There is some really exciting pilgrimage research taking place here in Ireland. This blog post hopes to promote the work of one such researcher Richard Scriven who is currently researching for PhD in Modern Pilgrimage with the Geography department at University College Cork. Richard is also looking for volunteer to help him with his research by sharing their experiences of pilgrimage at Irish holy wells and other pilgrim sites. The rest of this post has been written by Richard and he explains in his own word about his research and hopefully by the end of the post some of you will be inspired to help out contact him at the address below .
Pilgrimage traditions in Ireland are a unique cultural trait. A vast range of devotional activities are performed on mountain tops, on islands, on beaches and at wells, trees and rocks. These practices, that blend folk customs and Christian beliefs, are the modern manifestation of traditions that date back centuries, if not millennia. Even in the context of a general decline in religious observance and increasing secularisation, annually in Ireland, hundreds of thousands of people go on some form of pilgrimage. As well as being deeply spiritual and personal activities, they are also expressions of cultural identity that create rich lived landscapes.
I am interested in studying this fascinating aspect of Irish social and cultural life. My research looks at pilgrimage in contemporary Ireland by considering how and why it is performed, what it means to the people involved and the ways in which rich spiritual landscapes are forged. As a cultural geographer, I examine the complex relationships that exist between people and place. Geography focuses on how people, through their actions and ideas, shape the world around them and how environments influence and define people. I am interested in the ways in which people and places interact through the performance of pilgrimage. In the performing of devotional practices, it can be seen that people are ‘making’ holy places and that the locations are, also, defining people as pilgrims.
My research involves two main activities: studying the performances of pilgrimages and talking with people. I visit different pilgrimage sites, especially on the main feast days, and observe and record what is going on. In this way, I can capture a sense of the pilgrimages as they are occurring. Equally important are my conversations with people. These usually take the form of short informal interviews in which we discuss pilgrimages, the practices involved and motivations and experiences. By gaining insight these elements I can present a fuller more human understanding of pilgrimage in contemporary Ireland.
The study is focused on Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg and several holy wells in the South West. Croagh Patrick, or ‘the Reek’ as it is known, is one of Ireland’s foremost holy mountains that attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims annually. The island retreat of Lough Derg has been a spiritual space for centuries and is valued by a great many people who make their yearly pilgrimage there. Ireland has over 3,000 holy wells; while some have fallen into neglect or been lost, many still serve as sites of local devotion and pilgrimage. These places are usually associated with a saint and they are visited on the Pattern Day. I am particularly interested in looking at St Gobnait’s Ballyvourney, St Fanahan’s Well Mitchelstown, ‘The City’ Rathmore, St Brigid’s Well, Liscannor and Our Lady’s Well, Timoleague.
My research is made possible by people volunteering a small amount of their time and sharing stories with me. I am interested in people’s own experiences and motivations, rather than collecting factual or historical information. If you have gone on pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick or Lough Derg, or do the ‘rounds’ at a local holy well, I would be delighted to hear from you.