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Pilgrimage & Crusade

Updated: Jan 23

The Way of St. James, Ballyhack, Co. Wexford. Ships carrying pilgrims would depart for Santiago de Compostella from Kings Bay, seen centre of photo.

The idea of pilgrimage is as old as religious belief itself, in the old testament visits to the shrines of Bethel and Dan are recorded. A long journey during which a degree of suffering is endured as an act of repentance, combined with the meditative act of simply placing one foot in front of another without consideration of life’s everyday, hum-drum concerns, has been an experience sought by many in their search for spiritual enlightenment. The arrival at a holy site from which one's soul can be elevated adds to the importance of this journey. Interaction with fellow devotees, the kindness of monks at abbeys, and total strangers provides food for the soul, and in the very best of human traditions, it is an utterly irrational, inexplicable act of hardship where the journey and destination are of equal value.

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great at his council of Nicaea in 325AD granted Jerusalem the status of a Holy City and thus began an era of Christian pilgrimage that was to continue for hundreds of years. It was Constantine’s mother St. Helena who returned from one such journey allegedly in possession of a fragment of the wood from the true cross upon which Christ was crucified (see Holy Cross abbey). So began the passion for collecting relics from the Holy Land and bringing them home with you. Although there is some uncertainty (it was a while ago) the first recorded Irish pilgrim was a heretic by the name of Pelagius who visited around AD 412, he was described by a writer of the time named Jerome as a “corpulent dog, weighed down by Irish porridge”. Imagine walking that huge distance, only to be described in such a way; how unkind. The act of travel to Jerusalem and the removal of souvenirs continued without violence until the Muslim seizure of the Holy City in AD 637. From this date on, although pilgrimage was possible it was extremely dangerous as so much of the journey was now through territories occupied by Islamic forces. Due to this, the title of Holy City was transferred to Rome, the new capital of Christendom. It was during this time that Irish missionaries traveled throughout Europe inspiring those who had lapsed to regain their faith and instituting monasteries on their travels. Many of these clerics also promoted themselves to Bishops whilst away doing the Lord's work, this of course caused great annoyance to the continental ecclesiastic community who protested at length about the activities of these wandering Irish Bishops.

In the year AD 813 the remains of the apostle St. James, referred to by the Essenes as ‘James the just’, were discovered in a Spanish village known today as Compostela. The importance of this Saint grew exponentially after his celestial influence was cited as instrumental in the defeat of the Moors by a vastly outnumbered Spanish army at the battle of Clavijo in AD 859. St. James (Sant Lago) soon became the Patron Saint of Spain and ushered in a new era of monastic Christianity to Iberia. It was the monks of the reformed Benedictine Monastery at Cluny who gained control of the lands of South Eastern France and Galicia in Spain and insofar as it was possible, guaranteed the safety of pilgrims in these lands. With Compostela now established as an important, if not the most important shrine for Christians in Northern Europe, the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela assumed major significance during the 11th century for the devout populous of South East Ireland for the next five centuries.

Site of St. James Church, Arthurstown, Co. Wexford.

St. Mullins monastery on the St. James pilgrimage route.

It was during the 11th century that to some extent Muslim aggression towards pilgrims diminished and the earnest Irish pilgrim was to be found not just in Jerusalem itself but at large throughout the Holy Land. This however did not last and as the century progressed the safety of the pilgrim started to decline as the years marched forward. One of the earliest Irish records, the Annals of Inisfallen, details the death of a tribal King from the region of Waterford. It states that in 1060 - “Domnall Diesech, chief of the Gaedil in piety and charity - and it is he who traveled all (the journeys) which Christ traveled on earth - rested in the Lord in Teach Mannu”. In the latter part of the century as territory after territory fell to the Seljuk Turks, (who were less tolerant of pilgrims than the Arabs) the journey to the Holy Land once again became a perilous enterprise, the risks now were not just from ‘infidels’ but also from bandits and a host of common criminals who had naturally identified the pilgrim as an easy target. I must make special mention here of the work of Niall Byrne K.M., it is from his book ‘The Irish Crusade’ that this condensed history of the pilgrim is written.

