The First Celtic Camino Festival, Westport, Co. Mayo

The First Celtic Camino Festival, Westport, Co. Mayo
Friday, April 13th – Sunday, April 15th, 2018, Hotel Westport, Co. Mayo

The first Celtic Camino Festival took place over the weekend of the 13th April 2018 in Westport in Co. Mayo and it was a tremendous success. Over 500 people attended, from all parts of the world, from pilgrim associations in the UK, Canada, Hungary, and Holland. The aim of the weekend was to shed light on the many pilgrim paths in Ireland and the Celtic Camino. The weekend culminated in a Celtic Camino pilgrim walk from Balla to Killavalley (25km) on Sunday, after which the Celtic Compostela was presented to those who completed it.

Day One – Arrival At Westport and screening of The Camino Voyage

The first event on the first day was the screening of The Camino Voyage. The film was shown in the W Cinema in Westport and the director, Dónal Ó Céilleachair, and crew, Brendan Begley, Liam Holden, Brendan Moriarty and Glen Hansard were in attendance for the film and for the weekend. This was a sold out event.

The Camino Voyage follows a small crew of musicians and artists, headed by writer and poet Danny Sheehy, as they make the 2,500-kilometre journey from Ireland to Santiago de Compostela in a traditional Irish boat, a Naomhóg. Danny’s book, published in 2013, chronicles a sea voyage to Iceland following the path of St. Brendan ”Iomramh Bhréanainn MMXI” (The Brendan Voyage 2011). He now had a new voyage, one so great that many thought it could not be achieved. For centuries beforehand, thousands of pilgrims from Ireland have embarked on the Camino de Santiago by sea and by land. This voyage follows an ancient route that links each of the remaining Celtic traditions along the Atlantic coast.
The crew of Danny Sheehy, Brendan Begley, Brendan Moriarty and Liam Holden started their journey in 2014 in Dublin along the River Liffey, after collecting their pilgrim passports and their first sello from the Camino Society. The pilgrim passport is featured throughout the film. Over the course of three years, their journey took them to Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, the Basque country and finally Galicia in Spain. Over the course of their journey, they encounter multiple challenges and learn the hard way what their ancestors went through. Everywhere they go, the crew is greeted by friendly faces and generous offers of support. Glen Hansard stepped in for Brendan Moriarty for the final leg of the journey and he brought with him a new lease of life. Brendan Begley said in 2016 after Glen arrived, “Having Glen Hansard at sea was like bringing Shergar to plough a field”.

We see how the Camino changes the men, how time spent entirely apart from the modern world alters their understanding of themselves. During the film, Liam Holden mentions that there were six on this journey – the crew, the sea, and the Naomhóg. On arriving at Santiago, the crew attended mass at the cathedral. Friends and supporters who had travelled from Ireland, including members of Camino Society Ireland, hosted a party in the Irish college with Spanish music and dance.

The music played adds to the film also. Music by Brendan Begley, Peadar Ó Riada, Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Carlos Nuñez and many many more. We see scenes with Glen Hansard and Brendan Begley playing tunes together and they really complement each other. One particular highlight is the song ‘Say Goodbye to The Long Cold Winter’ sung by Glen Hansard with local musicians in Muñalén in Asturias.

There’s a tragic final twist to this tale, however. After last summer’s completion in Santiago de Compostela, the crew of Danny Sheehy, Brendan Begley, Liam Ó Maonlaí and Co Cork boatbuilder Padraig Ua Duinnín decided to continue to navigate the Galician and Portuguese coasts. The four were participants on Camino Voyage 2017, which had left the Spanish port of A Coruña in late May bound for the Portuguese city of Porto in late June. Danny was taken ill after he and the three crew of their naomhóg were caught by a wave close to the Minho river estuary on the Spanish-Portuguese border. He later passed away. No doubt Danny was looking down on us all during the weekend.

 

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Day Two – Presentations & Discussions by internationally renowned Camino experts.

The second day of the Festival was a busy affair filled will talks and discussions by experts and not surprisingly, it started early in the morning in Hotel Westport. The Festival was officially opened by the Mayor of West Mayo, Cllr. Michael Holmes, who welcomed us all to Westport before the Master of Ceremonies, Mike Timms opened proceedings for the day. And what a day it was!

Dr. Bernadette Cunningham – Deputy Librarian at the Royal Irish Academy

Dr. Bernadette Cunningham joined us to share her knowledge and deepen our understanding of where we come from as a pilgrim people.

