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

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I haven’t being paying as much attention to the blog lately as I probably should be, casting it aside like “yesterday’s jam” when another task arose. That task was writing my very first abstract for my very first paper for (yes, you’ve guessed it) my very first conference. UCC’s School of English host the Bookends conference every year and I just could not pass up on their choice of theme – Deviance. Over the last few months I have been working on distorted images of the family (mostly on the depiction of medieval incest) in Middle English literature and how this relates to pilgrimage and travel so I thought this might fit in very nicely in a conference on deviance! It  isn’t the easiest of topics to talk about but once you get through the initial wariness it really is an interesting subject.

Writing this abstract and paper has been a fantastic learning experience and even though the nerves and worries have kicked in I’m looking forward to presenting. Even as I look at my abstract now, I know myself that I have made a few mistake (the excessive use of “I will’s” being one) but it is all part of experience I hope to learn from!

Head on over to the deviant (if you dare)  to see some other (much better) abstracts along with my travesty. If my paper goes well I’ll post it on the blog and if not, well let’s just say I’ll be powering up the shredder!

And if you remember, spare a thought for a very nervous student next Wednesday at 2!


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Curtasye and Pilgrimage

Rather than let this blog become completely dedicated to local history, I have decided that for now I will move away from the home-grown connections to medieval travel and give some time to my primary interest and research area – pilgrimage in literary works. The most famous literary depiction of medieval pilgrimage is of course Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales but its presence can be seen in many other Middle English works and across a variety of genres. During the course of my research I’ve come across numerous ways in which pilgrimage appears in texts and here is one I found when I just started on my  research last winter. While researching the link between didactic, instructional literature and pilgrimage, I came across a text entitled The Boke of Curstasye which offers directions relating to correct table manners and how to behave in church, among other things. I had examined other didactic texts, mostly parental advice to children, where pilgrimage only received a passing reference so I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Book of Curtasye gave detailed instructions on how a person (more specifically a man) should behave when on pilgrimage. It is an amusing piece which explains how a male pilgrim should handle a situation where he finds himself having to share a bed with another  pilgrim. For example, having picked a side of the bed, speaking is to be kept to a minimum once you have inquired his name and where he is from:

With felawe, maystur, or her degré,e curtasye
In bedde yf þou falle herberet to be,
Þou schalt enquere b
In what par[t] of þe bedde he wylle lye;
Be honest and lye þou fer hym fro,
Þou art not wyse but þou do so.
With woso men, boþe fer and negh,
The falle to go, loke þou be slegh
To aske his nome, and qweche he be,
Whidur he wille: kepe welle þes thre.
The correct way in which to behave when in the company of friars while on pilgrimage is also dictated as are strict guidelines on not displaying greediness at the table of a host. The most amusing instruction I came across in this piece, however, was that when looking for a place to stay when on pilgrimage you must never stay in the home of a red-haired person “For þose be folke þat ar to drede”. Looks like if I was to provide pilgrims with hospitality in the Middle Ages, my red hair would have scuppered those plans.
If you would like to read more from The Boke of Curtasye  please check out the online version of the text found in the “Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse” –;view=fulltext


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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


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Medieval Labyrinth

Labyrinths can be found on the floors (and sometimes walls) of many medieval churches and cathedrals, the most famous being the one found in the cathedral at Chartres, France. It is widely believed that these labyrinths provided an alternative to the physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem for those who could not travel the long and often dangerous journey. The twists and turns of these often large labyrinths represented the pathway through life in search of the Heavenly Kingdom, offering the pilgrim time to meditate on their life and perform acts of penance through prayer. The labyrinths also offered the pilgrim a focal point; a centre and final destination, often named Jerusalem or ciel (sky/heaven).

Much to my joy, I discovered that a medieval labyrinth can be seen in a town not too far from Clonmel. Saint Patrick’s Cross on the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary, a high cross dating from the twelfth century, is unusual in that it possesses not only a depiction of a labyrinth on its base but also a minotaur. According to Peter Harbison in his article “A Labyrinth on the Twelfth  – High Cross Base on the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary” this was not unusual and many medieval manuscripts retained representations of the Minotaur, from the Cretan legend and the figure we most associate with the structure of the labyrinth. Harbison goes on to explain that this particular labyrinth is the only church example to contain a minotaur, thus linking it to the manuscript The Liber Floridus of Lambert of Saint-Omer. The presence of this minotaur in the labyrinth within the context of a religious building reflects attitudes of the reformers of the church in the twelfth century. It is a figure which they can incorporate into Christian teaching to warn of the darker side of the human existence. Harbison describes the minotaur as “being the offspring of an illicit and unnatural union” and so it is a perfect representation of a malevolent force.

Saint Patricks Cross is now housed indoors in the Hall of Vicars Choral while a replica stands in its place outside.

