“A procession is a participants’ journey” – Rebecca Solnit

If felt like a portentous gathering on Wednesday as we emerged from our cottages for breakfast in tandem with the dawn chorus.  We had planned a “ mystery field trip “ for that morning which involved considerable traveling on our school bus to a top secret destination. The game was up when Iarla realized that we were travelling through a Gaeltacht area and announced that we were possibly in County Donegal.

A huge inspiration at the heart of this project is the ancient thread that connects the Irish Monks who departed from Teelin in Southwest Donegal and the first settlers in Iceland. That morning we made a return procession to Teelin with our fellow Icelandic (& Greek) pilgrims. We arrived in driving rain to a misty inlet on the north side of Donegal Bay – the fishing village of Teelin.

Local tradition insists that sea- faring monks left Teelin and settled in Inis Tuile (Iceland) centuries before the Viking Occupation. Esteemed Icelandic scholar Professor Einar Olafur Sveinsson and Hermann Palsson made a trip from Iceland to Teelin in June 1947 with James Hamilton Delargy and visited Slieve League, Teelin Pier and the Well of The Holy Women (Tobar na mBan – Naomh).

Aoife and I had visited the Einear’s son Sveinn Einarsson in March in Reykjavik heard about the adventurous spirit of these early pilgrims. Even Magnus Magnusson who also contributed to the book Impressions of Ireland stated  “Deep in the heart of all folklore and fable there usually lurks a kernel of fact, of what could well be truth…” In Iceland the word saga means both tale and report.


We disembarked at Teelin pier at were greeted by Traolach O Fonnáin (Arts Officer in Donegal ) with local historian Seosamh O Ghallchóir and his friend Joe & Dean who also lived locally. These men greeted the pilgrims and immediately began to make connections between the papar and these two islands. It felt like we were somehow following the steps of the peregrini who had gone before us.  The only trace of that journey is a small plaque sculpted by the extraordinary Icelandic artist Páll Guðmundsson in 2005 to commemorate the monk’s precarious departure in the 5th century.

The Donegal men enthralled us with stories of the sea and the ancient monks and mariners who had gone before us. Stories were told of how the monks had left the monastic settlement and sailed with The Holy Women to Iceland. They told us about Glencolumbkille and the turas/ pilgrimage round that is still observed there on 9th June. Empathy with nature is very much part of the Irish myth & folklore tradition and nowhere is this as true as when you come in contact with the sea. They shared a few superstitions / piseoga with us –

Apparently having a woman on board the ship makes the seas angry and is an omen of bad luck for everyone aboard. It was traditionally believed that women were not as physically or emotionally capable as men. Therefore, they had no place at sea. .

It was unlucky for a woman to comb her hair from the time her husband left to fish in the morning until he returned that evening

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey. Red heads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the redhead before they speak to you.

Don’t look back once your ship has left port as this can bring bad luck. Looking back to port implies that you are not truly ready to brave the seas and complete your voyage, bringing about bad luck on yourself and the ship.

The caul off the head of a newborn child is protection against drowning and will bring the owner good luck.

We recorded their stories and you can listen below

As the rain kept falling we eventually decided to head onwards to a great local artisan café called Tí Linn for lunch and more chats with the Donegal men. It gave us time to download the stories passed down to us and begin to digest them.


The next stop was the breath taking Slieve League Cliffs one of the highest sea cliffs in Europe with views across Donegal Bay to counties Letrim, Sligo and Mayo and it hosts its very own ancient Pilgrim’s Path.

This natural geological wonder is an awe inspiring quartzite and schist cliff face formed by the erosion of half of Slieve League mountain by the pounding Atlantic ocean and the weather over the millennia.

We walked for an hour or so, soaking in the beautiful wind swept vista – winding slowly around the sea cliffs amid the eagles and sheep – a procession of unlikely pilgrims.