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All of us who have walked any part of the Camino will notice that there is a medieval feel to it but some of you may have asked have many Irish people passed through here in medieval times and if so, why did they go there?

From the 12th to the 16th centuries, the promotion of the Santiago pilgrimage as a destination was linked with the idea of penance, repentance, and indulgences. The popularity of the shrine of St, James was first promoted by an Archbishop Gelmires who actively promoted the shrine and got papal sanction to issue indulgences to pilgrims. It became on a par with the other big Christian pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

For a sea-going nation like Ireland, the geographical position of Santiago de Compostela was a major element of its’ attraction for pilgrims. Part of the journey from Ireland always had to be made by sea and the key to understanding how they got there is to understand the trade routes that already existed – the regular merchant ships of the day were used by pilgrims.

In the 13th century, the first ships were Anglo-Norman bringing pilgrims from the South and East of Ireland and those people would have crossed to Bristol or Plymouth and looked for a ship before heading to Spain from there. The ships used in the 13th century were those used in trading fish, hides or wine and were not very large. The main departure points were Dublin, Drogheda, New Ross, and Waterford.

The first named pilgrim was Richard de Burgh from Clonmel who went to Santiago in 1320. He probably sailed first from Clonmel over to England. Once across the English channel in France, pilgrims generally used horses or mules for transport until arrival in Santiago. Richard de Burgh is representative of the first pilgrims to be found from Ireland – they were wealthy Anglo-Norman townsmen or bishops with strong English connections.

By the 15th century, we find evidence from other parts of Ireland, from Gaelic lordships in the North and West of Ireland, heading to Santiago. Also, by the 15th century, direct transport in bigger ships along the Bay of Biscay became the norm. For those making a direct crossing to Iberia, the port of A Coruna was normally used. In the 15th century, merchant ships travelling on this route could carry between 100 and 200 passengers. It’s not just the Irish that went this way. Pilgrims from as far as Germany used the sea route. It was quicker, cheaper and no more hazardous than the land-based option.

By the 15th century, it was not unusual for elite women from Gaelic Ireland to undertake lengthy pilgrimages. One of the best-known instances was the journey taken to Santiago by Margaret O Carroll in 1445. She was a prominent woman married to the head of a lordship in the Irish midlands. She went to Santiago in a jubilee year, along with other Gaelic leaders and followers. Most pilgrims returned safely, however, there were a number of hazards which resulted in deaths while abroad, such as, the lack of clean water and fresh food on ship and storms at sea.

Lanzada Calatayud – A Coruña Tourism Agency

On completing the Irish leg of the Celtic Camino, you will then arrive in A Coruña in north-west Spain to complete your Camino to Santiago. Our next speaker on Saturday was instrumental in creating this new path and she told us about the city, it’s sites and how the Celtic Camino from A Coruña was created.

 

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When Lanzada arrived in the Town Hall in A Coruña, the Camino was not even on the map, not even for the local population. One of the first things she tried to do was make the local Government aware of the Camino’s importance and then try to work on its’ promotion.

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The first scene medieval pilgrims could see arriving into A Coruña was the Tower of Hercules. The structure is 55 metres (180 ft) tall and overlooks the North Atlantic coast of Spain. The structure, built in the 2nd century and renovated in 1791, is the oldest Roman lighthouse in use today. According to legend, King Breogán, the founding father of the Galician Celtic nation constructed a massive tower of such a grand height that his sons could see a distant green shore from its top. The glimpse of that distant green land lured them to sail north to Ireland. According to the legend, Breogán’s descendants stayed in Ireland and are the Celtic ancestors of the current Irish people. A colossal statue of Breogán has been erected near the Tower.

So, there was a real effort to locate a link between the port of A Coruña and the Camino. There was a lot of research in archives, however, everyone was confident of that link. There were references and there were maps. In A Coruña, there is a Church of Santiago, which has a stone statue of Santiago that pilgrims arrived at and saluted, but there was also the tradition to embrace it before walking to Santiago.

It was decided to invite the international pilgrim associations, the experts, to A Coruña to help promote the Camino. Fifteen associations, including the Irish, answered the call and organised a workshop in A Coruña. Following discussions, those who came walked the Camino Ingles from A Coruña and gained a certificate following arrival to Santiago. A report was written for the Cathedral explaining why a Compostela should be issued, not just because of the distance, but because of the historical importance. The report had the support of the many international pilgrim associations and on the 22nd of December 2016, the Cathedral council had agreed to issue the Compostela to those who walk from A Coruña. However, pilgrims must prove they have walked the other 25km on a pilgrim path.

