This is the text of a talk I’ve been asked to give tonight at Dún na Séad, Baltimore, Co. Cork, on the occasion of the opening night of the O’Driscoll Clan Gathering, Friday, 26 June 2015. I’m going to speak ‘freehand’ because talks work better that way (rather than someone reading a paper) and so, probably, I will miss out on lots of the exact formulation of this presentation as it is here (although I’m fairly certain of the architecture of the thing), nevertheless, this is what I’m supposed to be saying. Then again, if I forget half of this it will still be fine because my talk will then be about 30 to 40 minutes long, whereas if I delivered all of this as written it would be over an hour long, which would be too long for such an event (having said that, I’ve just been through it a couple of times ‘off-book’ [as theatre people say] and I’m surprised at how much of it I have at my command). And, finally, when reading this remember that it has been written to be spoken, which is different in all sorts of ways from writing which is written to be read (I have not made a post on this blog for a long time, nearly two months now, so I simply want to get something up here before the month of June runs out).
One super-final point: the link between the O’Driscoll Clan Gathering event at which I’m speaking and the Santiago pilgrimage is the clan chieftain Fineen O’Driscoll (d. 1472) who made the pilgrimage to the tomb of St James in Santiago and, not unpredictably, was ever afterwards known as ‘Fineen the Pilgrim’.
I walked to Santiago de Compostela in the winter of 2007 arriving in the Holy City a couple of days before Christmas Eve. For those of you who may not know, Santiago de Compostela is a city in northwest Spain, the centrepiece of the Spanish territory north of Portugal, which is the province of Galicia.
Santiago, St Iago, St James, is the patron saint of Spain. St James, brother of St John of gospel fame, was one of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, which is to say, one of the Apostles. As we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Apostles cowered in backrooms and other hiding places until the Holy Spirit descended upon them, and, afterwards, filled with the fire of the dove from above they went out to the ends of the known world evangelizing the story of their guru who was, they proclaimed, the way the truth and the light.
So, these guys go all over the ancient world, north to Syria, over the Jordan River and east towards Bagdad, to Greece and Italy and down into Egypt and so on. James, son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of John the Evangelist, went as far as the Iberian peninsula, which is to say Portugal and Spain.
However, James was not very successful as an evangelist, it seems, because after but a few years he returns to Palestine. Now, of course, none of this is history in the way that most of us understand documentary history today — although, in fairness, down through the centuries the church has attempted to document this stuff (made strenuous attempts to do so, in fact) — but, in sum, I don’t think it matters too much because what really matters for my purpose is that this is the story as it has been told one-to-many down through the generations — down through the centuries — just as we’re doing right here, right now, in this setting this evening.
Aside from being the brother of John, and patron saint of Spain, James is also distinguished by being regarded as the first Christian Martyr [obviously, Jesus was the first Christain martyr, really, but following the man himself…]. Upon his return to the Holy Land James was picked up in a crackdown on Christians and in custody he was tortured in the course of which he lost his life. After which his broken body was put on display in the market square as a statement of horror.
Although he was not a very successful Christian missionary, at least not in Spain and Portugal, James did manage to produce at least two Spanish followers who had returned with him to the Holy Land. These two guys took James’ body down from exhibition and spirited the saint’s remains down to the docks where — so the story goes — a ship crewed by angels awaited.
Six or seven hundred years later, a community of monks living out in the wilds of Galicia claimed that they found the body of St James — a monk, inspired in a vision, or spoken to by an angel (one of those sorts of knowledge-acquisition episodes) — unearthed a stone sarcophagus in the spot where the revelation said it would be, and on that spot — in that field — they built a shrine, which in time [which is to say, over the course of the following couple of hundred years] would become the cathedral at Santiago: ‘Compostela’ means field of stars, ‘campo’ field or camp-place, and ‘stella’ stars.
And, indeed, 1,300 years on, this supposed tomb of St James is in a crypt just behind the altar in the cathedral in Santiago — when you come up from the crypt you are standing right behind the tabernacle, looking out over it and down into the main body of the cathedral. And when people pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela this is what they are pilgrimaging to see — the tomb of St James.