This state of affairs could not be allowed to continue, and in 1095 Pope Urban II and Peter the Hermit preached at The Council of Clermont to launch a crusade to retake the city of Jerusalem. They intended to gather a fighting force of able men but instead, 3 armies combined to create a force of around 100,000 poorly equipped peasants; some elderly, some not in the best of health. They nonetheless set off in advance of Knights and trained foot soldiers on this people's crusade, knowing that all past sins would be forgiven by their noble effort in the service of Christendom. Only about 10 percent of the people's crusade survived the journey to the Holy City but the military crusaders that followed successfully completed their joint mission.

Dunbrody Abbey, on the Irish Way of St. James.

The Crusades are often described as a low point of barbarity for Western civilisation. This I feel must be placed in the context of the Levant existing well within the borders of the Roman Empire and Christendom. A wish to ensure the safe passage and destination of worship for your people, on your turf, doesn’t appear unreasonable to me. There were, of course, incidents of devastation, annihilation and even cannibalism during the crusade, but regrettably, this is the norm for the human race when we engage in conflict. Take a few moments to reflect on the atrocities committed during the 20th century, allegedly a much more civilised time.

For the next forty years or so the pilgrim was free to make their restorative penance in relative peace, safe in the knowledge that a variety of knights including Hugues de Paynes (during his lifetime) and his soon-to-be Templar brothers would defend them with their lives if need be on the 50-mile stretch of road that lies between the port of Jaffa and Jerusalem. I would suggest that to begin with, with the number of Knights at Hugues disposal barely into double digits, their defence of pilgrims would be intelligence-led rather than a routine patrol. In the mid-1140’s the Turks started to regain territory in the Crusader states and in 1144 Pope Eugene III commissioned Bernard of Clairvaux to preach the Second Crusade and granted the same indulgences for it that Pope Urban II had accorded the First Crusade.

Bernard in action. Note the knights at the foot of the podium.

Although there was little popular enthusiasm for another crusade Bernard decided to highlight the importance of ‘taking the cross’ as a means of gaining absolution for sin and attaining grace. On 31st March 1146, with King Louis VII of France present, he preached to an enormous crowd in a field at Vézelay, the full text has not survived, but a contemporary account says that "his voice rang out across the meadow like a celestial organ”. James Meeker Ludlow describes the scene romantically in his book The Age of the Crusades: “A large platform was erected on a hill outside the city. King and monk stood together, representing the combined will of earth and heaven. The enthusiasm of the assembly of Clermont in 1095, when Peter the Hermit and Urban II launched the first crusade, was matched by the holy fervor inspired by Bernard as he cried, "O ye who listen to me! Hasten to appease the anger of heaven, but no longer implore its goodness by vain complaints. Clothe yourselves in sackcloth, but also cover yourselves with your impenetrable bucklers. The din of arms, the danger, the labours, the fatigues of war, are the penances that God now imposes upon you. Hasten then to expiate your sins by victories over the Infidels, and let the deliverance of the holy places be the reward of your repentance." As in the olden scene, the cry "Deus vult! Deus vult! " rolled over the fields, and was echoed by the voice of the orator: "Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood.” After Bernard had drawn his oration to a close, the crowd enlisted en masse; they supposedly ran out of cloth to make crosses. Bernard is said to have flung off his robe and begun tearing it into strips to make more. Others followed his example and he and his helpers were supposedly still producing crosses as night fell.

There were in total (8.5!) nine crusades, which in terms of an overall objective all ultimately failed, the difficulties of fighting a remote war cannot be underestimated. And it is here of course; that the Templar knights story ends, because when there was little chance of reclaiming the Holy Land and protecting it and its Holy sites they had no purpose, no reason to fight. Furthermore, the borders and lands of Christendom within Europe were now also well established.

Baltinglass Abbey, Co. Wicklow. A stop off on the pilgrimage route.

Further reading

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