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Wandering for the love of God: A brief history of pilgrimage in Ireland


"Not all those who wander are lost."

Ireland has a long and rich history of pilgrimages to holy sites, dating all the way back to St. Patrick, the great “Apostle of Ireland.”

According to tradition, worn out and fatigued by his apostolic activities, St. Patrick sought out a secluded place to fast and pray for the people of Ireland. He ascended the mountain now known as “Croagh Patrick” and remained there the forty days of Lent, asking God to have mercy on the people of Ireland.

In the centuries following St. Patrick’s missionary campaign, there grew a religious fervor that took as its motto, peregrinatio pro Dei amore — “wandering for the love of the Lord.” This single phrase inspired numerous men and women in Ireland to travel distant places in honor of the Triune God.

In a real sense they fulfilled that oft-quoted line from Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost.” They were not wandering aimlessly, but with a specific spiritual purpose, seeing themselves as pilgrims in this world.

This idea took various forms during the early years of Christian faith in Ireland, but the desire to travel to a holy site in search of God remained a common theme.

One of the oldest pilgrimage routes is Croagh Patrick, where pilgrims continue to go, following in the footsteps of St. Patrick. The last Sunday in July is known as “Reek Sunday,” and attracts thousands of pilgrims who ascend the heights of the mountain in reparation for their sins.

Another ancient pilgrimage site is the island of Lough Derg, commonly called, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory.” The island has been receiving pilgrims since the 5th century and is famous for its rigorous 3-day pilgrimage. It includes fasting, walking barefoot, repeating “station prayers,” and maintaining a 24-hour vigil.

In recent years the shrine to Our Lady of Knock, the site of a unique Marian apparition in the 19th century, has been the site of thousands of pilgrims each year as well.

There are many other pilgrimage sites throughout Ireland, which have now become its own “Camino,” giving pilgrims a chance to embark on a journey of repentance and discovery.

Wherever they went, Irish pilgrims “wandered” for the glory of God, invoking his boundless mercy as they traveled to these holy sites. It was an essential part of their spirituality and continues to inspire many others who are looking to draw closer to God.

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