Jake O'Kane: Church's loss is society's gain as Martina Purdy and Elaine Kelly run wild in the Mournes

The women were denied the opportunity of taking their final vows. While others might have harboured justified resentment at such treatment, all Martina would say was, 'The Lord works in mysterious ways'

Jake O'Kane, front centre, with Martina Purdy, far left, Elaine Kelly, second left, and fellow pilgrims on The Way of St Patrick
Jake O'Kane

THE story of how my maternal grandfather, Felix, walked from his isolated farm, across the Sperrin Mountains, to make a pilgrimage at Lough Derg in Donegal, is part of family folklore. I always believed the story apocryphal, especially when you consider the distance is 55 miles and would have taken at least 16 hours in each direction.

I checked with my Aunt Monica – his last surviving child – and, to my surprise, she verified he'd made the trip on numerous occasions, seemingly viewing it as a form of holiday. His stoic nature hasn't come down the generations as I feel deprived if there isn't a private swimming pool at my rented holiday villa. The idea of walking for a day to spend the weekend on a rain-soaked island in my bare feet, sustained by only black tea and toast, definitely doesn't tickle my fancy.

I do understand, however, the connection between walking and spirituality. I've never felt transcendence in any church, no matter how grand; instead, it's walking in nature, that I feel something. To walk in a forest or along the banks of a river, and not see the hand of something greater than yourself I find bewildering.

I was therefore intrigued when Martina Purdy invited me on a new pilgrim walk she's launched in the Mournes called The Way of St Patrick. I'd only met Martina once in her previous incarnation as a BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent.

I subsequently read she'd taken the somewhat unique career move of quitting her high-profile media job to become a nun in the convent of the Adoration Sisters on the Falls Road. It was there she befriended fellow novitiate and former barrister Elaine Kelly. Due to the eccentric workings of the Catholic Church, the two were denied the opportunity of taking their final vows when the Church decided their order was too small to allow it.

While others might have harboured justified resentment at such treatment, all Martina would say was, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." Their plans were once again thwarted when a trip to walk the Camino De Santiago in Spain was cancelled due to the coronavirus. Martina and Elaine turned this disappointment into something positive by starting The Way of St Patrick.

As someone who harbours a visceral aversion to piety, I was worried my fellow pilgrims would be the sort of nice people who congregate after church for tea and buns. Thankfully this wasn't the case.

Over the eight-mile walk, I met a man who'd written a book on Patrick's Confessions; other pilgrims included a short documentary maker, a couple of teachers from a local primary school, and a lady recovering from pneumonia who was on the walk to improve her breathing. In short, these were ordinary people who shared a love of nature and walking and were intrigued to learn more about St Patrick.

Our walk took us through Tollymore Forest Park, along the banks of the crystal clear Shimna River as it trundled from high in the Mournes towards Newcastle. We passed bridges used in the TV series Game of Thrones, and an 18th-century folly in the shape of a monastic cave. Elaine and Martina operated like spiritual sheepdogs, with Elaine upfront setting a pace which confounded me considering the shortness of her wee legs, while Martina remained at the back, ensuring none of us were lost in the forest.

As we walked, they fed us interesting facts about Patrick and his time converting the native population from their druidic beliefs to Christianity. Patrick's approach struck me as eminently pragmatic, as he chose to integrate many druidic rituals into Christianity rather than ban them outright. For instance, while a Celtic cross marks my parents' grave, I never knew it was an example of such iconographic convergence. Known in ancient times as a 'sun cross', the Celtic cross merges the native Irish peoples' sun worship and the Christian crucifix.

Our eight-mile trek was completed in a comfortable four hours, and I parted from my new friends outside an ice cream shop in Newcastle. As I walked back to my car, I was convinced the convent's loss is society's gain, with Martina and Elaine now feral in the Mournes.

Those of strong faith and none are equally welcome on this enjoyable walk, where you will literally tread in the footsteps of Patrick. One final tip: while they advise you to bring sunblock, I wouldn't bother; Patrick didn't need it and, chances are, neither will you.

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