The Kerry Camino

By: Ann Keeling

Walkers are invited to follow in the footsteps of St Brendan through Kerry`s rugged landscape along the Dingle Way.

Many Irish people cherish an ambition to walk the Camino de Santiago or St James’ Way. The route brings   walkers through the countryside of Galicia Spain to the city of Compostela where tradition has it St James; one of the twelve Apostles is buried. It is one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the world.

For those that love to walk, but maybe not for a fortnight and want to take some time out but can’t afford the expense Of going to Spain, there is now a potted version of the Camino in Kerry called simply The Kerry Camino.

The Kerry Camino is not just a great idea to encourage walking visitors to the area, but it is reviving Kerry`s links with pilgrims of the past. A team of committed local people are behind it and they have borrowed some of the elements of the Spanish Camino like the use of logbooks (or passports) to link the two.

The Kerry Camino is both a walker’s dream and a path of pilgrimage for the contemplative. Following a designated 55KM route, the walk brings participants along the first leg- from Tralee to Dingle- of what is popularly known as the Dingle Way (The full way extends to the peninsula beyond Dingle). 

The 55km journey is broken down so that it is done over three days. During the three days walkers pass   through rugged, mountainous, coastal scenery, on through towns   and villages, with stations along the way where their log books can be stamped, until they reach their final   destination at the Spanish-built St James’s Church in Dingle, end receive their certificates of completion.

The cover of the log book features a drawing of an artefact which was found by Fionnbarr Moore in 1992 during an archaeological dig at the ruined Ardfert Cathedral, which is just a few kilometres north of Tralee and  associated with St Brendan, patron saint of Kerry and, interestingly, also considered by some to be patron of the American Navy.

The artefact was found underneath the wall of the medieval tomb at the Cathedral. It is a pewter scallop shell with a bronze-gilded statue of St James and when found in a grave, suggests that the deceased person had been on a pilgrimage to the apostle’s burial place in Santiago.

The scallop shells were old from stalls in the vicinity of the Cathedral in Santiago and brought back by pilgrims in the same way that palm-leaves were brought back from Jerusalem.

It is fortunate that some of these scallop shells survived the passage of time as it is an indication to us now of the importance of the Camino de Santiago and how many Irish people historically would have undertaken the arduous journey there.

Tralee man John Ahern, himself an experienced walker, who has travelled the Kerry Camino, explains that many Irish pilgrims going to Santiago departed from St James Gate in Dublin and that Kerry pilgrims  point of departure for Spain was most likely St James Church in Dingle, from which they would sail to the Spanish port of La Coruna, there to join the way of James.

But whatever about the Irish going to Spain on pilgrimage, John says that Ireland itself is riddled with pilgramige sites, even more than Spain. He states that there are several thousand archeological sites between Tralee and Dingle.

As well as possessing many vestiges of the times when Ireland earned its title of the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars,” John says that the Kerry Camino is “one of the most beautiful walks in the world.”

John goes on to say, “If there’s ever proof that there is a God, its nature. A pilgrimage is walking through nature, where two or three people are together, sharing beauty. A pilgrimage doesn’t always have to be a purgatory”.

Though perhaps not a purgatory, a certain degree of fitness is required for the Kerry Camino. Completed over three days, the route leads walkers out of Tralee, up along the foothills of the Sileve Mish mountains overlooking Tralee Bay, across the Finglas river, after Camp village and the nearby ruin of Killelton Church (dating from the 9th or 10th Century), on to Inch which has, as John says, ‘one of Ireland’s most beautiful beaches’, through Annascaul (home of famous Kerry Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean) and past Minard Castle, with the holy well of St John the Baptist beside it, on along through Lispole  village and into Dingle.

Over the spectacular Conor Pass, north of Dingle, lies Mount Brandon, relends second highest mountain which was reputedly climbed by St Brendan as an act of penance, and is named after him. The mountain overlooks Brandon Creek, the point from which, in 1976, explorer historian and writer Tim Severin, began his currach voyage to America, proving that it is at least possible that St Brendan reached the New World   centuries before Christopher Columbus.

