Contemporary Pilgrimage in Ireland: A Cultural Geographic Perspective
By Richard Scriven, Department of Geography
Graduated in June 2015
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There has been a marked increase in the numbers of people participating in pilgrimages globally in recent decades. Ireland is no different with thousands of people go on some form of pilgrimage annually. These are rich, meaningful journeys that are undertaken by those seeking blessings, healing, comfort and authentic experiences. My research examines these journeys within Ireland and considers how they shape the places and people involved. As a geographer, I am fascinated by human-environment relationships. I study how people, through their actions and ideas, shape the world around them and how environments influence and define people. In the performing of pilgrimage, it can be seen that people are ‘making’ holy places and that the locations are, also, defining people as pilgrims.
My methodology is a qualitative ethnography that involves observer participation and interviews with pilgrims. By attending the pilgrimages and participating with other people, I can get a first-hand appreciation of what is involved. I use cameras and camcorders to capture the performances and events of the pilgrimage. The images and audio-visual recordings allow me to vividly present the riches of these practices as a distinct socio-cultural phenomenon. The fieldwork is complemented by interviews in which I discuss pilgrims’ motivations and experiences. These accounts enable me to explore of the meanings and significance of pilgrimage and illustrate the importance they hold for many people.
My work focuses on, Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo, Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, and four holy wells in Munster. On the last Sunday in July, Reek Sunday, thousands of pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick in the modern manifestation of a festival stretching back to the Celtic harvest celebration of Lughnasadh. This large scale devotion is a unique event in Western Europe with people from all over Ireland traveling to ascend the steep peak and get Roman Catholic Mass on the summit. Lough Derg or St Patrick’s Purgatory is a three-day pilgrimage during which pilgrims withdraw from the world on a lake-island, fasting, going barefoot, keeping a 24 hour vigil and completing sets of prayers in the continuation of a centuries old tradition. Ireland has over 3,000 holy wells, many of which act as sites of local devotion and pilgrimage. Religious beliefs in patron saints and folk practices combine in these activities as people come to collect the holy well water and pray for special intentions on feast days.
My research demonstrates the enduring role of pilgrimage and the importance of the multifaceted relationships between and place. In combining my geographical concepts, the rich audio-visual materials produced in fieldwork, and the accounts of research participants, I provide new insights and appreciations of pilgrimage in contemporary Ireland.