4 Of The Best Irish Pilgrim Trails
Rich in pilgrim tradition and spiritual history, Ireland is home to a number of Pilgrim Walks
While some incorporate some hill walking and are geared towards more experienced hikers, some trails are located inland on the flat land and others visit the shores of Ireland’s lakes.
Here’s everything you need to know to get started with four of Ireland’s best pilgrim trails that are just waiting to be discovered.
Just over nine kilometres from the centre of Westport town, Croagh Patrick is one of the most popular pilgrim climbs in Ireland. The popular trek is most visited during Reek Sunday on the last weekend of July, when up to 25,000 people attempt the ascent.
It is said that St Patrick fasted on the summit of the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights in 441 AD. Since then the traditional pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick has been carried out by generations of Christians in memory of the saint’s sacrifice.
As well as its strong Christian connection, the mountain is believed to have been central to Pagan pilgrimages as far back as 3000 BC. It’s possible that the mountain summit was used as a gathering place to celebrate the beginning of harvest season and other solstice events.
The climb is divided into three distinct stages, each of which offers a completely different walking experience but equally spectacular views of Clew Bay.
Starting from the car park, the first stage starts as a walk up a country road until you reach a number of steps before the trail leads up across trickling streams, greenery and rocks. The ascent becomes steeper and more challenging at the end of this stage as the ground changes to a grey gravel surface. Stage 1 ends when climbers reach ‘The Shelf’, the plateau in the climb after the initial ascent. This is a perfect place for a rest.
Stage 2 is a relatively flat walk along The Shelf which has a slight dip before leading towards the base of the summit. This is the easiest part of the climb; the trail is clear to see on the grey gravel ground and there are little or no obstacles before one reaches the base of the summit.
Stage 3 starts at the base of the mountain’s summit. Scaling the summit involves scaling a large steep mound made up almost entirely of loose shale stones and rocks. Extreme caution is required here. The best approach to reach the summit is to make a number of wide ‘zig-zag’ routes across the shale, being cautious of other climbers and the loose surface.
The descent is much quicker than the ascent, but be careful of navigating down from the summit and down through the wet rocks among the streams in stage 1.
The trail up Croagh Patrick is easy to follow but the climb becomes much harder when congested with people. To avoid this, many people choose to start the climb early in the morning. Stage 3 can be very difficult in wet and windy weather. In cases of extreme weather conditions, the route has been officially closed by local authorities.
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Type: Up and back
Distance: 6.8 km (max elevation 764 metres)
Duration: 3 hr 30 mins
Start location: Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre, Murrisk Co. Mayo
End location: Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre, Murrisk Co. Mayo
Parking: Croagh Patrick Car Park off the R335, Murrisk Co. Mayo
Co-ordinates: 53.778380 -9.639852
Buy Discovery Sheet 30 and 37 online
This route will take walkers around the southern and southwestern shores of the tranquil Lough Derg, in Co. Donegal. Suitable for families and people of all ages, this walk is popular for those looking for a peaceful and hill-free excursion.
Lough Derg is believed to have been home to St Patrick’s Purgatory, a pit, cave or well structure where St Patrick supposedly spent time in deep reflection in the 5th century. Although there has been some debate whether the pit was located on Station Island, or on the smaller Saints Island, Station Island has been the main focus of pilgrimages for hundreds of years.
As well as the two Islands, there are a number of landmarks on the trail to keep an eye out for including St Daveoc’s Chair and St Brigid’s Chair.
The track at Lough Derg is easy to follow and is marked with black wooden posts all of which display a yellow pilgrim trail symbol.
Starting from the visitor centre, travel southwest on the path towards the bottom of the lake. 500 metres into the trail, the path curves left and the water is visible on the right side. Looking out to the water and you will be able to make out two small islands known as Kelly’s Islands.
At the 3km mark, when the trail has reached the southwest corner of the lake, the Kelly’s Islands will now be to the east directly behind you as you continue west.
From here the trail heads inland, away from the shore for another 700 metres. At the T junction take a right and then continue straight at the next junction and then right again at the next.
Now the trail enters the loop seen on the top left of the map. The appearance of Saints Island and a short path that represents where a connecting bridge once stood, marks the beginning of the return loop.
Continue straight at the next two junctions, the second of which is the exit of the loop. Keep going straight for 700 metres, ignoring the turn you took earlier at the 500 metres mark.
Take a left and follow the path straight for 1.7 km until a crossroads appears. A route straight through will return walkers to the starting point.
A short ferry crossing to St Patrick’s Purgatory can also be incorporated into this route with boats leaving near the carpark/starting point.
The walking route also brings pilgrims within view of the smaller Saints Island, which was once connected to the mainland by a bridge, before the trail turns southwest loops back for the return journey.
