Medieval Irish pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela

If you are in Dublin, take a walk from the Liberties, past the Guinness Storehouse, past Thomas Street, keep walking until you see Christchurch Cathedral standing tall in front of you.


This is the Dublin Camino and the direction medieval pilgrims walked to board their ship bound for Spain. During your same walk, keep an eye out for the symbols of the Camino…arrows, shells, place names, is anything familiar?

Medieval pilgrims would walk to Dublin Docklands, gather, before taking the arduous journey to Santiago. One place in the Docklands, called Misery Hill, is what is left of a medieval hospital run by monks to assist pilgrims bound for Santiago. And this is where this Bernadette Cunningham’s book comes in.

I have only recently started to appreciate that pilgrims from Ireland made the long dangerous journey in the middle ages. So this book has opened my eyes. It probably ranks as one of the more important books on the Camino due to the amount of research and time that has been spent. I have written a review for Shamrocks and Shells and have reprinted it below.

Dr. Bernadette Cunningham (Four Court Press)

All of us who have walked any part of the Camino in Galicia will notice that there is a medieval feel to it, but some of you may have asked, have many Irish people been here in medieval times and if so, why did they go there?

Dr. Bernadette Cunningham’s “Medieval Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela” explains that from the 12th to the 16th centuries, the promotion of the Camino de Santiago was linked with the idea of penance, repentance, and indulgences. The shrine of St. James was first promoted by Archbishop Diego Gelmírez who got papal sanction to issue indulgences to pilgrims. Santiago de Compostela became on a par with the other big Christian pilgrimage cities of Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims from medieval Ireland almost certainly made the pilgrimage to Santiago in jubilee years, when the feast of St James (July 25th) fell on a Sunday and special indulgences could be earned.

For a sea-going nation like Ireland, the geographical position of Santiago de Compostela was a major element of its’ attraction for pilgrims. Part of the journey from Ireland always had to be made by sea and the key to understanding how they got there is to understand the trade routes that already existed – the regular merchant ships of the day were used by pilgrims.

In the 13th century, the first ships were Anglo-Norman bringing pilgrims from the South and East of Ireland and those people would have crossed to Bristol or Plymouth and looked for a ship before heading to Spain from there. The ships used in the 13th century were those used in trading fish, hides or wine and were not very large. The main departure points were Dublin, Drogheda, New Ross, and Waterford. The book provides detailed maps showing towns scattered all over Ireland, the routes to the southern ports, and the long sea voyage that some undertook to get to Santiago, by way of the port of A Coruña.


The statue of St. James in the Church of Santiago in A Coruna. (source: https://pilgrimpace.wordpress.com/tag/santiago-peregrino/)

The first named pilgrim was Richard de Burgh from Clonmel who went to Santiago in 1320. He probably sailed first from Clonmel over to England. Once across the English Channel in France, pilgrims generally used horses for transport until arrival in Santiago. Richard de Burgh is representative of the first pilgrims to be found from Ireland – they were wealthy Anglo-Norman townsmen or bishops with strong English connections.

By the 15th century, we find evidence from other parts of Ireland, from Gaelic lordships in the North and West of Ireland, heading to Santiago. Also, by the 15th century, direct transport in bigger ships along the Bay of Biscay became the norm. For those making a direct crossing to Iberia, the port of A Coruna was normally used. In the 15th century, merchant ships travelling on this route could carry between 100 and 200 passengers.

By the 15th century, it was not unusual for elite women from Gaelic Ireland to undertake long pilgrimages. One of the best-known was the journey taken to Santiago by Margaret O Carroll in 1445. Most pilgrims returned safely, however, there were several hazards which resulted in deaths while abroad, such as, the lack of clean water and fresh food on ship and storms at sea.

A Carrack – an example of a European merchant ship from the 15th century (source: http://www.angelfire.com/ga4/guilmartin.com/chapter3.html)

In the absence of pilgrimage, the scallop shell is one of these things that will endure through almost everything. Scallop shells are turning up in archaeological excavations throughout the country and all of these are documented in this book. So, we get a snapshot of pilgrimage from Kinsale, Fermanagh, Tuam to more recently the excavations in St. Thomas’ Abbey in Dublin.

Today, the creation of the Celtic Camino from A Coruña reminds us that in middle ages, the port of A Coruña was a major point of arrival for pilgrims from Ireland and other northern European countries.

Dr. Bernadette Cunningham has produced a significant book, as it gives us a fascinating insight into how and why men and women ventured from Ireland to Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. A tremendous amount of research has been undertaken on the subject and this book is a must for anyone with a keen interest in the Camino de Santiago.

Bernadette Cunningham is author of Medieval Irish Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela (Four Courts Press, €17.95). A three-day conference on Ireland-Galicia links through the ages takes place in Santiago on May 9th-11th. See irishsettlement.ie

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