Walking an Ancient Irish Pilgrimage Path

Selected Blog from the Returning to Wonder Series – 2012 to 2017

Firstly, some positive news. I recently got an opportunity to help plant one hundred native trees on a good friend’s farm as part of his farm biodiversity rejuvenation plans. We planted birch, alder, hazel, oak and guilder rose saplings. It felt like good work to be helping to recreate a new wildlife habitat in the local area. Well done Seamus Ward!

Now for this week’s story. Last August I decided to take a walk along the ancient pilgrimage path that leads around the shores of Lough Derg. I was in search of an ancient natural monument called Saint Daveoc’s Chair. St. Daveoc was an early Christian anchorite who sought out this remote and wild area, to be closer to God and nature. Although the nearby pilgrimage island is now known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, it was this saintly hermit who was traditionally associated with Lough Derg. Even today, this area exudes a sense of remote wildness. In the 6th century, it was the wilderness domain of wolves, eagles and wild boar!

I took a booklet along with me about Lough Derg’s ancient pilgrimage path, kindly gifted to me by local woman, Mary Leonard. I found St. Daveoc’s Chair in the hollow of a hill, cloaked by plantation forestry. My initial exhilaration at finding this ancient sacred site, soon turned to deep anger. Coillte workers had planted Sitka Spruce right upon the site, even though there was very little soil at the top of the hill. What were they thinking at the time? Some of the mature trees had predictably crashed down over St. Daveoc’s Chair. A forestry worker had returned recently to wrap a strip of red and white plastic around the sight. It felt like he had sectioned off the scene of a crime.

I reflected over the experience for a week and then decided to call a friend who works for Coillte. I asked him to talk with his top managers and tell them that I would go to the local and national press if this ancient sacred site wasn’t restored and fallen trees removed. I said I would give them six months to rectify the situation.

Lo and behold, I returned to St. Daveoc’s Chair recently to find that Coillte had removed the plantation and did not replant the hill site with conifer saplings. The atmosphere had completely transformed up at St. Daveoc’s Chair. I sat in cross-legged position with my hazel walking stick by my side, and gazed across Lough Derg to the Basilica on Station Island. To the south I could make out part of the ancient medieval pilgrimage path that winds over moorland from Templecairn. It was a beautiful sight on a bright, fresh, April afternoon.

In the same way that many Irish people nowadays travel to Spain to do the Camino De Santiago walk, countless people from across Europe (including nobility), converged on this remote corner of Donegal during the Medieval period, fasting and praying as they walked. It was hard to imagine the effort that took. Even today it’s quite a drive out to Lough Derg by car.

As I sat next to St. Daveoc’s chair, taking in the newly restored panoramic view, I recalled stories I heard on my travels to Asia of the enlightened Buddhist hermits that lived lives of mediation and reflection in the remoter reaches of the Himalayas. Surely Daveoc was on a similar quest. Of course nobody is an island and local people from the Pettigo area must have supported him with food and clothes. Tradition has it that when Daveoc died, locals rowed his body out on a dugout canoe and buried him on Saints Island. His tomb probably became the centre of a localised pilgrimage, centuries before Saint Patrick was ever connected to Lough Derg.

Not far from St. Daveoc’s Chair, I found St. Brigid’s Chair, a large, indented rock, right on the lake shore of Lough Derg. Pilgrim’s would sit on this natural stone seat, with their palms brought together in prayer, and facing Station Island. Coillte forestry workers continued to regain my respect when I noticed a recently cleared plantation of spruce trees – close to St. Brigid’s Chair. The area had been replanted with young oak trees in tall plastic green tubes, to protect them from browsing red Deer. This seemed a very fitting act as Brigid’s religious foundation was centred in Kildare – Cill Dara (The Church of the Oak Trees).

The final part of my walk brought me to a holy well dedicated to St. Brigid. It was draped in prayer cloths and other personal offerings left by modern pilgrims. A big old willow trees with a wonderful coat of moss watched over this special place. I bathed a sore right eye in its clear waters. It wasn’t sore the next morning. There was a good feeling of natural harmony and balance on this ancient pilgrimage path; acknowledged through the presence of sacred sites dedicated to both male and female spiritual masters. I highly recommend doing this walk sometime with friends, or by yourself.

The Returning to Wonder continues…..