In recent decades, the popularity of the Camino de Santiago has come roaring back into fashion and continues to grow year after year.
In 2019, nearly 350,000 received their Compostelas certificates in Santiago between January and October, with numbers expected to rebound impressively after the low Covid-19 years.
As you probably know, there are several Camino routes that all end in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s northwest, with snake-like routes stretching back across the country and even further depending on how extreme you want to get (there was once a route which connected Jerusalem and Santiago).
Which route you choose is entirely up to you, but for those coming from the Irish shores, there is an intriguing possibility where the walking is shared between Ireland and Spain – a way of St James known as the Celtic Camino.
To gain your Compostela certificate, you must walk at least the final 100km into Santiago. While many choose to start much further back, or even break the route up and do it all over a certain period, those following the way taken by Irish and English pilgrims centuries ago, from Ferrol or A Coruna, face a problem – it’s not quite 100km.
To be exact, you’ll probably find yourself around 25 km short when you arrive in Santiago, which unfortunately means you’ll be denied a Compostela. However, there is a rather ingenious modern way around this that harks back to the old ways of doing things.
800 years ago, long before Ryanair flights into A Coruna, Irish pilgrims would begin their journey from their own front door before making their way to ports in the south where boats would take them to the North coast of Spain. From there, they would continue south to Santiago, where their pilgrimage was considered complete, no matter where they had begun.
The modern Celtic Camino tries to follow this blueprint wherever possible, minus the rickety sea voyage across the Irish Sea. Today, Irish pilgrims are encouraged to complete 25 km of walking in Ireland before heading south to complete their journey.
More information on the Celtic Camino can be found here, but for now, let’s crack on with why you should start your Camino in Ireland.
1. A True Pilgrimage
The idea of jetting across to a land that would take you days to reach by land or sea in just a couple of hours is a very modern interpretation of travel and pilgrimage.
If anything, it’s exactly the opposite of what a pilgrimage was designed for – a long, arduous, yet meditative journey to a place of extraordinary relevance. For pilgrims who walked the Camino hundreds of years ago, there was no choice but to begin at their home and walk, or sail every step of the way.
For these pilgrims, the journey was as important as the destination, but sadly this is a notion that is gradually disappearing from our collective consciousness. We want to get somewhere to have fun, and we wanted to be there yesterday.
Walking part of the Camino in Ireland allows us to reconnect with the lost beauty that comes with opening our front door and stepping forth into a true adventure. Pilgrimage always starts at home, and even if you only walk 25 km in Ireland, it’s a great start.
2. A Deeper Connection
Everything is moving so fast these days. We rush through our lives and rarely take the opportunity to stop and gaze in awe at the beauty all around us.
Ireland is a country of staggering natural charm and it can be all too easy to become fixated on destinations further afield. Walking a section of your Camino in Ireland forces you to slow down and grants you a splendid excuse to do nothing more than amble through your homeland and love every minute of it.
It can be easy to think of other destinations as better, more alluring, and more exciting, but your connection to a specific place should never be overlooked.
3. The Compostela
The most practical point on this list and one which may or may not resonate with would-be walkers. If you have your heart set on a Compostela, you’ll either need to begin from another part of Spain (Sarria is a popular option and 112 km from Santiago) or find 25 km to walk in Ireland.
Unfortunately, there is no real way around this, but rather than going to the effort of starting your Camino in a Spanish town that means absolutely nothing to you, doesn’t it make sense to get in a day’s worth of walking (maybe two) in Ireland first?
4. Follow the Tradition
One aspect of the Camino that is impossible to escape is the sheer number of pilgrims who have walked the same route you have, stayed in the same albergues or monasteries, ate in the same squares, and likely shared the same thoughts, worries and dreams.
As much as we like to imagine ourselves and buccaneering adventurers blazing new trails across the lands, on the Camino that’s far from the case, but that’s also part of the magic.
Walking the Camino allows you to become part of something that transcends borders, but also space and time. You become part of a human tradition that stretches back over 1,000 years.
All across Ireland, there are pilgrimage routes that see a fraction of the footfall they once did, but still, burn with memory and tradition that continues to the modern era. Hiking up Croagh Patrick on one of those beautifully misty Irish days, it’s impossible not to be at least partly swept up in the emotion that comes with joining a tradition that stretches back around 5,000 years.
5. It all Begins (and ends) at Home
People undertake the Camino de Santiago for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from religious and spiritual to sports and exercise.
It’s not uncommon on the Camino to be questioned about your motives. Why have you chosen to put this bag on your back and walk 100 km into a Spanish city you’ve never been to rather than just go to Benidorm for a nice holiday?
For some, an answer might come quickly, but for others, it remains tantalisingly out of reach – which is absolutely fine, there’s no rush. But talk to those who have completed this extravagant walk across Spain and many will speak of a search of some kind. It may be religious confirmation, the greater search for meaning in life, and it may be as simple as whether you should change jobs or not.
Walking the Camino has a habit of revealing ourselves to ourselves. There’s nothing like a full day’s worth of walking to work through your thoughts and maybe take one step closer to whatever it is you’re looking for.
The point here is that while many choose to walk the Camino de Santiago in search of answers, it is a journey that invariably leads back home, both in an obvious literal sense but also in a wider and deeper way that we often struggle to comprehend.
Going to Spain isn’t necessarily going to give you any better insight into yourself than walking in Ireland. By starting and finishing your journey on Irish shores, you create a comforting conclusion. We might walk into Santiago searching for answers, but it’s back in Ireland where those answers will need to be carefully unwrapped.