- Dublin : Irish Way of St James
Irish Way of St James
Reclaiming an Irish ‘Way of St James’
Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Volume 24
WOULD MEDIEVAL PILGRIMS RETURNING FROM SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA TO
WATERFORD HARBOUR HAVE TRAVELLED HOME TO DUBLIN?
By Damien McLellan
year for the past fifteen years I have walked one of the many medieval
pilgrim roads in France and Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela
in the far north-western corner of Spain. I usually travelled by Irish
Ferries to France and then by train or bus to continue on the Chemin de
St Jacques de Compostelle in France or the Camino in Spain. But last
year, following an invitation from the Gaultier Historical Society to
include in my talk a local connection to the pilgrimage, I walked from
my own front door in Faithlegg, Co. Waterford, to take the much shorter
and cheaper (€2) ferry from Passage East to Ballyhack in County
Wexford. To my great delight, not long after starting up the hill from
Ballyhack I realised that I was walking on an Irish ‘Way of St
James’, on what I now believe is the medieval route that Irish
pilgrims would have taken when travelling from St James’s Gate in
Dublin to Waterford or returning to Dublin and the eastern half of the
country. This article offers the reasons why I came to that realisation
and all the information you need to make the same journey, whether on
foot or by armchair.
Pilgrimage not only for the wealthy
The first recorded pilgrimage to Santiago took place in 951 and was led
by Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy, a town in the Auvergne region of
France. Among the millions of pilgrims who descended on Santiago over
the next few hundred years were Irish pilgrims who were identified by
the scallop shells and bone relics recovered with their remains in
archaeological excavations in Tuam (1986) and Mullingar (1996).
pilgrimage experienced a significant lull because of the Black Death in
the 1340s and the Hundred Years’ War between England and France,
which ended in 1453. There then immediately followed a long-pent-up
resurgence of pilgrims making their way to Santiago, a hundred years
more of pilgrimage, which ended with the dissolution of the monasteries
and the wars of religion.
I began to look at the Irish dimension I had assumed that only wealthy
people, such as James Rice, mayor of Waterford and wine merchant, could
afford to make the journey by sea, as he did twice, in 1473 and 1483.
But also in 1473 the Mary London, a ship carrying 400 Irish pilgrims
returning from Santiago to Waterford, was captured by pirates; the
pilgrims were later released (minus their belongings, one would assume)
at Youghal. In May 1456 an English pilgrim, William Wey, counted 84
ships, many of them from Ireland, moored in La Coruña, the port
an easy week’s walk from Santiago. The authority on this issue,
Roger Stalley, estimated that perhaps 5,000 pilgrims arrived within the
space of a few days and that in this peak period two million pilgrims
were on the move. This would mean that a remarkable number of Irish
pilgrims were returning to the ports of Dublin, Drogheda, Galway,
Dingle, New Ross and Waterford. I set myself the task of answering my
own question: how would pilgrims who had travelled from St
James’s Gate in Dublin return there from Waterford?
St James’s Church, Ballyhack
was assuming that the majority of pilgrims were without the funds to
purchase direct passage to La Coruña and would walk overland
from Dublin to Waterford or New Ross and then travel by sea to France
to continue overland across the Pyrenees to Santiago. The motivation
for the pilgrimage for many was to save their souls from eternal
damnation, and the devout pilgrims understood that the journey should
be a penance and an ordeal (not that a sea voyage across the Bay of
Biscay in those days was a picnic). They would also know, by word of
mouth, that abbeys would provide a chain of accommodation, food and
medical care from the coast of France to Santiago, free of charge, for
plan that day was to walk from the quay at Ballyhack north towards New
Ross as the crow flies, or as the pilgrim walks, the easiest and most
direct route, and to see what I encountered on the way. I had done some
earlier research, looking for a church to start from, a pilgrim
essential. On the current Ordnance Survey map a graveyard is indicated
nearby, and Francis Jobson’s 1591 map (p. ??) shows that a church
of St James once stood on that site. This was a very exciting
discovery, as there are churches dedicated to St James at Dingle,
Drogheda and Dublin (at St James’s Gate), all known departure
points for pilgrims. The church looks down on to Arthur’s Bay,
but I understand that its earlier name was St James’s Bay. The
returning pilgrim would surely give thanks at the church before
continuing up a broad track leading to a large open field where a fair
was held every Michaelmas and also on St James’s Day, 25 July.
