides and groups. By grace, I managed to walk all five.
St. Finbarr’s Way
St. Finbarr preached a return to Christ in the 600s. His favorite books of the Bible were Samuel and the Psalms.
The walk was led by a local pastor, farmer, and in-keeper, David Ross. David was generous with his time and talents. I won’t soon forget him or his hospitality.
The Irish countryside is layered with small farms, marked off by rugged brick walls. It was blackberry season and the vines grew in dense clusters between the rocks. I wrote a short diddy to celebrate this unexpected bounty on my first day of walking:
Tell her what you told me about blackberry territory. Amble round the borders; bricks and bramble mixed with sticks and twigs and leaves.
I’ll tell you what you told her — Can you stop and tell a fairy story? — Something sweet and supple, purple prickle if you please.
Every pick is fickle — take my word and pick a pair or four; ever sweet in summer, some are sour in the spring or in the fall.
Do you know the way to get to Ballintubber Abbey? I’ve got to get to Dublin, down from Mayo — what a pickle! Yes indeed.
Before lunch, I had filled up on berries.
It rained lightly throughout the second day, but of course this only added to the mystique.
Cnoc na dTobar
I was late in arriving at the foot of Cnoc na dTobar (County Kerry). The mountain was shrouded in mist, so the stations of the cross served as my guide. It was a muddy slog, and I fell several times on the way up and back down. The view from the top wasn’t what it is on a clear day, but it was majestic in its own right.
Cosán na Naomh
I didn’t tarry in Kerry — instead continuing right on to Dingle, but not before picking up a couple of hitchhikers. The first, an old Irish man who looked like he’d fallen on hard times, helped me navigate about halfway. As soon as I dropped him off at his favorite pub, I met Michele, the Italian merry man. Michele ended up as my traveling companion for the next several days. We hiked the scenic and Christ-haunted Cosán na Naomh, and Michele taught me how to say the rosary in Italian.
Ave Maria, piena di grazia, il signore é con te. Sei benedetta tra le donne e benedetto é il frutto del seno tuo Jesu.
Santa Maria madre di Dio, prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell’ ora della nostra morte.
The day after the hike, Michele needed to get back to Dublin to make it to Italy in time for his sister’s wedding. Conveniently, the fourth path was just outside of Dublin, set to begin in two days. Upon arriving back in the city, I returned my rental car and took off to complete the final two hikes on foot and by public transportation.
St. Kevin’s Way
I almost missed the bus for St. Kevin’s Way, in Glendalough — a peaceful town just a few hours outside of the hustle and bustle of Dublin. I walked straight past the road to the visitor’s center, and continued walking a solid half mile before realizing my error. I had to run back, but my mistake had allowed me to pray at one of the oldest church ruins in Ireland, and to take a small fern for my notebook/flower press.
The lore says that St. Kevin once threw a seductress in a lake to avoid falling to temptation. The more likely story — considering that he’s remembered as a saint, not an assailant — is that he threw himself into a thicket (perhaps a blackberry bush), and rolled around without any clothing. A prayer of mine to St. Kevin was recently answered, and I have continued to ask his intercession.
Tochar Padraig (aka St. Patrick’s Way)
Getting from Glendalough to County Mayo seemed like it was going to require much time and treasure — first, I would need to take the bus back to Dublin, then find my way to a remote abbey on the other side of the country by public transportation. Thankfully, my new friends Dennis and Ellen, offered me a ride in their rental car. I had met them on the first day, when Dennis and I both noticed that the other was wearing UC Berkeley apparel — he a hat, me a shirt.
Dennis was planning to go golfing instead of finishing the last path, but the intercession of St. Patrick compelled him to throw caution to the wind and embark on the strenuous 35 km hike, which ends with a trek up and over Croagh Patrick. By the end, we were bitten by bugs, battered, and bruised. I was sustained through it all by the Holy Mass, celebrated outdoors on a rock where St. Patrick used to say Mass. Before that, it was a Druidic site of sacrifice. What kind of sacrifice, I know not.
Although I completed all of the hikes, I didn’t get my passport stamped at any of the locations. It didn’t feel necessary. Perhaps I’ll go back in the future, after I walk the Camino de Santiago. I’d love to try it without a backpack, or shoes. Based on the amount of help I received along the way, I think it would be entirely feasible without bringing along any provisions but the clothes on my back. If I get hungry, I can eat blackberries. More to the point, I found so much help along the way that I feel compelled to put my trust all the more fully in God, who wants so badly to give us good things.