Discovering Donegal on foot
Brendan McManus SJ and Anne McGowan led a group of pilgrims along the Sli Cholmcille Pilgrimage walk from Sliabh Liag to Gartan in Donegal, from 22-28 July 2022. They walked by day and rested mainly in local B&B’s by night.
The Slí Cholmcille is an ambitious project to establish a pilgrimage trail linking key sites related to St Colmcille/Columba from Donegal, Derry, the North Sperrins and the Bann to Argyll and eventually the island of Iona.
Read below Brendan’s reflection on the memorable trek in the footsteps of St Colmcille, the patron Saint of Derry.
A Journey of Transformation
Seven Day Pilgrimage on the Sli Cholmcille
The Slí Cholmcille takes the pilgrim walker through the most stunning scenery over hills and mountains, around coast and lakes, and through villages and towns in the footsteps of one of Ireland’s most important early Christian Saints.
Toward the end of July, we eleven pilgrims walked about 20 km a day, making our way over mountains and bogs, along rivers and streams, and discovering the wealth of Donegal’s heritage, culture, and sheer beauty.
More than just a walk, this was a pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Donegal’s own St Colmcille (Columba) and trying to recreate that original Celtic Christian experience of discovering God speaking to us in everything. This meant reflecting on our lives, having times walking in silence and mass/liturgy, having a spiritual theme every day, and sharing together in the evenings.
Just like the Camino, this unique Donegal pilgrimage was a journey of transformation. Donegal has always been a place apart with its own culture and landscapes, and afforded a unique experience of genuine Celtic Christian spirituality: closeness to a rugged nature, and was experienced as a place of peace and recuperation from the ills of modern life.
It was a magical hideaway that allowed recuperation and renewal; life moved at a different pace especially walking, and there was lots of time to come back to yourself. It was a unique experience of the ‘desert’, the origin of monasticism and Celtic Christianity, an ascetic retreat to a wild place to pray and reflect, face oneself, purify and reintegrate oneself.
This year we piloted a shorter version of the longer Sli ‘spine’ that eventually goes to Scotland and would take several weeks. We wanted to offer an inclusive package, food, accommodation and bus transfers, that could be done in 7 days and would cover the main Colmcille sites, finishing in his birthplace of Gartan.
The trail began in the area around Teelin in west Donegal which is the start of the pilgrim trail up the majestic Sliabh Liag (we were blessed with a good day making it a sublime experience). Then it was on to Glencolmcille, a stunning valley on the edge of the wild and rugged northwest Atlantic coastline, filled with Columban sites that revolve around a local turas or pilgrim route. The route continues up through Ardara, Glenties, Fintown and finished in Gartan, the birthplace of Colmcille, with a visit to Glenveigh National Park.
Some of the highlights experienced along the trail included the majestic Sliabh Liag (highest sea cliffs in Europe); the village of Glencolmcille, a valley literally filled with pre-Christian and Christian sites; the abandoned famine village of Port that sits above a wild, stoned beach and picturesque harbour; the Assaranca Waterfall in full spate; the Bluestack Way river walk between Ardara and Glenties. Fintown to Gartan features a wild boggy forest trail that brought out the best of in us all in terms of collaboration and helping one another.
Finally, there are the Colmcille sites around Gartan including the Abbey and birthing stone; while the beautiful Glenveagh National Park is also located on the trail. If that were not enough, finishing in the wonderful Gartan Outdoor Centre allowed us to witness the morning mist on the lake, simply unforgettable.
These were the key elements of the Pilgrimage:
- The Spirituality of Colmcille: While there are legends and stories aplenty concerning Colmcille, we know that he is firmly rooted in Donegal, was born in Gartan and travelled widely. The most important aspects of this spirituality are that it was: ascetical, monastic, Gospel (the Good News of Christ’s presence within) & scripture-based, pilgrim (an exile for Christ) and contemplative. We had agreed times of walking in silence every day.
- The landscapes: the route is majestic, stunning, and awe-inspiring; it offers a mix of coastal and highland landscapes where you can feel a sense of freedom and getting away from it all. The route covers granite mountains, pristine beaches, sandy machair grasslands, peatland ecosystems, and traditional drystone walls with mixed farmland.
- The hospitality: Donegal is renowned for its friendly people who provide a welcome like no other, a culture of tradition steeped in the Irish language.
- Steeped in history: the route offers pre-Christian and early Christian sites, with many well-preserved national monuments from the time of St. Colmcille to the strongholds of some of the County’s most famous Clanns.
- A remote escape: Donegal is isolated physically, culturally and even politically. The route is located in Ireland’s northwestern corner. and as part of the ancient province of Ulster (though separated by the border from Northern Ireland’s other 6 counties); and is remote and difficult to access, meaning that Donegal is far from the densely-populated eastern and southern regions of Ireland, and except for Northerners, is off the main tourist itineraries.
The implications for our modern-day pilgrims on the Sli Cholmcille:
- Exposure to remote and uninhabited places
- Time spent walking alone for long periods in nature, being able to collect one’s thoughts
- Practicing contemplation and inner listening, that is, awareness of how God speaks through everything: nature, feelings, memories, ruins, symbols.
- A spiritual programme featuring Gospel themes, Psalms and readings
- Ascetical practices inherent in walking pilgrimage: times of fasting, physically challenging exercise, moments of fatigue and reaching one’s limits
- Appreciating the Donegal welcome and hospitality
- Discovering historical, artistic and social heritage
Quotes from participants:
- ‘One of the happiest weeks of my life. So, so memorable.’
- ‘What wonderful memories to carry forward. It was a really, really special week; I thoroughly enjoyed walking, talking, and getting to know everyone.’
- ‘Walking the Slí put a distance between me and the many distractions of life and drew me closer to another dimension..’
- ‘I liked the linear aspect of the walk, the community, the butterflies and the red deer..’
- ‘‘I found it great for the Body, Mind & Soul.’
- ‘Cherished the sense of peace and purpose and the opportunity to gain perspective and reflect’
- ‘It is the Slí’s great contrast to normal life that is already enticing me back..’
See https://slicholmcille.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and photos of this pilgrimage.
Listen hear to Bishop Alan talking to Pat Coyle about the life of the patron saint of Derry and how that life will be marked on the pilgrimage with visits to various sites and townlands. The interview took place after Bishop Alan completed his ‘pilot’ run of the pilgrimage in 2020