Unique Irish desert experience

July 21, 2023 in Featured News, News

The annual Slí Cholmcille walking pilgrimage » guided by Brendan McManus SJ took place in north-west Donegal Sunday, 9-15 July 2023. There were fifteen pilgrims in total, mainly from around Ireland but with two from overseas. This route covered some of the key Columban sites in Donegal, including Tory Island. The saint founded more than 60 churches and monasteries across Ireland and helped spread Christianity throughout Scotland.

The weather forecast was not good for the week and Brendan says if they had believed the forecast they we might never have left home! Thankfully the reality was a lot better, with only two wet afternoons. The rest was lovely walking weather, according to Brendan, which even included a few sunny days. “At one point it was raining everywhere else in Ireland but for the extreme northwestern tip or Donegal, proof again of the pilgrim’s trust in providence and the need to just get out there. Even the rainy days failed to dampen our spirits. On Saturday we had a beautiful walk across a bog road from Creeslough to Glenveagh. We were surrounded by running water and full watercourses – a unique Irish ‘desert’ experience.”

The wild beauty of Donegal as a setting for this pilgrimage helps this process of inner transformation as it is facilitated by the external, rugged nature in full bloom, Brendan notes, explaining that the route offered a mix of coastal and highland landscapes where pilgrims could feel a sense of freedom and getting away from it all.

They walked open majestic mountain vistas, stunning, pristine beaches, sandy machair grasslands, peatland ecosystems, networks of traditional drystone walls, and mixed farmland. “Donegal is awe-inspiring. It has always been a place apart with its own culture and landscapes, and it afforded a unique experience of Columban spirituality, a closeness to nature, and a place of peace and recuperation from the ills of modern life. People from the north of Ireland have long known this magical hideaway that allows recuperation and renewal. Life moves at a different pace in Donegal, and there is time to come back to yourself. We had this same experience of being at a remove from our normal lives that allowed for an awareness of God’s action in our lives.”

Reporting on what the pilgrims experienced Brendan welcomed that people said they found the walking and silence helpful in getting out of their ‘heads’, out of overthinking and ruminations. “Walking brings a level of peace and stillness that helps to sort out one’s head, deal with feelings, and begin to discern or listen to what God is saying in the deeper parts of ourselves. One of the themes was listening – trying to still that shrill internal voice – listening to our true selves, listening to nature and to others. This was about being present and free of unhelpful anxiety and worry in order to find God within,” he says.

There was input from Brendan twice daily for the pilgrims on prayer and pilgrimage themes He presided at the daily Eucharist and facilitated an evening faith sharing. He also took time to talk to people individually about their lives. “It was a privileged position and one which I greatly value, as well as being very rewarding, he said, noting, “The main thing I have learned after leading more than 50 of these walks is that less is more. It’s about facilitating pilgrims having an experience of God on the trail and helping them understand that experience. Often the best thing I can do is get out of the way!”

Brendan was also struck by the fact that the periods of walking in silence, an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon worked really well for people. “Before each session, we had a short input and some short scripture passages to pray with, especially from the psalms. People appreciated this, looked forward to it, and missed it when it wasn’t there, such as the day we took the ferry to Tory Island. Again, this is another key ‘camino’ element; time spent alone with God on the trail is where the action happens.”

Since the pilgrimage is in the footsteps of St Colmcille, the group attempted to follow the spirituality of the saint as far as this can be ascertained from the sources. “While there are legends and stories aplenty concerning Colmcille (our guide Seamus Doohan was very good on these), we know for sure that Colmcille was firmly rooted in Donegal, was born in Gartan, and travelled widely.” says Brendan, adding that, his spirituality was “ascetical, monastic, contemplative, Eucharistic, Gospel-based (the Good News of Christ’s presence within) and based on pilgrimage (he described himself as “an exile for Christ”). We used these themes from the saint’s life (pilgrimage, exile, poetry, and scripture,) along with quotes from the Psalms, exposure to nature, and the actual landscapes that Colmcille was immersed in.”

Donegal is also renowned for its friendly people and great welcome, a culture of tradition steeped in the Irish language. What stood out this year for pilgrims was the hospitality, says Brendan, who is grateful to Fr Johnny Moore and Benito in Dungloe, the staff in Teach Jack and the Gartan Outdoor Centre, Fr Philip and Fr Flann in Ards. A standout moment he says was meeting Fr John Joe Duffy in Creeslough, forever identified as the voice for those grieving the loss of loved ones after the tragic explosion in the village. They paused for a prayer at the site of the tragedy.

In their final reflection, Brendan says that the pilgrims recognised that they needed to change their lives in order “to create places of silence, still the over-thinking and shrill voices in the head, be more tuned into God in their lives, and be more active agents of God’s love in the world.”

Pilgrims were prepared for the trek by using a modified version of Brendan’s tips for pilgrims returning from the Camino »

It was Brendan’s third time as spiritual director on the 180km Slí Cholmcille which was organised in the main by Anne McGowan “who did a huge amount of the preparation work.” according to Brendan. He says that The Slí Cholmchelle is a project that he and the committee, hope will eventually become the Irish ‘Camino.’

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