I travelled in Eire for the first time in September 2018. It is a country I had always wanted to visit because of its natural beauty and wilderness. I fancied I could ‘get away from it all’ if I went there.
With a population of 4,803,748 in a country the size of 84,421 kilometres squared (32,599 miles), I was attracted to the solitude, the peace and quiet.
I therefore added a tent and very basic camping equipment to my backpack. I wanted to walk in unpopulated, out of the way places.
I visited: Dublin, Warren Point, the Wicklow Mountains, Glendalough, Kinsale, Unionhall, Drumbeg Stones, St Bridget’s Shrine, Skibereen, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Murrisk, Westport, Rosslare and more. It was wonderful!
I chose September because the weather is often good in Ireland, as it is in Scotland, during that month. It can be drier and warmer at that time of year (temperatures range from 60F (16C) to 41F (5C)). But it wasn’t that year!
Now I have had a little time to reflect I note that it is also a Roman Catholic country, like Spain and other countries I have walked in, so perhaps that was one of the unconscious reasons. I was christened into the Church of England and I walk pilgrimage, however I am not religious. I do not attend church (although I sit in on Mass or the services when staying in a monastery or temple as I think that is respectful and integral to the place), but I am a lay member of a Buddhist Sangha in Edinburgh; and I practice Shiatsu which is based on Japanese and Chinese Taoism and which I consider to be a type of spiritual way, a particular approach to being in the world and relating to others.
I am very interested in things spiritual and while here I am preparing to teach about Shiatsu and Death, reading and writing on this subject. Ireland has a network of ancient and well trodden pilgrimages and a relatively newly established Camino association. Given my interest in walking these holy ways, and my musings on religion over the past 2 years (notably the St Magnus Way on Orkney in May 2018), my intuitive choice of location was perhaps not entirely random. I also knew before I came that there was a Buddhist Temple, Dzogchen Beara which connects with my meditation practice.
It is a country which is most aware of its natural inhabitants. If you are not Irish and have not been here all your life, perhaps you are native but have lived away for a long while, you are liable to be called a ‘blow in’. In this way Ireland is again similar to Scotland where I have lived for 30 years but where I will always be a foreigner too, born as I was in England.
I have had a number of fascinating conversations with people about this topic: about their relationship to their place of birth; the differences between the places they have lived and the languages they speak; their inherited nationalities and those of their family. Being a bit of a traveller these days myself (I have been home and away at roughly 3 monthly intervals for the last two years), I have some direct experience of this, but mine is a more temporary exploration and search, an opportunity to take myself to some (especially rural) places where I have the space and time to think and reflect.
I have spent a great deal of time researching and looking into the Chinese Medicine concept of the Five Elements, of which the Earth element has to do with grounding and a sense of home. It is said that someone with a strong Earth element carries their home about with them, has a strong enough centre to feel ‘at home’ wherever they are. I don’t feel homesick when I travel (although I am always happy to be back in my own bed afterwards), but the planting of my feet as I cross kilometres and move around the land, must help keep me grounded.
The coasts and beaches were supposed to be second to none, and there were mountains too, in particular Crough (say crow) Patrick, the most famous pilgrimage peak; and 100s of shrines to choose from, particularly the Knock Shrine.
As is always the case, much did not work out as expected, and unexpected meetings were of course fortuitous. I stuck with my normal plan of only visiting monuments and attractions which are free as I am on a shoestring budget; and not planning too far in advance so that I could take advantage of the unforseen and follow the mood and weather of the moment. This, of course, causes some problems: there are often local special events which I did not know about in advance that mean I cannot find a bed in a hostel or air bnb – a festival of singing in Drimoleague, a guitar fiesta in Clonakilty and so on. Sometimes it means I miss out on what would have probably been a good experience. On the other hand, it means that I might move on to places I had not known about which turn out to be amazing, or have to find another way to go, a new path to follow, a break from habit and therefore a chance to try something new, to challenge myself.
Occasionally there were times when I travel and get panicky or scared that I will have nowhere to sleep, and there was one day in Ireland when I went around from place to place asking for accommodation and felt pretty upset, but the pluses far outweigh the minuses. I don’t take risks because I want to live a long life and return home afterwards to see family and friends!
Finally, I once again swapped Shiatsu sessions for hospitality and want to thank Jo, Debbie and Declan, Emma and family, Rainer and Benjamin, Bea and Darek and many others along the way.
Read about my pilgrimage walk up Croagh Patrick.
Short story and poetry collection on migration Something About Home, New writing on Migration and Belonging edited by Liam Harte. ISBN 9780906602843Geigraphy Publications