If you get a map of Europe and you drop a plumb-line [you all know what a ‘plum-line’ is, don’t you?…] going south from where we are at this moment where do you next meet land? The answer is Finisterre — ‘Finisterre’, the finish of the terrain, the ends of the earth. Think about that: the ends of the earth — it’s not like “there in the unknown beyond be monsters”, like medieval cartographers did with the centre of Africa or the south seas and so forth, no, “hereinafter be monsters” represents an advance in human understanding of our little blue-green globe; for the ancients beyond Finisterre meant nothing, no thing, non-being…
…it’s a bit like Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known knowns/Known unknown/and Unknown unknowns”
The ancients at Finisterre could not even register on this pyramid of ignorance/knowledge — these people were absolute ‘Flat Earthers’, for goodness sakes!, and although the concept of this planet as a globe (and as a planet for that matter) is much, much older than we are taught in childhood schoolrooms — there were globes in existence 200 years before Columbus set sail with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria from southern Portugal (after all he was aiming to reach India and the Orient, which, of course, presumes a spherical world) — nevertheless, such concepts were absolutely out of the question for the ancients, whose world view was essentially — quintessentially — a Bronze Age worldview.
Drop a plumb-line from the centre of Kinsale and a thousand kilometres south you are going to find yourself in the square in front of the cathedral in Santiago.
Drop a plumb-line from Rosslare and you’ll find yourself in the city of Leon.
Drop a plumb-line south from the city of Bristol in England’s west country and you’ll find yourself in the city of Burgos.
Drop a plumb-line from Oxford and you’ll find yourself in Biarritz which is where I started from when I walked the walk.
I flew into Bayonne, which is a city right next to Biarritz, the two places are continuous, in fact, something like Salford and Manchester, for example, or New York and Jersey city…San Francisco and Oakland, I took a 20 minute taxi-ride ride from one place to the other, and in Biarritz I took a train — a small little commuter train which made about 10 or 12 stops (it took about two or three hours to travel a 30 kilometre journey) — I took the train up into the Pyrenees to the little walled town of St Jean-de-Pied-de-Port, which is about 25 or 30 kilometres down from the crest of that great mountain range dividing France from Spain.
Before going on with this, let me interject at this point and say that the reason I’m here, the reason I’m talking about the Santiago pilgrimage at this O’Driscoll event is because the Fineen O’Driscoll, who was the local patron of the Franciscan friary over there on Sherkin Island, which was established and constructed in the 1450s and 60s, was known as ‘Fineen the Pilgrim’. And he was known as Fineen the Pilgrim because, of course, he had made the pilgrimage to Santiago.Here is how Fineen’s death is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters, this is the entry for the year 1472:
“O’Driscoll More, Fineen, the son of Macon, son of Macon, son of Fineen, son of Donagh God, died in his own house [which is to say this house, (i.e. Dún na Séad in Baltimore)], after having performed the pilgrimage of St James, and his son Teige died penitently one month after the death of his father, after having returned from the same pilgrimage.”
The Santiago pilgrimage was an unbelievably big deal in Medieval Europe — you would not believe the figures — millions of people made the pilgrimage. And, you know, in our modern world we are so used to hearing of millions and billions and trillions — that, in fact, the term ‘millions’ has become passé, almost totally debased: 30, 40 years ago, when I was a child, to become a millionaire was the greatest thing a man could do, nowadays, a million dollars…Meh. But, when you’re talking about medieval Europe, a million souls is a huge number — remember, for example, that the population of London did not reach the million mark until 1800, and that was after more or less doubling every generation for about a century and a half. Just to give you a sense of this, expert opinion is that in 1450 the population of all of these northern islands, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, combined would have been about 4 to 5 million people.
So, when it is said that millions of people made the pilgrimage to Santiago in each generation in the medieval era, you’re talking about a significant proportion of the population of Europe. Pilgrimaging to the tomb of St James at Santiago was a really big deal, the equivalent of the pilgrimage to Mecca or Medina for Muslims. Of course, the premier pilgrimage for a Christian is the pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Next in status after that, perhaps, is the pilgrimage to St Peter’s in Rome. However, after the failure of the Crusades, Jerusalem was out of the question. And, for most of the so-called Dark Ages, Rome was also almost out of the question too. The city of Rome went into such decline that fewer than 30,000 people remained there, and most of these, if not all of them, belong to or were affiliated with one gangster-like warlord or another; Rome became nothing but a hold-up for vagabonds and pirates and criminal traders. The Roman Empire — such as it survived — was administered from Constantinople in the east [present-day Istanbul]. Even the papacy abandoned the city.
