Researching Pilgrimage in Ireland 

The Concise Explanation:

I am looking at different forms of pilgrimage in Ireland and considering how they shape the places and people involved. My research looks at how pilgrimage is manifest in contemporary Ireland. The pilgrimage routes and rituals which are found across the island are well-established traditions, some dating back to the pre-Christian era. I am interested in researching these traditions and the people that practice them.

Cultural geography is about people and place. It is about the rich relationships that exist between people and the land. Geographers investigate how people, through their actions and ideas, shape the world around them and how environments influence and define people. I will examine different pilgrimage sites by looking at the movements of people. 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.

The research focuses principally, but not exclusively, on several holy wells in the Cork-Kerry area, Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo and Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. Ireland has over 3,000 holy wells, many of which act as sites of local devotion and pilgrimage. These places are usually associated with a Pattern Day. Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg are among the most well-known pilgrimage sites in Ireland. These places are associated with their contemporary Catholic identity, but many of them have ancient, pre-Chrisitian origins. I am also interested in all pilgrimage practices and places throughout Ireland as well, as knowledge of these will be important to my research.

The more academic version: 

My research investigates pilgrimage practices, as an embodied mobility, in contemporary Ireland. Pilgrimage is a distinctly spatial human behaviour, involving performances that are centred on specific places. Insights offered by the ‘mobilities turn‘ within the social sciences, which has highlighted the significance of movement, fluidity and the nomadic in shaping the world, inform this approach. Utilising the ontological framework of the new mobilities paradigm with insights from nonrepresentational geographies, pilgrimage is engaged with as an embodied mobility.

The practice of pilgrimage can be seen as a process involving the subjects (pilgrims) and the spaces (sacred places/landscapes) both being defined by and, even, emerging through their interactions with each other.

This study involves frameworks and approaches that can considered pilgrimage in terms of both the representational (understandings, narratives, ideologies) and the practical/ nonrepresentational (embodied experiences, beliefs, sensual). This requires the consideration of methodological challenges in attempts to access and capture a holistic appreciation of pilgrimage (including the experiential and sensual, as much as the observable and representable) as it is occurring in place.

The adoption of a ethnographic methodology allows for the integration of the theoretical framework of the geographies of mobilities, nonrepresentational geographies and an ethnographic approach. This allows for a blend of the strength of ethnography, as a methodology that privileges direct contact with people in place, and more recent innovations that aim to get closer to the actual practices as they are occurring, so to access and to capture them in real time. This ethnography consists of a collection of complementary methods: participant observation, photography, audio-visual recording, interviews, and visual and documentary research.

The research focuses on a number of case studies, including local/regional devotional sites (a selection of holy wells in the South West of Ireland) and twp national pilgrimage locations (Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg). The fieldwork requires that each site be visited multiple times, especially at key dates/feast days.

The video version:

This is a short (three-minute) video of a presentation on my research, which I gave as part of the final of UCC’s Doctoral Showcase 2012. This event gives PhD candidates throughout the university a chance to present their research in an interesting way to a general audience.