Although it is now a dead end, it is worth imagining the scene at the
time of the fair, which specialised in black bullocks and hogs, and, as
a pilgrim, to see ahead of you the Blackstairs Mountains leading on to
Mount Leinster, while behind you Creadon Head looms out into Waterford
But if you are following my footsteps, return to the churchyard, walk
through it towards the main gate and turn right after climbing the
stile at the gate. This is the old road that was replaced by the modern
road below you, taking traffic to and from the ferry. On your left you
will come to a very old ruined farmhouse, which I mistook at first for
the church because it is exactly oriented towards the east. Lying on
the ground before this building is a millstone. On this site medieval
monks from nearby Nook and Great Island cut millstones from the
outcropping red sandstone. I wondered whether the monks would have
offered accommodation to pilgrims waiting for ships in return for some
manual labour. The views up and down the river are commanding from
Above: Dunbrody Abbey, Co. Wexford, where pilgrims would have been able to claim hospitality.
Above: St Mullins, Co. Carlow—among the many ruins you will find a small chapel dedicated to St James.
to the end of this road and turn right onto the main road up from
Ballyhack. Soon you will be facing a green lane and you may well
imagine that you are now walking a Way of St James. Turn left when it
rejoins the main road. Turn left again when you reach Grange and on
your right you will pass a holy well. Your next stop will be Dunbrody
Abbey, where pilgrims would have been able to claim hospitality.
Continue to head north and the straight road ahead leads to the Kennedy
homestead and eventually to New Ross. But turn right instead and you
are in Horeswood, passing another church of St James.
Keeping straight on, you pass through Burntschool crossroads, and at a
bend to the right on the road to Whitechurch are the ruins of a very
old building, with three standing stones in the field just beyond. The
road continues through Ballykelly, where there is another church, and
then the very medieval hamlet of Oldcourt, where there is a church
behind a barn. Such a number of churches and ancient remains suggests
that this road is a holy way.
It is now a long slog beside the main road into New Ross, and I chose
to drive the next very long section from New Ross to St Mullins. The
River Barrow is practically a gorge between these points and there is
no river path. At St Mullins, among the many ruins you will find a
small chapel dedicated to St James—a very popular pattern day is
held here every year on 25 July, the feast-day of St James.
Below the medieval ruins the river now has a broad tow-path on the
right bank facing north, called ‘the trackline’ by Barrow
people but in my opinion it is in fact the Slighe Chualann, identified
by Colm Ó Loughlainn as one of the five ancient roads, the Road
of Cuala, ‘a district comprising south County Dublin and part of
County Wicklow’. Going north or home as a pilgrim, you will
continue alongside the Barrow through Graiguenamanagh to
Leighlinbridge, where you will turn right away from the river and head
north-east on the Slighe Chualann though the possible pilgrim stops of
Tullow, Rathvilly, Baltinglass, Dunlavin, Ballymore Eustace, Kilteel,
Rathcoole, Saggart and Tallaght.
You will now be within easy reach of the original starting point at the
church of St James in Dublin, where pilgrims would certainly have
offered prayers of gratitude to St James for a safe journey home and
one made possible by the roads and facilities on offer all along the
way since arriving at St James’s Bay in Waterford estuary.
Damien McLellan is a consultant psychotherapist and also teaches at Carlow College.
N. Byrne, The Irish Crusade (Dublin, 2008).
B. Colfer, The Hook Peninsula (Cork, 2004).
P.C. Power, History of Waterford City and County (Cork, 1990).
author would like to acknowledge the assistance of colleague and
historian Dr Margaret Murphy in providing crucial research material.
à Irlande /
at wanadoo.fr - 01/01/2017