First St Augustine’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella

On the Camino - Photographs by Neil Warner

On the Camino - Photographs by Neil Warner

On a warm Saturday evening in a little town of Arzúa, about 40kms from Santiago de Compostella, a group of Galway pilgrims watched the local brass band competition. Led by their conductors three bands marched up the street, playing marching tunes.

One of the Galway pilgrims, a well known solicitor, believed to be a terror in the courts, but reduced to a lamb by the demands of the journey, gave them a hearty welcome. Dressed in skeletal latex tights, an ‘Ireland’ rugby jersey, a floppy sun hat under a bicycle helmet, he danced and cheered.

As the last band approached the conductor turned to face this apparition. He raised his arm to stop the band. He waved his arm again in the direction of the Galway pilgrim. The band turned, still playing, and faced him. Marching on the spot they puffed, drummed, trumpeted, tromboned, oompahed, and triangled. After a few minutes, the conductor waved his arm for them to resume their march, and they moved along. The well known Galway solicitor was beside himself with excitement. He danced and cheered. The watching crowds on either side of the road clapped and cheered too.

And thus it was that the first Galway St Augustine pilgrimage to Santiago passed through Galicia. It did not pass unnoticed.

In many ways it was totally appropriate for members of St Augustine’s parish to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. In the early 16th century, Margaret Athy, one of the Galway Tribes, and a deeply religious woman, founded the first Augustine friary at Forthill, now Galway’s oldest cemetery. She later made a pilgrimage to Santiago, and from there intended to visit the Holy Land, but was prevented by illness.

The present pilgrimage arose from a general parish meeting last year where a number of suggestions were made to ‘nourish the faith of the parishioners’. The local parish priest, Fr Dick Lyng, led 30 parishioners on the 132km pilgrimage, over six days, averaging 22kms a day. Two of the group cycled.

Of course the Santiago pilgrimage, the Way of St James, or the Camino, has existed for over a thousand years. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem.

There are a number of traditions associated with the journey. Legend has it that St James, the apostle, preached in northern Iberian peninsula (now modern Spain and Portugal ) after the death of Jesus, where he was loved and welcomed. He returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred in 44 AD. However his soul pined for Spain, and, miraculously, a stone boat brought his body to the coast of Galicia where it was discovered, covered with scallop shells. His body was taken in triumph to Santiago.

World Heritage Site

The story thrilled medieval Europe, and the great pilgrimage began to see his tomb and to wonder at the miracle of it all. A 13th century poem from a remote Pyrenean monastery states:‘ The door is open to all, to sick and healthy, not only to Catholics but also to pagans, Jews, heretics, and vagabonds.’

However popular it was throughout the Middle Ages, the Camino proved to be less attractive in the later centuries. But it saw a remarkable renaissance in the 20th century. A pilgrim can begin his or her journey from St James’ Gate Dublin, from Canterbury, from Notre Dame in Paris, or from most cities in Western Europe. It continued along a vast network of trade routes, royal roads, and paths which eventually came together on the one trail to Santiago. The German poet and politician Johann Goethe commented that ‘ Europe was born on the pilgrim road to Santiago.’ Today a steady stream of pilgrims of all ages, with back-packs and a staff, on foot or on bicycle, follow the old trails marked out by their distinctive scallop shell signage.

The Way is now a World Heritage Site. As far a possible, it follows the original meandering path through woods and villages, over streams and rivers, up and over hills and through farm yards, until the welcome childhood smell of eucalyptus from the tall bluey-green trees along the outskirts of Santiago signal that the end of the journey is close.

Once inside Spain, the Way is supported by numerous small hostels, hotels, cafés, all moderately priced. For people with about six weeks to spare, and sturdy feet, the usually beginning is from Roncesvalles on the French side of the Pyrenees. But you can pick up the trail along its route.

A place for stories

The Galway group was blessed that two of its parishioners, Lisa and John Berry, had made the pilgrimage three times previously. At a series of meetings before setting out on September 11, they reassured everyone that all difficulties, such as finding accommodation along the Way, would be easily solved. John and Lisa are both from Accrington, Lancashire, where they met 22 years ago. They travelled most of the world together, came to Galway by chance, and wandered into the Augustine church one Sunday to hear Mass. They felt at home. They decided that Galway was where they wanted to settle down. They were married six years ago. John works in the health industry in Mervue, and both teach yoga. Their meticulous planning assured the success of the journey.

Gerry Ferguson patrolled around the fringes of the Way in a smart Renault mini-bus. Where it crossed a main road he was there with refreshments, and ready to take on board any straggler who may need a lift for a mile or two. He was a welcome sight for sore feet.

The Galway group started from the old monastic town of Samos. Everyone got on famously. Every evening they gathered for a communal dinner, and a requisite sampling of the local wine. The Way is a great place for stories. People talk, or spend some time on their own. New pilgrims catch up, and may talk for a while before moving on at a faster pace, or stopping for a brief rest. You meet again along the trail.

Generally Galicia is green and fertile. There is a heavy emphasis on dairy farming. The smell of cow predominates. In the mornings as you pass the old stone farms, or literally walk through their yards, you hear the steady rhythm of the milking machines. You do see some young men driving large John Deere tractors, but mostly, as in many rural places today, it is the elderly you see doing the farm chores.

Sunday is still Sunday in Galicia. Every shop is firmly closed. It is family day at the farm. A time for grown up sons and daughters to visit home. In the yard are cars with a Leon, or Burgos and even a Madrid number plate. I saw what seemed to be a grandfather holding the small hand of his granddaughter as he took her to see his cattle. He waved back and laughed at my smile.

Dramatic end

The group spent two days in Santiago. Along the Way are numerous small Romanesque and Baroque style churches, but nothing prepares you for the cathedral in the centre of the old university city. It seemed that every hundred years or so a new generation added another dollop of stone to this great building. The result is an immense facade and towers, with a lavishly decorated gold Baroque interior where reputedly the remains of St James lie.

Each day at 12 noon is the Pilgrims’ Mass, the highlight of which is the spectacular swinging of the huge Botafumeiro, an immense thurible filled with incense, which burns in towering cumulonimbus clouds. With great energy, men in black, using a series of pulleys, manage to swing the thurible the width of the church, and high into its barrel-vaulted roof.

The original idea was to suffuse the smell of the sweaty pilgrims with the sweet incense. An equally immense organ, with its pipes sticking out over the nave, plays at full throttle as this meteor of smoke is hurled over the heads of the congregation. It is a dramatic and emotional end to the pilgrimage, bringing gasps from the congregation, and spontaneous cheers and applause.

Included among the Galway pilgrims were: Mary and Neil Warner, Colm Powell, Anne O’Reilly, Mary Magnetti, Margaret Smythe, Kathleen and Liam Geraghty, Mary and Joe Whelan, Jean and Sean Tompkins, Ellen and John Goode, Pauline Staunton, Mary McDonagh, Lisa and John Berry, Fr Dick Lyng, Gerry Ferguson, Sighle Meehan, Ann Campbell, Noel O’Rourke, Annemarie Heanue, Colette Kelleher, Rosarie Barrett, Sara and Eugene Fahy, and Ronnie O’Gorman.

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