We are in Ireland. The remote valley of Gleann Cholm Cille, in western Donegal, was already a holy site when Stonehenge was but a vision taking shape.
Named after Columba, an Irish abbot and missionary evangelist credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland, it is the setting for a pilgrimage on the anniversary of the saint’s death in 597AD.
The three-mile journey (or ‘Turas’) is typically performed between the eve of 9 June (the saint’s feast day), and 15 August (the feast of the Assumption). Local tradition says that Columba lived here for two years before he left Ireland for Iona, a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries.
The link between Columba and the valley that bears his name was first made in the “Life of Colum Cille” commissioned by Manus O’Donnell, a leading member of the O’Donnell dynasty in the north-west of Ireland in the sixteenth century.
The book draws together accounts of the saint’s life and traditions associated with him. One of the most interesting stories describes how the mythical hunter-warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool) foretold its future links to the saint while hunting in the area.
As story goes, Fionn had let loose his hound in the area of the Senglenn (‘old glen’) in the territory of the author’s own ancestors, the Cenél Conaill, known now as Gleann Cholm Cille. But his dog, which had never before let its quarry escape, refused to pursue a deer across the river into the valley. Though not a Christian, Fionn prophesied Columba’s future greatness and revealed that it was in his honour that the dog had shown clemency to the deer, and that the valley would be a sanctuary for evermore. Here, the old gods encounter the new and the past meets the present in a sacred continuum.
Either way, Gleann Cholm Cille has various points of historical and spiritual interest relating to the turas, such as Tobar Colm Cille (the well of Colmcillle or Columba), embedded in a huge cairn as a monument to faith. Typically, pilgrims pick up three stones as they walk up the hill. Each time they circle the cairn, they add a stone to it. In addition, many pilgrims draw healing water from the well, leaving offerings at the shrine.
Pilgrims then journey down the north side of the glen known as the ‘Mullach na Cainte’, the Slope of Conversation, the only part of the turas where people are permitted to speak.