Review: Darach MacDonald - 'Tochar: Walking Ireland's Ancient Pilgram Paths'
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Christianity, when not of the arid variety, is a religion of the senses and few things stimulate the senses better than natural beauty. Christians have always believed that nature brings us closer to God and that is why the Christian tradition of the pilgrimage is as old as Christianity itself.
The pilgrimage brings us out of the world, often into isolated places. It acts as a metaphor for life. The spiritual journey has its peaks and its troughs and its final destination, hopefully eternal life.
In Tóchar: Walking Ireland's Ancient Pilgrim Paths, veteran journalist Darach MacDonald goes on a variety of different pilgrimages around the country over the space of several months.
He doesn't do it the easy way, such as going on a one-day retreat to Lough Derg or simply climbing up and down Croagh Patrick and leaving it at that. Instead he does it the hard way. He does the full, three-day retreat at Lough Derg and walks the whole of the ancient, 32km pilgrim trail to Croagh Patrick in one day. And then he climbs the mountain.
MacDonald is one of the many Irish Catholics who are disillusioned with the church in many ways, and who are just about hanging on in there.
But he is not against religion per se and he knows that Christianity still has something to offer despite everything. He also knows that modern Ireland has its faults, not least the rampant materialism that culminated in the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent economic collapse.
He sees the pilgrimage as a sort of antidote to that world, an opportunity to reset your priorities and get things straight.
MacDonald's book takes the form of a diary that is full of pithy observations about each pilgrimage, his fellow pilgrims, the church and Irish society. He casts a cold eye here, a sympathetic eye there.
He casts a mostly cold eye on Knock, which doesn't appear to be to his taste. Mind you, that doesn't stop it being the most popular place of pilgrimage in Ireland. He more or less likes Lough Derg and sees the value in it.
The walking pilgrimages seem to appeal to him most and my favourite chapter is the one dealing with his 32km walk to Croagh Patrick and the climb up the mountain at the end of it. If you want a walk that will bring you far from the beaten track (despite this being a pilgrim path), and to places of great beauty, then go on this one.
MacDonald's book is also a walk into history and an Ireland those of us who live in the cities and are caught up in everyday life hardly know exists anymore. But it's out there; Tóchar reminds us it's out there and believers, non-believers and reluctant believers will be more tempted to go and find it for themselves after reading this book.
Tóchar: Walking Ireland's Ancient Pilgrim Paths