Fáilte go hÁrainn
Official Guide to the Aran Islands

Pilgrimage (Peregrinatio) In the Irish/Celtic Tradition

More ‘wandering & wondering’ from this blessed isle of Inishmore…  As a writer, I think of words and their meaning, a lot –  sometimes too much, even ’til my head hurts!

I think of the word ‘pilgrim’ and what it means, now, and what it meant during the so-called ‘dark ages’.  Hmmm.  Given our present circumstances, it seems a useful word to ruminate on.  I’ve gotta give it a good ‘chew’…


The Latin (singular) word is peregrini (like the peregrine falcon), but the process of becoming a pilgrim (peregrinatio) is what has always fascinated me.  A truly useful word. 

The wandering/penitential concept of peregrinatio is both striking and profound. It was the ultimate ascetic fulfillment of seeking a place apart. Largely an act of self-renunciation – like Abraham – it was leaving one’s earthly homeland as a pilgrim in order to find a heavenly homeland as found in Genesis 12:1, Matthew 10:37.

Out of The Desert

Another author attempts to clarify this by adding that “it consisted of a willingness to let go of or die to one’’s home, or the place that was comfortably familiar, in order to find new life”. Through the writings and desert experiences of John Cassian and Athanasius, these Celtic monks were inspired to establish their own ‘‘desert(s) in the ocean’’; hence sites like Enda’s cill here on Inishmore, or Skellig Michael off the southwest coast of Co. Kerry.

Be-Longing for Home

These longings, to somehow find a ‘‘spiritual homeland’’, can be traced in part to the “white martyrdom” found in the Cambrai Homily, itself written before c. 650 AD, together with earlier works by the Desert Fathers/Mothers. Moreover, while other accounts from the 7th century are important to note, this practice of self-exile is perhaps best exemplified in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 891 AD, which tells the well-known tale of three Irishmen off the Cornwall coast, who declared: “ stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where…”


This text has always had a profound impact on me – for to become ‘lost’ was to become ‘found’. But of all the word-concepts mentioned in similar voyaging texts such as The Voyage of Bran, or St. Brendan’s Navigation, it is the Irish éulchaire which I find most striking. Kuno Meyer transliterates this human expression as a “longing for home” or a “home-sickness” as experienced in the now absent hero tale Echtra Nectain maic Alfroinn.

Imagination & Desire

Could it not be that imagination, possibility, and pure “desire” represented some of the most elemental motivations for compiling these texts, and the impetus for the peregrini to actually undertake these ventures? Only until very recently have western academics acknowledged that most (if not all) of his wanderings on the (European) continent were rooted in the Orthodox quest for ‘theosis’ (deification). This is absolutely pivotal for a proper understanding of not just St. Columbanus, but all of the wanderings/peregrinations of Celtic/Irish monks on the European continent and along the ocean’s pathways during this time frame.


But, on a broader basis, these pilgrim stories amount to a spiritual “homecoming” for many contemporary seekers, many of whom similarly declare that they need to “rove to rest” (to use a phrase from one of Garnet Rogers’ songs). Others admit that they’re “running to stand still” (from U2’s song title).

And so it is, that like Enda, Brendan, and Columbanus, we too long to press on … towards our “true homeland”.

And so, I walk… dreaming of the day.