Rome’s fortunes recovered, of course, and by the high days of the medieval era it was in the full glory of its pomp, however, it never really lost its reputation for thievery and knavery. And justifiably so: when you’re talking about the 15th century you’re dealing with era of the Borgias (the first of the Borgia popes came to the pontifical throne in 1455)…you want to talk about gangsters and warlords!!…these people and the families and houses with whom they were at war would make Uday Hussein and Bashar al Assad seem quasi-reasonable and not untrustworthy.
Don’t forget, for example, the Avignon Papacy — for nearly a hundred years there were rival papacies in Western Europe. At one point there were 3 popes (or, at least, 3 people claiming to be the real pope), one of whom was murdered. And then you had a Byzantine patriarch in Constantinople as well. And a Coptic pope down in the heat of Egypt.
Travelling to Jerusalem was absolutely out of the question and for the most part travelling to Rome was more trouble than it was worth. Hence, basically, the western church invented a new pilgrimage: instead of travelling east you travelled west — and, indeed, Santiago became known as “the Jerusalem of the west” and “the new Jerusalem”.
The Catholic monarchs of the united Spanish territories had driven the Muslims down and out of the Iberian peninsula and it looked as though God smiled fondly on the west, but not so much on the east any more. Constantinople finally fell to the besieging Muslim in 1452. But it was the Avignon papacy which was absolutely critical in securing the Camino de Santiago as the premier Christian pilgrimage in the medieval period. Avignon is in the south east quarter of France and the papacy located itself there from 1307 until 1399. So that, in western Europe, for the most of a century, all roads did not lead to Rome, they led to Avignon. And one of the most important of the Avignon arteries went west in a straight line to Santiago de Compostela. Which is why that route across the south of France and the north of Spain is also known as the Camino Francais. And which is why so many of the cities and towns on the Camino have French names, Villa Franca, Leon, Burgos, Navarette, Estella, Roncesvalles and so on.
All over Europe are famous starting points for the pilgrimage to the tomb of St James — the Tour St Jacques in Paris, St James’ Palace yard in London, and in Ireland, of course, St James Gate in Dublin, now part of the Guinness Brewery complex.
Some of the pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are on their way to Santiago or have been there already; the Thomas á Beckett shrine at Canterbury was the first stop for pilgrims heading out of London after which they would head down to the Kent coast and then over to France and so on down to Bordeaux and the Pyrenees. Arles in the south of France is another famous starting point. Some people sailed to Bordeaux and started out from there. Others sailed to La Coruna and started from there (the pilgrimage route from La Coruna is known as the Camino de Angeles (the English Camino). And also people start out from Porto to the south in Portugal, and from Seville in the south of Spain, which is the Camino de la Plata. And also there is a route starting in Valencia.
But, without doubt, the Camino Francais is the central stem. It is not known which route Fineen took. I’m no expert, but I’d be surprised if he went the La Coruna route, I mean by sailing direct to La Coruna as we might do today. In the 1450s people did not set out across the open seas like that — they simply did not have the sea-going technology. What they would do in those days is safe harbour hop — Baltimore to Cork, then Cork to Waterford, from there maybe to Wexford, and from Wexford to Cornwall, and then from Cornwall to Brittany. They may have then continued on down the coast to Bordeaux or they may have disembarked at Mount St Michel (an important disembarkation point for pilgrims).
