Category Archives: Ireland

Romancing the Early Pilgrims

From that first day I began researching the concept of medieval pilgrimage for my Masters thesis all those many years ago (3 and a half to be exact), references to the Irish as pilgrims cropped up again and again. The influence of those who travelled not in search of shrines, indulgences or curiosity but in search of an ascetic life and a oneness with the divine could not be ignored. I am aware that it is a topic which has been written on extensively but I feel that within the context of my own work I need to acknowledge the journeys made by these earliest pilgrims.

The theme of being cast adrift in a rudderless boat is one which has appeared again and again in my recent research into romance narratives, and this theme has brought me back full circle to those early pilgrims I had once read about in my initial studies, referenced once or twice and pushed to the back of my mind. For these pilgrim monks, the idea of becoming peregrini or strangers by leaving their homes, families and all that was familiar to them for distant lands allowed them the opportunity to enter into the spiritual life for peregrinatio pro amore dei (pilgrimage for the love of God). The desire for the ascetic life also reflected the teachings of the bible regarding the desert and wandering in the wilderness which are found in the Book of Exodus. These reasons behind the earliest pilgrimage show us the popularity of the concept that life was  a pilgrimage toward the Heavenly Jerusalem, a concept which retained its popularity in both the historic and literary pilgrimage well into the Middle Ages and later (and one which I will hopefully address in greater detail later in my studies).

Following in the footsteps of those who sought the ascetic life in the desert, Irish monks sought such a life in places of equal desolation and isolation. Areas off the western Irish coast, for example Scarriff Island and Skellig Michael (both in Kerry), offered such an environment.

Irish Monastic Settlement

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also describes the arrival of three Irishmen in Cornwall whose chosen method of transport was a boat which did not have oars and provisions to last for a week, demonstrating their total dependence and devotion to God.

The Navigatio Sancti Brendani is one of the most famous narratives regarding Irish peregrini at sea. In this work, Saint Brendan’s search for the ‘Island Promised to the Saints’ unearths many other islands, many of them fantastical and in some cases miraculous.

Book illustration Manuscriptum translationis germanicae

The works which recently put me in mind of  these early Irish pilgrims of the sea are Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale and Emaré where the female protagonists of both of these romance narratives are exiled by casting them out to sea in rudderless boats. The prayers and devotion made by these characters reflect a sense of peregrinatio. Chaucer’s Constance, in her “ship al steerelees” (439) prays to the Cross:

Victorious tree, proteccioun of trewe,

That oonly worthy were for to bere

The Kyng of Hevene with his woundes newe,

The white Lamb, that hurt was with a spere,

Flemere of feendes out of hym and here

On which thy lymes feithfully extended,

Me kepe, and yif me myght my lyf t’amenden. (456-462)

This is a theme I will return to repeatedly and will hopefully be able to develop a more comprehensive analysis of this similarity between the women of these romance narratives and the Irish peregrini.





Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Middle English Literature, Pilgrimage

Curiosity and the pilgrim

I am embarrassed to say that over the course of the last few years and much research into medieval pilgrimage, I have only given a very brief amount of time to one of the most famous pilgrimage sites, not only in Ireland but also in Europe: Saint Patrick’s Purgatory situated on Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. The pilgrimage to Lough Derg offered those who ventured to this little island within an island a penitential experience like no other.  It provided the penitent with the opportunity to set out on a physical journey, eventually leading to a spiritual event where visions of both the torments of hell and the pleasures of heaven were witnessed. Its beginnings as a place of pilgrimage are described by H. of Saltery who explains that Saint Patrick, on requests from the Irish to prove the existence of both hell and heaven before they convert to Christianity, is shown the Lough by Jesus.

In The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory, de Pontfarcy describes the strong relationship between this site and the  anchoretic tradition. The isolation of Lough Derg and its history steeped in visions of the otherworld would have drawn not only the truly penitent pilgrims but also those motivated by a desire to see the wonderous and the curious for themselves. The Medieval Pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory provides a study of the various accounts of pilgrims from all over Europe including the earliest which is the Tractus de Purgatorio  Sancti  Patricii describing Saint Owein’s journey  and the detailed day-by-day account of the Hungarian pilgrim, George Grissaphan.

It is the account of another Hungarian pilgrim, Laurence of Pászthó, which I am drawn to as his motivations to travel to Lough Derg initially seem to be quite secular but change during the course of his pilgrimage. The compiler of this account is the Dublin notary James Yonge who, having completed the account, questions Laurence about his purpose for undertaking this pilgrimage. Laurence provides three reasons. The first reaffirms that Laurence did in fact question the “catholic faith” and travelled to the Lough out of what appears to be curiosity. He states that his mind has now been changed by his experiences at Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. His second and third reasons hark back to his secular tendencies as he explains that he also travelled to Lough Derg so he could tell the king of Hungary and also so that he could witness the “marvels and the miracles of the saints of Ireland”. I believe Laurence’s experience of pilgrimage provide us with a good model for what pilgrimage had become by the 15th century, a mixture of interest, curiosity, boastfulness and, mixed in there somewhere, spirituality.

Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg

Leave a comment

Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Pilgrimage

The Camino Connection

The Cult of Saint James was a popular institution in Ireland during the Middle Ages. Many examples of this popularity can be seen through out the country and include a large number of churches being dedicated to the saint. Another example of the popularity of Saint James is the number of Irish people who undertook the pilgrimage to his shrine in Compostella in Spain. Saint James’s Gate in Dublin, a name now synonymous with Guinness rather than medieval travel, was the site from which many Irish pilgrims left for Santiago de Compostella, travelling by sea to the continental mainland and then by foot or horse to complete the pilgrimage to the Spanish city.

Evidence of Irish pilgrims leaving these shores for Spain is not only seen in written records such as those of hospitals housing pilgrims but also in archaeological investigations of tombs and graves. According to Martin Fitzpatrick, scallop shells (the pilgrim badge and symbol associated with Saint James) have been found on bodies excavated in at medieval sites in towns such as Tuam, Drogheda and Mullingar.

Depictions of Saint James himself can also be found on an assortment of tombs across the country including a selection in Co. Tipperary. The tomb of Edmund Archer and his wife in Thurles, the effigy of Pierce Fitz Oge Butler in Kilcooley Abbey and tombs present in the Rock of Cashel all exhibit representations of the saint dressed in pilgrim garb and displaying the scallop shells.

Image of Saint James on the tomb of Edmund Archer and wife, taken from the Gothic Past: Visual archive of Gothic Architecture and Sculpture in Ireland.

These depictions not only demonstrate the popularity of Saint James in Ireland but also may prove that those interred within these tombs undertook the pilgrimage to his shrine at some stage in their lives, adding to the list of well-travelled Tipperary natives.

For more images of Saint James and references to pilgrims and pilgrimage on tombs like the one above visit


Filed under Ireland, Medieval, Pilgrimage