Gerry Kelly: For Camino walkers, the journey really only starts when you go home

Walking the Camino De Santiago in Spain is something that tens of thousands of the religious and the not so religious do every year as a time-out from life. A recent walker was veteran broadcaster Gerry Kelly, who has made a two-part radio programme about his experiences. Is he now a convert? Joanne Sweeney finds out

Broadcaster Gerry Kelly, a self-confessed reluctant pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago Picture: Mark Marlow
Joanne Sweeney

IT'S fair to say that broadcaster Gerry Kelly was a somewhat reluctant pilgrim on his recent walk along the famous Camino through north-west Spain to the tomb of St James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela.

The Way of St James, to give El Camino de Santiago its English name, is a network of routes across Spain and Europe that all lead to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the Galician city of that name. The tomb of the apostle St James (Santiago in Spanish), within the cathedral, has been a shrine of Christian pilgrimage since the Middle Ages.

Today it's one of the most popular 'bucket list' events to do for a wide cross-section of people who hope that tramping over paths and stones that pilgrims have trod on over centuries will help them find themselves, accept some personal challenges or changes, or help them move forward in their lives.

Co Down man Kelly's initial reception of the idea of walking for between 20 and 30 miles a day was less than enthusiastic. He saw himself very much as an observer while he was making a two-part programme – Notes From The Camino – for BBC Radio Ulster, the first instalment of which airs tomorrow.

"This was basically a programme idea – it was never, ever 'my' Camino. It was never about me walking the Camino or what I would get out of it," stresses the 69-year-old.

"I told my producer Jimmy Devlin that there wasn't a chance in hell of getting me to walk 30 miles every day. But I'll go and do it and find out what why other people are doing it and what the Camino does for them. I had no wish to do the Camino before this. It wasn't on my radar."

He baulks at the word pilgrim as, although he's a practising Catholic, he says a weekly visit to church with his wife of 41 years, Helena, is plenty for him.

"I go to Mass once a week but I wouldn’t say that I was very religious. Even when we were doing it, I still didn't get that pilgrim thing. I wasn't there for any spiritual or religious reason and I didn't have it afterwards – but there was a spiritual connection," Kelly says.

In the end, he walked 60kms over three days out of his five-day trip at the end of last September.

The experience must have left a reasonably positive mark on him, as he says that he would like to return to do it in full with his wife and a group of close friends.

Kelly, who has lived in Coney Island, Ardglass for years, was a stalwart on UTV before he moved into radio presenting with Radio Ulster nine years ago. He now does two shows each week there.

Gerry Kelly with his staff on the Camino de Santiago

He formerly worked as a GAA reporter before moving into news presenting and then hosting a range of shows, the most successful of which was The Kelly Show, which ran for 16 years before his Gerry Meets... talk show where he carried out in-depth interviews with leading figures of the day.

Some of the most talked-about interviews included talking to disgraced TV presenter and DJ Jimmy Saville and Annie Murphy, the woman who gave birth to Bishop Eamon Casey's son.

The father of two grown-up daughters and grandfather of two started off his Camino journey at St James's Church in Dublin where he met Turlough O'Donnell from the non-denominational group The Camino Society.

Before he set off, he was given a wooden staff as a walking aid. The staff and the scallop shell have become the marks of the Camino walker, who is traditionally greeted and greets others along with trail with a cheery 'Buen Camino'.

His walk took him and Jimmy through the undulating landscape of Galicia, on a path which attracts people of all ages, from all walks of life. They both had to suffer the dubious pleasure of sleeping in a mixed male-female room in one of the many hostels that are dotted along the way and which are as much part of the Camino experience as the walk itself.

However, never once did he prepare for the likelihood of getting attacked by a brown bear, a prospect which provided some light relief for them both along the way.

"I wasn't looking forward to the hostel experience that and I was right not to," says Kelly. "I can get a bit claustrophobic at the best of times and sharing the room with strangers who were getting up and down all night going to the toilet or whatever, well, I had a bit of a panic attack one night and needed to get out of the room and into the air fast.

"I went over to let Jimmy, who was fast asleep with ear plugs in and wearing an eye mask, know that I was going outside and he nearly leapt out of his skin. But he came out to find me and warn me that there could be brown bears out in this particular area. I laughed at the thought of me getting attacked by the bear while on the Camino – could you imagine it?"

While the programme focuses on walkers from Ireland, both north and south, that Kelly meets along the way, he admits that the experience did eventually get to him personally.

"You can't help but get sucked in by the whole thing as everyone you meet are all of the one mind and are all their for their own particular reasons. You do get something from it and I would have thought that no-one leaves it empty-minded as there's always time for silent reflection," Kelly says.

"But I say on the programme that I felt slight disappointed as I didn't feel justified being there with all the other pilgrims as I didn't do the whole thing. Actually, the actual walking is nothing to be afraid of as long as you do it at your own pace.

"However, my overriding feeling of the whole thing was one of anti-climax walking to the church. It was a bit like 'Is that it?' Others that I spoke to were like, 'Is it all over after the Mass? (a 12 noon mass is held every day in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for pilgrims).

Gerry Kelly reaches Santiago, having walked the final part of the Camino

"One of the things that we talked about on the programme was whether you are a destination man or a journey man. For some people the journey finished when they got to Santiago but as I progressed through the week, I discovered about myself is that the journey continues personally afterwards.

"I think that a lot of people's journeys have just started when they get home. They think the journey is over but after they have had a week of contemplative thinking, they discover that they live their lives in a different way.

"A nun said to us that God would want you to live your life the way you live it on the Camino. And I think that's the right way to think of it."

:: Notes From The Camino with Gerry Kelly begins tomorrow on BBC Radio Ulster at 12.30pm and concludes the following Sunday, February 20, also at 12.30pm.

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