Ireland’s first ‘Spiritual Tourism’ conference

March 15, 2018 in Featured News, News, Newsletter

The Pilgrimage & the Evolution of Spiritual Tourism International Conference took place on 9 March 2018 at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). In a new collaboration the Spirituality Institute for Research and Education (SpIRE) in Dublin and the Department of Languages, Tourism, and Hospitality at the School of Humanities at WIT organised the first conference of its kind in Ireland.

The conference was attended by people of diverse interests from the four corners of Ireland as well as from Germany, Luxembourg, Romania, the UK, the USA, and Canada. According to Michael O’Sullivan, Director of SpIRE and the conference coordinator, the event reflected an international multi-faith phenomenon in which an estimated 200 million people around the world engage in pilgrimage every year. “With ecological concerns becoming more prevalent the idea of going on pilgrimage is a way of evoking and expressing a spirituality connected with the natural world”, he added.

The time-table of the conference included a welcoming by WIT. SpIRE staff and keynote talks were from Dr Dee Dyas of York University; Dr Stefano Dominioni of the European Institute of Cultural Routes; and John O’Dwyer of Pilgrim Path Ireland. There were parallel sessions of short papers which consisted of twelve presenters covering topics such as Celtic Spirituality, St Willibrord, tour guides, Medjugorje, the Hildegard Pilgrimage Way, and the Holy Land. There were visiting stands which represented a number of organisations. At one of them Brendan McManus SJ was present with his book Redemption Road: Grieving on the Camino. A plenary session concluded the event, led by Dr Bernadette Flanagan of SpIRE and Dr Pat Lynch of WIT. See below for a brief summary of the sessions.

The conference situated the popular revival of Irish pilgrim paths in an international context, which provided an opportunity to discuss the potential for Ireland as a sustainable spiritual tourism destination. It also had in mind questions like: Why have human beings across otherwise diverse cultures and periods so often been inclined to identify places as special and map meaning on to them?; How is the notion of pilgrimage prompting us to reconceptualise our understanding of spiritual tourism?; How will integrating the current interest in pilgrimage into tourism initiatives challenge and re-invent current practice?; What new research and practice frontiers lie ahead as we contemplate the next decade of pilgrimage tourism?

Brendan McManus SJ is the spirituality delegate in the Irish Province. He provided an assessment of the key issues the Spiritual Tourism Conference raised for him.

  • Tourism Ireland has largely ignored the spiritual dimension of sites, e.g., Knock gets over a million visitors a year yet doesn’t appear on the Bord Failte website. Tourism is waking up to the commercial potential of pilgrims in much the same way as the Camino is a pilgrimage but all can participate at different levels.
  • There is an issue about tour guides for religious sites, that how they are tuned into the religious dimension is key to how visitors experience the sites, to have an appreciation for pilgrims and religious experience. There needs to be more training on this.
  • There is an explosion of interest in the pilgrim trails as witnessed by John Dwyer’s presentation and reprinted book on Irish Pilgrim Trails. Some exceptional Celtic/Christian sites such as Glendalough, Croagh Patrick and Clonmacnoise are experiencing a renaissance.
  • The sites need visitors and traffic to survive and have to be open to all sorts of visitors, pilgrims and tourists alike.
  • The presentation on English Cathedrals by Dee Dyas was interesting in that people found themselves moved by the architecture and space, even if they weren’t religious, and wanted to participate in rituals of lighting candles and writing prayers (cf post reformation stripping out of these things has seen a reversal lately). Often they didn’t have a language for what was moving them and possibly needed some help in interpreting it.
  • In conclusion, it is in the interests of all the different stakeholders to work together to promote access to these exceptional sites in such a way as to preserve their character and integrity and yet make them open to all sorts of ‘pilgrims’ from across the spectrum.

The feedback on the conference was encouraging, according to Michael. He says it is hoped that the conference will be followed up by further initiatives in spiritual tourism and academia, in particular a pilgrim tour-guide educational module designed especially for the Tourism and Hospitality department at WIT and a collaborative research initiative with the RIKON Research Centre at WIT.

Marian Finucane was joined by Dr. Bernadette Flanagan and John G O’Dwyer on RTE Radio 1, 24 February, and they spoke about spiritual tourism in advance of the conference. Bernadette told listeners that spiritual tourism is a manifestation of a wider turn to spirituality that’s happening around the world at this time. Referring to the process of discovering new routes associated with women, she named three famous Irish abbesses other than Saint Brigid including one from Northern Ireland called Manina who have travel paths associated with them. “We can read her life about when she met with spiritual teachers before she set up her own project,” said Bernadette, adding, “Monnine travels from Newry down to Kildare, over to the Aran Islands (where you have Enda), down to Wexford where you have Ibar, back up to Kildare, and back up to Newry where she gets her own project going there.”

