Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela from the Irish midlands in the fifteenth century by Bernadette Cunningham


Santiago de Compostela became an international pilgrimage destination in the twelfth century, at a time when the doctrine of purgatory was widely promulgated and the idea of indulgences was gaining popularity. The local archbishop, Diego Gelmírez (d.1140), promoted the cult of St James and the shrine in the Cathedral of Santiago became one of the three major pilgrimage destinations of the Christian world. This offered those living on the Atlantic edge of Europe an accessible alternative to Rome and Jerusalem.
There were two separate phases of the Santiago pilgrimage from medieval Ireland. The earlier phase, beginning in the thirteenth century, was a distinctly Anglo-Norman one, with pilgrims drawn from towns on the east and south coast. During the second phase – in the fifteenth century – Gaelic pilgrims from throughout Ireland, including the midlands, displayed a strong interest in going to Santiago. They almost invariably made the pilgrimage in jubilee years, when the feast of St James (25 July) fell on a Sunday and special indulgences could be earned.

The growing popularity of the pilgrimage from the mid-fifteenth century was partly logistical – it had become possible to make the journey there and back in a matter of weeks. Increased prosperity may also have been a factor. Improvements in shipping ensured that pre-Reformation pilgrims from Ireland and elsewhere in Atlantic Europe had a relatively convenient way of getting to Santiago. They could sail directly across the Bay of Biscay from the coast of Ireland to north-west Spain using the normal merchant ships of the day.
Pilgrims from the midlands could sail from Dublin or Drogheda on the east coast or opt for a southern port such as New Ross or Waterford. For those heading to the south coast, the river Barrow was navigable from Athy. Those going via Dublin might follow the Slíghe Mhór to the city. At the coast, pilgrims might avail of hospitality in a religious house while waiting to join a large ship capable of making the long journey by sea (generally caravels or carracks). The merchant ships taking a direct route could generally carry 100 or 200 pilgrims, while one larger 320-ton ship carrying 400 pilgrims from New Ross was recorded in the 1470s. Once at sea, the journey to the north coast of Spain could take between five and ten days. There were dangers, and the Irish annals record some Irish pilgrims being lost at sea. Aside from stormy weather, inadequate supplies of food and water and lack of immunity from continental diseases also caused pilgrim deaths.
On arrival in Galicia, the port of A Coruña was often used; alternatives included Ferrol and Vigo. From there pilgrims might walk or hire horses and mules for the last stage of the journey to Santiago. They would attend to the prescribed rituals at the shrine, after which they might rest for a few days before beginning the arduous journey home.
Mairgréag Ní Chearbhaill
By the mid fifteenth century, it was not unusual for elite women from Gaelic Ireland to undertake lengthy pilgrimages. One of the best-known instances was the pilgrimage to Santiago undertaken by Mairgréag Ní Chearbhaill in the jubilee year of 1445. Mairgréag was an independent-minded woman. The daughter of Tadhg Ailbhe Ó Cearbhaill, lord of Éile (Ely O Carroll) who had died in 1407, she married An Calbhach Ó Conchobhair Fáilghe who succeeded his father, Murchadh, as head of the neighbouring lordship in 1421. An Calbhach enjoyed a reign of more than thirty years from c. 1425 until shortly before his death in 1458. The marriage between An Calbhach and Mairgréag was almost certainly part of a political strategy to help consolidate Gaelic power within the region, on the frontier zone with the English Pale. Their principal residence was located on the west side of Croghan hill. Both families were patrons of the arts and of the church, and Mairgréag’s father-in-law, Murchadh Ó Conchobhair Fáilghe, had been the founder of the Franciscan friary at Killeigh, Co. Offaly, in 1394. That friary became the family’s burial place.

[Remains of the Franscisan Abbey at Killeigh and the burial ground adjoining with the later Church of Ireland church. Courtesy Offaly History.]

The cemetery at Killeigh is one of the locations in which a burial with a possible fifteenth-century Spanish link has been uncovered. A cross, described as of fifteenth-century Spanish type, was found there associated with an upright female skeleton in a hollow space in a wall. It may have been a souvenir of one of the fifteenth-century pilgrims who travelled to Santiago, or someone who received it as a gift, or inherited it from a parent. We know, for example, that one of Mairgréag Ní Chearbhaill’s daughters, Finola, spent forty-six years of widowhood in retirement at the convent of the Augustinian canonesses at Killeigh, Co. Offaly, before her death in 1493 on the feast of St James.



[The silver cross found about 1830 with a ‘nun’s head’ found at Killeigh in the 1970s. Courtesy of Offaly History.]

Consciousness of death as an ever-present reality for young and old was among the influences that shaped attitudes to purgatory and the afterlife, and may have nurtured Mairgréag Ní Chearbhaill’s particular interest in the acquisition of indulgences through pilgrimage. Mairgréag belonged to a generation for whom the horror of the Black Death was still remembered within many families. Her own father’s first wife, Joan Butler, had died of the plague in 1383 along with many others.

005 The Romance of Irish Heroins
[A nineteenth-century representation of the great feast at Killeigh from a school text. Courtey of Offaly History]

Mairgréag’s obituary recorded that she was known for her charitable acts, and the annals also noted an occasion in 1433, a year of famine, when she invited very large numbers of people to a feast at Killeigh, Co. Offaly, ‘bestowing both meate and moneys with all other manner of guifts, wherinto gathered to receue gifts the matter of two thousand and seauen hundred persons, besides gamsters and poore men’. She hosted a second large feast, at the recently captured castle at Rathangan, Co. Kildare, at harvest time in the same year.
Despite practising charity during her life, she evidently still believed that the plenary indulgence that could be earned by undertaking a pilgrimage to Santiago in a jubilee year was worth pursuing. She went in the same year as a large group of other lords and followers. The Annals of Lecan record that in the year 1445
Many of the Irish of Irland went towards the Citty of S. James ye Apostle to Spaine in the Summer about Tomaltach Mac Diarmoda King of Magh-luirg, and about Margarett, O’Caroles daughter of Calwaghs wife, and with Mageochagan the Duke of Kenel-fiacha mac-Neill, and about O’Edriskeol oge, and many more noble and ignoble persons.
The use of the words ‘about’ and ‘with’ in this summary account (a seventeenth-century translation) suggests that each of the named elite pilgrims had their own group of followers with them. Thus, for example, Mairgréag an Einigh’s sister, Isabell (d.1454), was married to Mac Eochagáin, another named pilgrim, and it is possible that Isabell was among the unnamed pilgrims in the midlands group who travelled to Santiago in 1445.
In the year that Mairgréag died, 1451, her husband An Calbhach Ó Conchobhair Fáilghe followed her example as a pilgrim, suggesting that she had reported a positive experience. The Annals of Lecan record that ‘Calwagh O-conner went to the Civity of S. James in Spaine, and returned in health, after receuing indulgences in his sinns’.
The pilgrimage to Santiago would have been the journey of a lifetime for these fifteenth-century pilgrims from the Irish midlands. It would have been understood by all who travelled as an important step on the road to salvation.
Bernadette Cunningham
December 2018

Further reading:
Bernadette Cunningham, Medieval Irish pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2018)