While the Kerry Camino currently takes  in the Tralee to  Dingle section of the Dingle Way it is hoped to extend the Camino in future to take in the rest of the   Dingle peninsula, it is also envisaged that it will be connected by a walking route through North Kerry, which takes in St Brendan’s birthplace in Fenit and Ardfert — where he was baptised by Bishop Erc and later founded Kerry’s most important monastery — all the way from Clonfert in Co, Galway where he also founded a monastery and where he is thought to be buried.

In association with The Gathering, the Kerry Camino started its summer season this year at the May Bank   Holiday weekend, when according to committee member Mike O`Donnell the local friends of Saint Brendan welcomed all corners to Tralee to follow in the footsteps of Kerry’s most famous Son. Brendan the Navigator.

Maeve Edwards front Eras; Co Wicklow, did the Kerry Camino in June of this year with two friends. One friend elected to be the driver and ferry all the luggage from place to place each day. The other friend and Maeve did the hard work and travelled by foot.

On day one- from Tralee to Camp- they found the terrain “stony” and difficult underfoot but were treated to the stunning   views of the north side of the Dingle peninsula. But the weather was warm and so when they arrived in to Camp their well-intentioned previous     decision not to drink any alcohol during the three days was reversed.

We unceremoniously dumped our bags and sticks,” says Maeve, ordered three gin and tonics with ice and lemon and languished in the shade with the other Sunday afternoon revellers. What a treat!

Imbibing a few drops didn’t seem to cause problems to the walkers and, after a comfortable night at a local hostelry, they got started on Day Two, both amazed’ at their powers of recuperation.

Day Two is from Camp to Annascaul and, as Maeve and her friend found it “was a breeze compared to Day One” it was a 17km walk, which they managed with relative ease.

We were able to look around us, photograph the foxglove and emerging fuchsia and enjoy the views of Inch beach as it appeared over the mountain.”

The walkers enjoyed a meal at the South Pole lnn, which is the pub associated with Tom Crean. Nick-named the “Irish Giant”; this man, who grew up on a farm outside Annascaul, took part in three major Antarctic expeditions, winning three polar medals as a result. On   retirement, he opened the South Pole inn, where he lived quietly with his wife, Ellen until his death in 1938.

The final leg from Annascaul to Dingle was again not too challenging for Maeve and her companion. “This section or the route takes in open farmland;” says Maeve, and yet again “we were enchanted with the vistas of natural beauty along the way.”

The Town of Dingle they found a delight and they spent a     few days sight-seeing at various locations around the peninsula.

Maeve and her fellow travellers were well organised by arranging to have their third friend go ahead of them and meet them at their designated accommodation with their luggage.

For those walkers who prefer, they can choose to be transported back to Tralee at the end of each day. Or, like the girls, accommodation can be arranged in Camp and Annascaul. Each days walk is between five and six hours in length.

Those who are behind the Kerry Camino are enthusiastic about its success and its benefits for anyone wishing to undertake this journey through the picture-postcard scenery between Tralee and Dingle. As Mike O’Donnell says. “You can do the walk as a contemplative journey alone or with companions. It is up to oneself what to do.”

The Catchphrase of the Kerry Camino is “Walk the footsteps of St Brendan the Navigator”. Mike explains of St Brendan, “It is widely believed that he went on a   penitential journey of prayer dedicated to God and to spread Christianity wherever he went.” And so to-days Kerry Camino travellers can “trace the route he took with his fourteen apostles in the middle of the sixth century”.

While in the area there is opportunity to visit the harbour town of Fenit, on the northern side of Tralee Bay, where an imposing meter-high bronze statue of St Brendan, sculpted by Tighe O’Donoghue of Glenflesk, stands at the end of the pier.

And Mike adds, “Whether you come on a pilgrimage of personal faith or renewal, or for the fun and health benefits of a good walk, we will welcome you with open arms the way Saint Brendan welcomed the converts he made while on his crusades.”

The official starting point of the Kerry Camino is St John the Baptist church in Tralee. Walkers can pick up their information/registration pack at the Grand Hotel, Tralee; the Tourist Office in Tralee and Dingle; the Information Kiosk on the Mall in Tralee; Landers’ Outdoor World, Mile   Height, Tralee and Hilser’s Jewellers, Castle St Tralee. The information pack contains a passport/logbook, map and details of the route.



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