3 Northwest Ireland Pilgrimages, Not Just for the Religious

by  Alexandra Huddleston | Jun 24, 2016

Most people associate the idea of a pilgrimage with religion. But if you're the sort of person for whom a spiritual journey includes paying homage to your favorite authors or historical figures, Northwest Ireland is home to several (religion-optional) sites that are worth a visit.

History and Mythology: Carrowmore and Knocknarea Cairn

More than 60 dolmens and stone circles make up the Stone Age cemetery at Carrowmore. Research into Carrowmore’s meaning shows it to be the center of a complex of ritual sites, including Knocknarea Cairn, an enormous, unexcavated grave, believed to be the resting place of the legendary Queen Maeve. Knocknarea is 2 kilometers from Carrowmore, and you’ll need a good pair of shoes to climb up the steep plateau to reach the gravesite. But the stunning, 360-degree view makes it worth the effort.

W.B. Yeats' Tomb, Duncliffe / flickr

Literature: Drumcliffe and Benbulben

Any literary tour of Ireland should include the grave of the poet W. B. Yeats in Drumcliffe. Yeats himself spelled out the words written on his tombstone, “Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death / Horseman pass by,” as well as his request to rest in the shadow of Benbulben. The grave receives hundreds of visitors daily, but a bit of effort is required to climb Benbulben. We recommend stopping by Sligo’s outdoor shop, The Call of the Wild, to pick-up an OS map, local advice on hiking routes, and updated weather forecast.

Station Island from Lough Derg / Alexandra Huddleston

Spirituality: Station Island

For more than 1,000 years, Station Island has drawn visitors to Lough Derg, a lake that sits in rugged country on the border of Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland in County Donegal.  Although it is traditionally a Catholic holy site, the island specifically welcomes spiritual seekers regardless of their religious background for one- or three-day retreats, from May to September. Be aware: the three-day pilgrimages involve bare feet, prayer, fasting, and 24-hour vigils.  The island is not accessible to day-trippers with no intention to join an organized retreat. As an alternative, we suggest following a lovely hiking trail that wanders along the shores of Lough Derg, offering views onto the elusive Station Island and marking the last miles of the road that travelers have walked for centuries.

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