03 March 2022, The Tablet

New heritage trail follows in steps of St Columbanus

Promoted by Carlow Tourism and developed by Carlow County Council, the trail follows in the footsteps of the sixth century monk St Columbanus.

New heritage trail follows in steps of St Columbanus

Pictured with football legend Paul McGrath at the launch of The Columban Way at Mount Leinster, Carlow are Councillor Finian Phelan, Cathaoirleach, Carlow County Council and Caren Carruthers, Fa´ilte Ireland Officer, Ireland’s Ancient East.
Photo by Marc O’Sullivan

Ireland’s latest heritage trail will see pilgrims follow in the footsteps of sixth century missionary, St Columbanus, who founded monasteries in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy.

The Columban Way is the starting point of a wider European pilgrimage trail stretching 6,000km and linking places associated with the Irish saint. It is modelled on the Camino, the Francigena and other great European cultural routes.

The Irish section of the route links three areas with strong associations to St Columbanus in Ireland from his birthplace at Mount Leinster in Co Carlow, his place of study at Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh, to the monastery he joined in Bangor, Co Down.

Supporters of the Columban Way initiative have highlighted its potential to unite communities of different faiths and cultural traditions across the Irish border. Once fully developed, the Columban Way will stretch 530km across counties Carlow, Wexford, Kildare, Laois, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down.

Former Aston Villa soccer star and Ireland international, Paul McGrath, officially launched the trail at the Columbanus Cairn on Mount Leinster in Co Carlow.

“Like a lot of people over the last two years, I have a new appreciation for the amazing outdoor spaces we have in Ireland and the positive effect walking can have on your mental health,” he told those assembled for the launch. “It’s not about where you are going but the journey itself.”

Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin blessed the new route and led over 70 people on the 8km walk from Nine Stones on Mount Leinster to the village of Myshall.

Among the participants were Columban missionaries as well as Friends of Columbanus Bangor, Knights of Columbanus, as well as local walking groups. The trail is expected to be a key tourism attraction.

Fianna Fáil Councillor, Fintan Phelan paid tribute to the Columban Fathers and Columban Sisters who he said had played a pivotal role, as well as the Knights of St Columbanus, in steering the project, liaising closely with both community-based groups and public authorities in establishing the necessary partnership structures to progress the development of the route.

“I am particularly pleased to be standing at the Columbanus Cairn on Mount Leinster, in this very special location, as it was here in the shadow of the Blackstairs Mountains that Columbanus was born and spent his early years. And it was from here that he set off to found the famous monastery at Bangor, and subsequently many other settlements throughout Europe,” Cllr Phelan said.

“This spot therefore holds a very special place in the history of Columbanus’s story and the development of the Columban Way here in Ireland. It would be hard to find a more stunning view and it is interesting that this vista must surely have stayed long in Columbanus’s mind as he founded some of his most well-known monasteries across Europe in very similar landscapes including those in Annagrey and Luxeuil,” the local Carlow politician said.

Michael Walsh, Chair of Carlow Tourism, said the pilgrimage route linked in with the demand for slow, sustainable tourism.

“It is fitting that the Columban Way is referred to as ‘the journey of discovery’. The walk offers visitors of all faiths and of none, the opportunity to connect with nature and to enjoy their own personal journey. In the spirit of St Columbanus, this All-Ireland route is bringing together counties North and South along with eight countries across Europe to develop a 6,000km route on completion.” 

Mr Walsh recalled that it was with the arrival of the Columban Bell from Bobbio in Italy in 2015, marking the 1500th anniversary of the saint’s death, that Carlow Tourism first became aware of “the significance of this great saint to our everyday lives”.

He added, “I think today we have a wider view of what is sacred, one that does not negate the focus of the religious believer on special places of holiness, but also is broad enough to see the natural world with new eyes. Nature is in itself sacred and in a county where we are fortunate to enjoy some stunning, unspoilt scenery, this is a key selling point for the Columban Way. We have become aware of the spiritual value of nature, the uniqueness of the wild, of places we must protect and keep safe for their own sake.”

“The Columban Way is sending a very important message to those who opt to join its route – to discover both the walker and the landscape anew.”

The partnership behind the North and South sections of the Columban Way was described as significant by the Mayor of Ards and North Down, Mark Brooks.

“On behalf of the community in Bangor and across Northern Ireland, we are proud to be part of this historic project and make a reciprocal visit to Carlow to launch the first point of the Columban Way. The completed routes in the North and South were developed through collaboration and a collective aim to join as an All-Ireland community to celebrate our joint culture and heritage,” he said.

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