Duration: 2hr 50 mins
Start location: Lough Derg Visitor Centre, Ballymacavany
End location: Lough Derg Visitor Centre, Ballymacavany
Parking: Lough Derg Visitor Centre, Ballymacavany
Co-ordinates: 54.607095 -7.858426
Buy Discovery Sheet 11 online
One for the cyclists, The Pilgrim’s Path in Co. Offaly is a relatively straight route across regional and third class roads that connects the village of Ballycumber to Clonmacnoise Monastery.
According to the Heritage Council, pilgrims chose this route to Clonmacnoise because it ran along an esker; a long, winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel. For pilgrims, walking on the slightly raised esker route ensured that their feet would stay dry as they made the trek to the monastery.
The route also takes in Boher Church, which is home to the shrine of St Manchan, one of Ireland’s most well-known pieces of religious metalwork.
The grounds of Clonmacnoise date back to 545 AD, and include many religious sites including the structure of a pre-Norman cathedral.
Park the car at the large space behind the pub in Ballycumber village. Cycle West on the R436 until you reach a turn with a well on the right hand side of the road. At this point cycle straight on, continuing down the country road dead ahead. Keep left at the first junction and you will eventually pass Boher Church and St Machan’s shrine on the right.
Continue 1.8km down the minor road and cycle straight through the crossroads. Staying straight on this road, the track will elevate slightly and intersect over an old railway line.
Continuing straight for another 3km, the road becomes the R444 and 100m metres later, intersects with the N62 at Doon. Go straight through the crossroads, passing a pub on the left hand side.
Continue on the R444 for 4.2km until you reach a junction. Take a right and continue for 1.1km.
When you see a sign post for Bloomhill, take a left onto the narrow road. Keep left for the next two turns which appear 300 metres and 600 metres down the road. Continue straight for 2.5km after the second turn. You’ll know you’re going the right way once you cycle over another old railway crossing.
Continue straight on the road for another 5km, passing Mongan Bog on your left at the half way point.
Clonmacnoise Monastery will be visible at the end of this stretch. You can stop here, or continue for 800 metres on the same road to reach Cluian Chiaran Prayer Centre.
As this route is best suited to cyclists, the distance isn’t as taxing when done by bike compared walking. Why not stop and have a picnic at Clonmacnoise before making a return cycle to Ballycumber?
Type: Point to point
Distance: 25km / 25.8km
Duration: 2 hrs (cycling)
Start location: Ballycumber, Co. Offaly. Intersection of Station Road and R436
End location: Clonmacnoise, Visitor Centre / Car parking near Cluain Chiarain
Parking: John Gavin’s Pub
Co-ordinates: 53.326351 -7.685432
Buy Discovery Sheet 47 and 48 online
Just like Croagh Patrick, Cnoc na dTobar was an important mountain in Pagan times during the Lughnasa festival, which marked the beginning of the harvest each year.
Since 1885, there have been 14 stone crosses dotted across Cnoc na dTobar mountain, each of which represents the different stations of the cross continuing all the way to the summit. These crosses were the brainchild of Canon Brosnan, a former parish priest in Cahersiveen during the 19th Century.
At the base of the mountain, near the start point of the climb, there is a well dedicated to St Fursey, the sixth century saint. Some believe the well has healing mineral properties that can help ease eye problems.
The steep but manageable ascent to the summit of Cnoc na dTobar pays off on a clear day when the breath taking views of the Blasket Islands can be enjoyed from the summit
To reach the start point, take the road south from Coonanna Harbour for 1.1km and keep an eye out for a gravel surface car park on the left hand side of the road.
It’s from this point that you will make your ascent. The ascent spot may not be clearly visible from the side of the road but the exact GPS coordinates for the start point are 51.978556, -10.2116683.
Facing the slope, head for the trail that moves up and left to the ridge. After walking 500 metres in this direction from the start point, the trail becomes clearer.
The summit is marked by a pillar that sits on a circular pile of stones. To make the return journey, stand with your back to the pillar and facing the way you came, head left down the slope following the trail for 1km, then head right for 400 metres, until you re-join the ascent trail. Now follow the trail you took up back down to the bottom.
Cnoc na dTobar is a relatively straight forward trail that’s easy to follow, thanks in part to the work of local walking groups that have marked the old path with white markers which are easier to see in the first half of the year before the ferns have grown high. In terms of distance and duration it’s one of the easier pilgrim climbs, but the angle of the ascent and the slipperiness of the surface on a wet day can be very challenging.
Difficulty: Moderate to hard
Distance: 8km (max elevation 690 metres)
Duration: 3.5 hrs
Start location: 1.1km South of Coonanna Harbour
End location: 1.1km South of Coonanna Harbour
Parking: Street parking
Co-ordinates: 51.978408 -10.211335
Buy Discovery Sheet 70 online
Whatever your level of experience, make sure that you know how to stay safe. Read our Safety in the Outdoors tips before you head off on your next walk.