Bernadette, who has written about Monnine in a book called Embracing Solitude, drew a parallel between the recovery of old pilgrim paths with the revival interest, commercial and otherwise, in sead of the  value of seaweed which is being used for a variety of purposes today. “I think there is a lot yet to be discovered around the paths and that’s what John and myself were saying really.”


The first keynote speaker, Dr Dee Dyas, Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture and the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies at the University of York, who is conducting fieldwork on contemporary pilgrims, looked at why people are drawn to pilgrimage in the first place. Her presentation addressed the following questions: Why have human beings across otherwise diverse cultures and periods so often been inclined to identify places as special and map meaning on to them? How are holy places identified and a sense of sacredness communicated? How important are the senses in spiritual engagement and response? Her presentation went back to the Hebrew scriptures and went on to explore key chapters in the story of Christian pilgrimage and what these can tell us about supporting, shaping, and experiencing pilgrimage and spiritual tourism today. Her focus was on cathedrals in England. A visit to a cathedral was a multi-sensory experience in medieval times. The massive shrines drew the attention of the eye, pilgrims smelled the heavy incense and beeswax, heard the chanted liturgy and tinkling bells, or perhaps they walked in procession through the sacred spaces, and touched, caressed, and kissed the holy places. However, pilgrimage and ritual were discouraged in the Reformation. Yet, according to Dr Dyas, recent years have witnessed a massive revival in interest in rituals there such as the now common sight of candles and flowers at scenes of death or tragedy such as the Grenfell Tower disaster in London.

Dr Stefano Dominioni, the second keynote speaker, travelled from Luxembourg where he oversees the certification of European Cultural Routes across the 47 member states of the EU. The first cultural route designated by the Council of Europe was the Santiago de Compostela. The philosophy underpinning the declaration of the Camino as a cultural route is the same bridge-building ethos that has guided the council of Europe in selecting 31 cultural routes to date, that these pilgrim trails may inspire young and old today to travel these routes in order ‘to build a society founded on tolerance, respect for others, freedom and solidarity.’

John O’Dwyer delighted the audience with his personal stories of walking the pilgrim paths of Ireland. John has always enjoyed hiking. His trekking led to his authoring articles for the Irish Times on journeys throughout Ireland. When he was asked by Collins Press to write a book on Ireland’s pilgrim paths, religious routes which have been used by pilgrims since ancient times, he walked them himself first, from Slieve Mish in Antrim to Skellig Michael. His well-received guide Pilgrim Paths in Ireland is now updated with five additional journeys, including Kerry’s Cnoc na dTobar. Not only do these pilgrimages offer peace and spiritual renewal, but they are also, John emphasised, a source of income and esteem for local communities.

In addition to the activities in the main conference hall, which was full to the brim, parallel sessions took place in rooms close by at WIT. Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) was represented by Dr Kevin Griffin, tourism lecturer, and PhD researcher Vreny Enongene. Vreny outlined the way pilgrim practices have changed in Ireland while Dr Griffin spoke about the way in which the spirituality of the tour guide affects the experience of the visitor to a sacred site.

From Germany, Dr Annette Esser, an expert on Hildegard of Bingen, one of only four women doctors in the faith of the Catholic Church, described how the newly established Bingen trail encapsulates the visions and insights of the mystic Hildegard along the path.

Dermot Mulligan, Carlow Museum curator, spoke about the revival of interest in Ireland in St Willibrord, patron saint of Luxembourg, his Carlow connections and the unique ‘hopping procession’.

Carlow woman Dr Maura McNally presented her PhD study on the impact of pilgrimage to Medjugorje on individuals she interviewed. Lesley O’Connor, a graduate of the MA in Applied Spirituality in Dublin, spoke about her extended trip to Palestine and how it transformed and inspired her.

Deirdre Ni Chinnéide reflected on the joys and challenges bringing pilgrims to sacred sites on the Aran Islands over the past 10 years. Karen Ward, a Dublin-based psychotherapist spoke about another pilgrim path, this one revived by herself and Celtic spirituality scholar and also a conference speaker, Dolores Whelan, from the birth place of St Brigid in Faughart to Kildare town. Liz Murray, also a graduate of the WIT MA in Dublin, spoke of her research in Dalkey, the home of St Begnet, and its impact on those in her study.

Other presenters included Prof Laura Beres from Canada on an ethical approach to pilgrimage, the fuller version of whose text will be published in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, and Nadine Eckmann, a spiritual tourism PhD researcher in UCC who presented findings on how tour companies are portraying sites such as the Cliffs of Moher and the Hill of Uisneach as ‘mystic’ and employing Celtic legends to market their tours.

Photo courtesy of George Goulding.