For more information, please visit https://www.caminosociety.com/celtic-camino.

Thank you, Lanzada Calatayud for being with us on this special day.

Our next speaker was author John Rafferty who presented an open discussion with Maria Walsh, former Rose of Tralee, and Naomhog crew member, Liam Holden.

John Rafferty (or JohnnieWalker) is one of the most prominent names associated with the Camino to Santiago, and over the last 10 years he has published 12 books about different aspects of the Camino with all proceeds going to pilgrim organisations. Ever since moving to Santiago de Compostela, John has taken an active role in re-shaping the English-speaking pilgrim’s experience in the city.

 

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John started by making a presentation of the first copy of his newly published guide of the Celtic Camino to the wife of Danny Sheehy, who was with us for the weekend. The guide was dedicated to Danny and to all pilgrims who have passed away on the way. The guidebook was then given to all in attendance at the festival and you can now buy the guidebook here. Our thanks go to John. 

John told us about his discovery of the Camino and how he took his first steps. After twenty years of works in the public sector, he needed a change. Enter the Camino! John’s first steps were taken 11 years ago on the Via de la Plata to Santiago, after years of dreaming. He found it tough, he received many blisters however on arriving in Santiago, 36 days later, everything changed. The biggest lesson was that he had shown himself that he could do it. He had a great sense of freedom. He fell in love with Santiago and started going there regularly.

The Confraternity of Saint James in London had some old walking notes for the Camino Ingles and having used these to discover the routes from Ferrol and A Coruña, John decided to write a guidebook for this route – the first in English. He then volunteered the Pilgrims Office in Santiago, alongside pilgrims from the Camino Society, some of the first long-term pilgrims to do so.

One day he asked Don Gennaro, a priest in charge of the Pilgrims Office, would it be possible to bring other pilgrims here to smile, to shake hands, to congratulate, to welcome pilgrims. It was agreed to do so and it is now a permanent programme with pilgrims from associations around the world volunteering throughout the year. John then suggested to the Dean of the Cathedral that Mass be said in English. Twenty-four priests applied and the initiative was a huge success.

John has walked and written guides from many routes but of all of these routes, the one closest to his heart is the Camino Ingles. He has watched the route grow from 1200 in 2008 to 10000 in 2017 but knowing the history that pilgrims started in A Coruña from many European countries and knowing the strong connection between Ireland and Galicia, he dislikes the term “English Way”. While The Camino Ingles is the traditional name of the route, the Celtic Camino is more true to the novel history of the original Camino route.

John introduced Maria Walsh next. Maria comes from Schrule in Co. Mayo. She came to prominence as the Rose of Tralee in 2014. She took her first steps on the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port and she was here to talk about her experience.

 In August of 2014, Maria became the International Rose of Tralee. Within that year, she was chasing an expectation on herself to ensure that every job she was doing that she was giving the best of herself. When her year as Rose was complete, Marie had seen many places around the world and in Ireland and then came the question of what to do next. She needed space and time.

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Throughout her Rose year, she had heard of the Camino de Santiago. The simplest piece of advice she was offered when she asked about the Camino was “just go, book a ticket, you will work it out, your way is the only way. Enjoy it!”.

Maria arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port in June 2016 and began her pilgrimage. She explained that “it was the greatest passage of time that she could have ever gifted herself”. Just before she took her first steps, the only promise she made to herself was that it was okay to be selfish with time. She learned a lot and she met good friends. The greatest part of her Camino was the ever-connecting stories and people.

Our next speaker was Liam Holden. Liam hails from Kilkenny and he is an established artist whose works are in collections in Ireland, Europe, and the USA. With Danny Sheehy, Liam built the Naomhóg na Tinte by hand – the same naomhóg which they would use to sail to A Coruña.

Liam shared how he started painting pictures of boats and how this led him to sail the Camino to Spain. He grew up on the River Nore and most summers he fished for trout, swam in the river and built rafts. This was his first experience with water and boats. Later on in life, after meeting his partner Clodagh, they went to Dingle one Summer. This is where he met Danny Sheehy.

