Thursday 16 October 2014

The Reluctant Pilgrim

I've written rather a lot about Santiago and the Camino that bustles its loads of travellers up to the door of the Cathedral in the centre of Santiago de Compostella. The Way is not a single road in the physical world because Latvians and Londoners all finish up in Santiago, or flake out in the attempt, and they can't all leave from the same front door. It's not a single route into the soul either because it takes each person in a different way. I use 'takes' here in the sense of leaves you gasping even if, and perhaps particularly if, you had no intention of being taken (in) by anybody or anything.  From what I saw in my own long walk through Spain, some, maybe many, people go there, do that and take the plane home and and ask themselves what the fuss is all about.  It's like the few occasions when I've tried a little meditation in the Buddhist tradition - I know that I was, despite the external zazen appearance, a long long way from Nirvana.

Last night I went to the monthly meeting of the Barony of Gaultier Historical Society to hear Damien Mclellan talk about "A Sense of Place and the routes to Santiago de Compostella". My pal Russ, who turned out to be the projectionist for the perf, had alerted me. Mclellan lives in the middle of the Barony of Gaultier which was the civil division of East County Waterford until folks started tricking about with the old boundaries. If you have a tourney of history buffs who live in that area, what better name? Mclellan is a long-distance walker who had knocked off all the interesting paths in the WEA, and still had the use of his legs. About 15 years ago he decided for a change to try a Grande Randonnée GR route through La Belle France. For reasons not clear, he plunked for GR65 which ambles from Le Puy in the middle of France WSW towards Galicia via the Pyrenees. He was a Long Distance Hiker who looked with great suspicion at the conspicuous piety of Les Pèlerins Français who were sharing the track. Then one night he found himself, out of sorts with himself and in some desperation, at the door of a pilgrims' hostel long after he'd normally have been in bed. He was greeted by two total strangers with such bluff good humour and unassuming kindness that he was almost convinced by their assurances that he too was a pilgrim.  "You are walking, you are on the way to Santiago, therefore you are a pilgrim, hein?".  It took a little longer than that, a couple more extraordinary openings in the curtain, a few strange, deep, anonymous conversations and he began to believe that, if he was still a skeptic, on at least one occasion the warm hand of the Apostle had helped him through a brutal and frightening section of the lonely road.

Being a local boy, Mclellan has convinced himself that the village of Ballyhack, at the top of Waterford Harbour where the car ferry shuttles back and forth, was the premier jumping off point for Irish pilgrims heading for Spain in the middle ages. He's now padding about the byways of SE Ireland looking at maps and overgrown pathways, standing stones and ruined chapels, trying to piece together a route that hasn't seen mass transport of more than 400 years. Too many chapels along the road north to Dublin and the Irish midlands are named after Naomh Seamus for it to be a coincidence, he reckons.  And if his theories bear fruit? Would there be a call for re-opening such routes in these troubled and restless times. And would the development turn out to be grossly insensitive and commercialised like much of the metalled Camino Frances between the Pyrenees and Galicia? We took a walk along a section of McClennan's proposed route in June - it was indeed mystic. wonderful, and the damselflies were positively gaudy.

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