As I say, in my non-expert view it is most unlikely Fineen sailed directly to Spain. Far more likely he travelled via France — France was the premier European civilization at this time and this was a great adventure for the Irish chieftain (probably the greatest adventure of his life — after all, being known as ‘Fineen the Pilgrim’, it’s the thing that would define him) so I think it unlikely that he was thinking “Let’s just get it over with as quickly as possible, shall we?” No, I’m thinking he set aside 6 months or 12 months of his life to do this and he did it properly, maybe visiting some of the great cathedrals in France along the way. This would have been the medieval equivalent of — which many young men do (often in partnerships or small groups) — journeying all across the United States, from New York to San Francisco, or vice-a-versa, the modern-day, secular equivalent of pilgrimaging to Santiago. And when young men do that they are not thinking “Let get this shit as fast as possible”, are they? — no, they’re setting aside months in which to do so (and saving up for it for years beforehand) and they take their time in doing it (because it is not something you are going to do a second time) — drive to Chicago and then maybe down along the banks of the Mississippi to New Orleans then over to Texas and New Mexico and up to Nevada and finally to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Now, I’ve way over my limit as it is, so I’m not going to be able to say too much about my experience of doing the Camino de Santiago, but let me a couple of things about it at least before I finish [and maybe I can make a couple of other points in response to questions at the end if there are any]. Firstly, this [here (hand-held)] is the certificate you get when you complete your pilgrimage. It’s in Latin, so I’m not really too sure what it says but it’s what gets handed out to all pilgrims who complete at least a 100 kilometres of one of the recognised pilgrimage routes. As one goes along these pilgrim routes you get your pilgrim passport stamped at pilgrim hostels and at churches and the like along the way. This [here (hand-held)] is my passport, for example, looking a bit tattered now, sad to say. Consequently, most people when they do only a little bit of the Camino, tend to do only the final 100 kms into Santiago — Sarria, Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Arzua, and then into Santiago, which is to say, 4 or 5 days walking and then 1 or 2 days in the city fishing for trinkets or what have you. I would guess that about half the number of people who have pilgrim certificates have secured them by way of one of these fast-track short routes. Maybe more than half, maybe ⅝ or ¾, and there’s nothing wrong with doing it that way, but, in all honesty, it seems to me, by doing so you are truncating the thing so much that you’ve missed out on the essence of the thing entirely.
If you are only going to do a little bit of it then I urge you to do it from Leon, at least. Leon to Santiago is two weeks walking, going at 20 to 25 kilometres a day, it’s about 250 or 300 kilometres. As I said at the top, it’s like the difference between walking from Cork city to Baltimore and walking from Wexford to Baltimore. It sounds like a lot, I grant you, but that’s what the magic of it is about — you come down out of a mountain range and at some point you’ll come around a bend in the road or pathway, or emerge out of a forest, and you’ll be presented with a vista so vast it’ll stop you in your tracks; it’ll look like 50 or 80 or a hundred miles of open country (and it will look like that because that’s what it will be!) and way away in the faint blue yonder you’ll see another mountain range, with maybe snow-capped peaks, and you’ll think “Holy Moly, this is too much! I cannot do this!” But the amazing thing is you can, and not a bother to you. I’ve seen a one-legged man do it, a German fellow. I’ve seen a woman (a Swedish woman) who’d had a stroke do it (she was almost totally paralysed down one side of her body). When she started out she could only do about 5 or 6 kilometres in a session, after which she needed a rest, and then she’d do maybe another 5 or so in the afternoon. She made it all the way across Spain, 950 kilometres of it. I’ve seen young kids — 10 and 11 years old — do it. And I’ve seen old men do it. Indeed the first person who told me about it was a fellow who did it as his big retirement/millennium project thing in 2000.
The thing is, it’s like climbing heights or walking a tightrope, you do not think about the big picture, because if you do you’re lost, you’ll become unbalanced, undone. No, you stay in the moment — as Cardinal Henry Newman puts it in one of his hymns, “I do not seek the distant scene, one step enough for me” — you think about the day you’re in — where do I need to be by lunchtime? Have I got water enough for the day (in case there is no shop or village along the way)? And where will I be staying tonight; which Albergue or Refugio am I aiming for tonight? 12 kilometres in the morning and 8 or 10 or whatever needs be in the afternoon.
When you get to the Albergue you need to get yourself booked in, get a shower, wash your socks and T-shirt and whatever need washing and get it on the radiator or wherever to dry for the morning. Then you might have a sleep for an hour or two and then you go and find some place to eat (or go and get provision and cook up a meal if needs be).
You’re going to be tired — 20 or 25 kilometres is not nothing — and so, believe me, you’re going to eat whatever is put in front of you and then you’re going to sleep soundly (10 hours of fresh air and sunshine and all that walking is the best sleeping medicine you’ve ever experienced).
And then the following day you’re going to do the same thing all over again. You need to stay in the moment because you’re walking over mountain tracks and if you do not pay attention to where you’re putting your feet you are going to twist your foot and maybe crack your ankle.
You keep on going like that day after day and one day you’ll find yourself at the foot of those snow capped mountains which were only faintly outlined in the hazy horizon a week before and you’ll think “Wow, I’ve done it!” And you will have done it, and you’ll have done it without thinking about it, which is the whole point of the exercise — too much thinking fucks you up (for a well-balanced life you need to get out of your head and onto your feet).
