TEN ancient 'Pilgrim Paths' have been flagged as Ireland's answer to the Camino de Santiago, with the hope that visitors from far and wide will come to visit as they did back in medieval times.
The paths are dotted across the country – from Glen Colm Cille and Lough Derg in Co Donegal, to the Sli Mor taking in Clonmacnoise in Co Offaly, and from St Kevin's Way at Glendalough in Co Wicklow, down to the Cosan na Naomh Pilgrim Path on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry.
The Heritage Council has now launched a national Pilgrim Paths Day which will take place on Easter Saturday, April 19 – with the initially modest aim that just 1,000 people will be out walking the trails that day.
While each path is individual and separate in its own right, the Heritage Council now hopes to produce a special 'Pilgrims' Passport' so that visitors can set a goal to "collect" each one and complete the entire trail.
Organisers explained that this venture is about getting people out and about, walking with "spiritual intent" – with the potential to boost tourism in hard-hit rural areas.
The idea for the Pilgrims Path day was devised by guidebook author John O'Dwyer, chairman of National Pilgrim Paths, after he was asked to write on the ancient routes.
Pilgrims travelled to Ireland from Hungary, France, Italy and Holland throughout the 14th and 15th Centuries.
Historian Dr Peter Harbison explained that Ireland did not have a Geoffrey Chaucer to document the experience of everyday pilgrims and so we do not have a 'Lough Derg Tales' to rival that of Canterbury.
At the launch yesterday at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Mr O'Dwyer told how he had walked each trail during the miserably wet summer of 2012 and was on St Finbarr's path in Co Cork when the idea occurred to him.
He was passing some prehistoric standing stones when he realised he was the only person around for miles. "These are wonderful paths, and there is nobody walking them," he said.
Mr O'Dwyer estimated that it would take around a month to walk all 10 paths in total – which is about the same time it takes to walk the full Camino de Santiago. However, he said he hoped tourists would pay several trips to Ireland to complete their "passport".
Legendary broadcaster Micheal O Muircheartaigh told how he climbed Mount Brandon – part of the Kerry path – on his 80th birthday – and expressed his intent to also climb it on his 90th and 100th birthdays.
Organisers had described the paths as having been "forgotten", but Mr O Muircheartaigh hotly disputed that, saying: "They're not forgotten, indeed they're not. The knowledge was passed down generation to generation and it's a wonderful thing," he said.
He also told of the unique "pilgrimage" he made to the top of the mountain in 2004 with captain of the Kerry GAA football team, Dara O Cinneide, toting the Sam Maguire cup after they had triumphed in the All-Ireland.
To find out more about National Pilgrim Paths Day go to www.pilgrimpath.ie.