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Symon Semeonis – Franciscan Pilgrim

Another well-travelled medieval figure from Co. Tipperary and one that is closer to home for me is the fourteenth century Franciscan friar Symon Semeonis. In the company of Hugo the Illuminator, he left the Franciscan friary in Clonmel, (which still remains in the heart of the town and retains both the original tower and part of the choir wall) on the 16th March 1323, embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This friar’s travels are recorded in the Itinerarium Symonis Semeonis ab Hybernia ad Reeram Sanctam and survives in one manuscript, MS 407, the library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Leaving Clonmel, the two friars travelled to Dublin and then continue on to Wales. They travelled extensively throughout England, visiting sites such as Chester, Rochester and Canterbury to name but a few. Symon’s descriptions are detailed and reflect his observational skills. The two friars then travel from Dover to France and from there they journey extensively through Europe, Alexandria and Egypt. In Cairo, however, Symon’s companion Hugo dies and he is forced to continue on his pilgrimage alone. Despite this pilgrim’s attention to detail throughout his travels, we are denied a complete depiction of Symon’s reaction to Jerusalem as the manuscript ends abruptly.

Symon’s account of his travels offers the only detailed description of a pilgrimage from Ireland to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. It provides important details on the economic and social position of both Europe and also Eastern countries while also providing the personal views of an Anglo-Irish Franciscan friar. His desire to place his pilgrimage within the biblical context, a technique often seen with pilgrims (for example the female pilgrim Egeria who reads her bible in specific locations in the Holy land) is seen in his writing, comparing himself with Abraham and wishing to see the actual landscape where Jesus himself walked.

Two years ago, I attended a play entitled “With my Bare Hands” in the Granary Theatre in Cork, drawn in to its reference to medieval pilgrimage. This play, written by Frances Kay, consisted of one character – Symon. This was my first contact with the friar, despite his Clonmel connections and the fantastic production instilled desire to find out more about this globe-trotting Franciscan.

For more information on this play go to


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Saint Cathaldus

Shanrahan cemetery which is situated beside the river Duag, close to the village of Clogheen, Co. Tipperary boasts quite a few historical connections. I have passed it many times myself and was often brought, as child to see the grave of Father Nicholas Sheehy , whose opposition to the Penal Laws of 18th Century Ireland saw him standing trial three times and finally resulting in him being hung, drawn and quartered. This martyred priest, however,  is not the only famous link to this area.

In the 7th century, Saint Cathaldus (Cathal) was born in Capagh, outside Dungarvan, County Waterford to a well-known and affluent family. Having studied and taught at the monastic school of Lismore, he was selected to be Ard Easpog (chief bishop) of the area around Slieve Cua, near Dungarvan. Following this Cathaldus then built a settlement at Rachau or Raghan,  later known as Shanrahan. It is from this place that this Irish saint set out on pilgrimage for the Holy Land.

Plaque marking the place from where Saint Cathaldus left on his pilgrimage in Co. Tipperary

Usually it is the journey outward and the sacred sites which are important to a saint’s story but in the case of Cathaldus, it his journey home which proves to be the most interesting. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Southern Italy and was rescued by the inhabitants of Taranto. He became Bishop of Taranto and stayed in Italy until his death. His feast day in Ireland is the 8th March which marks his death while in Southern Italy, to this day, there is a three day festival celebrating this Irish saint from 8th to 10th May. His popularity in Italy is not only present in these celebrations but also in the numerous churches which bear his name including the cathedral in Taranto. 

He was entombed in his cathedral in Taranto and his remains were moved about several times. In 1071 the saint’s tomb was opened where a cross inscribed with “Cathaldus Rachua” was found, maybe demonstrating that this globe-trotting Irish saint never forgot his settlement beside the River Duag in County Tipperary.

The memory of Saint Cathaldus still leaves in in this peaceful part of South of Tipperary where a stained glass window commemorates this pilgrim’s journey and influence in the local parish church of Clogheen.

Stained Glass Window in Clogheen, Co. Tipperary

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Decisions, decisions

Many questions have been rattling around in my head over the last few weeks concerning the best way to start this blog. I finally decided late one night that I should just use this as an opportunity to develop my own writing skills and also use the blog as a way in which I can hoard information on medieval pilgrimage which, fascinating as it may be, will probably not make it into my own final thesis

Having decided on the purpose of the blog, I then thought about what the content should be and realised that my interest in the area of pilgrimage only covered its presence in literature and some necessary historical facts that are quite general. I realised I knew relatively little about pilgrimage in my own country of Ireland and almost nothing about people who went on pilgrimage from my locality. This, I decided would be my starting point. From here, I will develop my own knowledge of pilgrimage and hopefully throw in a few interesting facts that may help others in their research.

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Hi there!

Welcome to my blog. Please bear with me while I get myself organised and figure out where to get started. Hopefully lots of medieval pilgrimage facts, be they interesting, boring or downright ludicrous to follow.

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