 

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They became good friends. One day, Danny asked Liam would he go lobster fishing with him around the Great Blasket Islands for the summer. Despite never being at sea before, Liam said yes. Danny had a way of asking a question so you could never refuse! He was suddenly catapulted into a world of ancient wildness and of great raw beauty. The work was hard but he was inspired and he found his creativity. To this day, Liam is still painting this landscape.

Some years later, Liam moved back to Wicklow. He received a phone call from Danny and he asked in a way that was hard to decline, “Would you make a naomhóg?”. Again, he couldn’t refuse. From making the naomhóg, they started a few trips. Their first trip was to Iona in Scotland for 5 weeks and the following year, Liam and Danny were joined by Brendan Moriarty on a voyage along the south coast of Ireland. Next, Danny suggested they row from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela the year following. At first, Liam thought it was a mad idea but Danny persuaded him to do it.

The film ‘The Camino Voyage’ tells you how the crew got on – it is a very honest and true story. Liam explains that the purpose of going on the voyage was for his art. He would be happy if he painted two or three good paintings for each journey.

Liam finished by quoting Mark Twain:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Our thanks to Liam for sharing his experience.

Next, John shone the light on those in attendance and asked the audience to share their experiences on the Camino. We heard many stories of what the Camino means to each person.

Dr. Katharina Husemann & Prof. Giana Eckhardt – Slowing Down on the Camino

Dr. Husemann and Prof. Eckhardt are lecturers in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London and were invited to the Celtic Camino Festival as their specialties focus on the areas of consumer culture and spirituality in the context of pilgrimage. They have both walked along the Camino Portugues and the Camino Frances.

A number of years ago, while studying the Camino, they both noticed an increase in the number of people who walk the various Caminos – a revival of pilgrimage. They asked themselves what is happening in society at the moment that allows this revival of pilgrimage to happen.

They started this project with the observation that people feel the need to escape from this fast-paced society – running-behind deadlines, this necessity to multi-task on a daily basis. As a response to that, people often take part in retreats for a number of days, to meditation, or for reflection. Sometimes, people prefer to travel on pilgrimage, far away from family, from home and from obligations.

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Part of the Dr. Katharina’s and Prof. Giana’s studies included walking part of the French Way from Astorga and Portuguese Way. They spoke to 28 pilgrims who were happy to share their stories with them. One example of an experience received was from an English pilgrim, who explained the difference between his slowed down Camino life and his hectic life at home:

It’s totally different here on the Camino. Like I have slowed down the clock. When you walk in the city, you are aware of time because you have to catch a particular train or bus, you have to go to a meeting, you have to meet deadlines and so on. But here, everything is going to happen and it’s over time. We know where the end is, we will get there when we get there.

Our final speaker was John Brierley, one of the best-known writers of maps and guides to the Camino.

John focused on how the Camino can be “a path of awakening, an inner-journey of self-discovery”. Everybody is welcome on the Camino – that is why is part of the great awakening. He explained that there is nothing else that he knows of that welcomes everybody.

 

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He reminded us that the Camino excludes no-one and offers the opportunity to awaken to our common human family which has no boundaries.

On the Camino we ask ourselves major questions: Who am I?, Where am I going?, What is my purpose? and it is very easy to discover meaning. 

A very interesting and thought-provoking talk by John Brierley.

Thank you John.

Gala Dinner

Later on in the evening, Hotel Westport hosted a Gala Dinner with Spanish and Irish music. Before dinner, we heard from the Mayor of West Mayo, Cllr. Michael Holmes and the Spanish Ambassador, his Excellency, José María Rodríguez Coso, who thanked everyone for coming. We were also treated to beautiful Spanish and Irish music. Our thanks to Irene and Guillermo from Madrid and to Aimee and Eddie from Mayo. The following morning would be an early one and there was great talk of our pilgrim walk from Balla.

 

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Photos of the Festival on Facebook

Many thanks are due to all the volunteers who made the event possible, to Dónal Ó Céilleachair and all the crew of the Naoimh Gobnait, the Speakers, the W Cinema, musicians Irena, Guillermo, Amiee and Eddie. Thanks are also due to Rhona, and the staff and management of the Hotel Westport.

We would also like to thank all the sponsors: Anna from Mayo.ie, Teresa Gancedo from Tour Spain, Tania, Arturo and Roland at Camino Ways, and Rachel at PortWest. We would also like to thank Wicklow Tourism, The Lansdowne Hotel, Maguire McNiece, Ballycroy National Park and Phil and Claire Turner.