That sort of stuff — seeing something you think you cannot do and then doing it without thinking about it too much — that kind of stuff changes you; that’s a really character-building experience. And then the days and days and weeks of fresh air, and all that exercise, and all that being in the moment, and all those dreamless, exhausted sleeps, that stuff changes you too — it builds up in you, giving you a kind of momentum which is hard to describe; you become tougher, leaner, browner, and most important of all you get things in their true perspective. All the petty stuff that makes up most of our lives, just falls away from you, and you realise how inessential almost all of that stuff is, to which we give so much attention. It is not essential to who you really are and what you are really about, but it is not easy to see that, and it is only by way of some form of sustained programme of unflinching inquiry, or by “taking you life for a good long walk”, as they put it, can you come to have a sense of this. As I say, it’s difficult to describe, but everyone who’s been through it will know what I’m talking about.
And you cannot get that in four days. They now have these package holiday deals where you just need to walk and the tour company takes your baggage from one second rate hotel to the next (or maybe first class place — it depends on what you can afford). So, what I’m saying is, you can still have your sunglasses and your Gucci shoes and your perfectly laundered and pressed white T-shirts but you really got nothing at all. You’re really just a tourist. No real pilgrim is going to take you seriously. So stay in your gold MasterCard bubble and sip your Chablis, you contribute nothing to the experience and consequently you’ll get nothing from the experience.
As you move west along, more and more people join the road; and, as I say, when you get to Sarria and the final week of it, the number of people on the road doubles, at least, if not more.
If you cannot afford to do two weeks and can only do one, my recommendation would be to do a stage much earlier in the route. The stage coming down out of the Pyrenees and into Pamplona (where they run the bulls through the streets in June every year) would be my recommendation. The Pyrenees are really fabulous — I do not know what your sense of what the Pyrenees is but I was really surprised to find myself walking through deep and ancient forests for most of it, especially the first 2 or 3 days. And Pamplona is a wonderful city, really classy, full of art and history.
Do the Pyrenees bit and travel up to San Sebastian and fly home. Come back another time and do the Pamplona to Burgos leg of the journey.
Burgos to Leon is unbelievably boring. It is just prairie land with dead straight roads. It is actually more difficult to walk plum-line-straight roads all day every day for a week or so than it is to traverse a mountain range; it’ll does your head in. When I think back on my pilgrimage experience I remember that section as being the most trying. Some people take a bus ride and skip it.
And, then, as I said, there’s the Leon to Santiago section. In many ways this is a significantly challenging section too. The mountain range you go over a few days after Leon is actually higher and more rugged than the Pyrenees. Up in those mountains you go through a series of old villages which have been totally abandoned — since the Spanish Civil War in the 30s, I guess. It’s quite eerie going through them.
And then eventually you cross over into the province of Galicia — so many things about Galicia are so strikingly like the west of Ireland it’s really something: the traditional music (pipes and fiddles and sean nos singing), the farmyards and farmers’ tool-sheds, the faces of the people…
And, the very final thing I want to say is, if you do decide to do it, do it in the off season. First of all, there’s the weather: walking 20 or 25 kilometres in full heat of the summer sun in Spain is not something to be undertaken likely, certainly not if you’re an Irish or British person and unused to walking in such temperatures. Also, you need to bear in mind that somewhere between 150,000 and 280,000 people do this pilgrimage each year; the vast majority of whom will be doing it in the months June, July, August, and September. I do not know about you but I would not enjoy myself at all if I was walking through an oak forest along side a babbling brook and I had 200 people up the way before me and 200 more back along behind me — a bunch of happy students maybe, chattering and chuckling and being all young and irritating.
For me it worked best as a sort of solitary thing. And then in the evenings it was very nice to see a handful of people in the albergue, some of whom you’d see before somewhere along the way and some you’d not met before. And also, consider this: with the hostels it’s first come, first served, so some people literally race to the next hostel so that they get the best beds and get to use the showers first and the washing machines and so forth; they get up at five or six o’clock in the morning in order to do so! That sort of thing would take all the fun out of it for me. And, if I walked 25 kilometres and arrived at a hostel only to be told that they were full and I’d need to keep walking to the next hostel, well…I would not be happy (let’s leave it like that).
As I walked the Camino in 2007 I wrote a series of reports on my experience which can be downloaded as a pdf from the Walking to Santiago page of the blog (scroll down to the bottom of the Walking to Santiago page).