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The Liberties’ connection with the Camino.

People from across the world travel to Spain to undertake the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James. Some take the route through France, some through Portugal. However, what many people don’t realise is that the pilgrimage can also start right here in Dublin’s Liberties. In fact, the connection with the Camino goes far back into our history.

St. James is believed to be one of Jesus’ first disciples. It is said that after Jesus’ crucifixion, James spread the gospel across the Roman Kingdom. He then travelled to Spain and spent almost forty years there.

On return to Judea in 44 AD, King Herod Agrippa I beheaded him. As he was not allowed to be buried in Judea, some of his followers brought his remains to Compostela in Spain, where he was buried. In the ninth century, his relics were found and moved to a tomb, where they remain in the Cathedral of Santiago in the north-west of Spain.

In Dublin, there are many links with the Camino – most of which lie within the Liberties. The official starting place of the Camino in Dublin is James Street, where pilgrims can get their Camino “passport” stamped before they make their way across the continent. Historian in Residence for Dublin South Central Cathy Scuffil said that this is “quite unique”. “It recognises Dublin as part of the Camino route,” she said.

Before the introduction of passports for the Camino, people would wear scallop shells to indicate their participation in the pilgrimage. The scallop shell is associated with St. James, who is almost always depicted with it. The shell would have worked for the pilgrims in the same way that passports do now. Their accommodation and food would also be subsidised along the way.

Scuffil said, “People recognised you as a pilgrim so it came with certain benefits. The fact that people knew you as a pilgrim meant they would care for you on the route and knew what you were doing.” The shell could also serve as a drinking vessel.

After the introduction of the “passport” booklet, the pilgrims would get them stamped at the Catholic St. James’s Church before they entered the gates of the city. This is something that is still done today.  

Located inside the church is the office of the Camino Society Ireland, who distribute and stamp passports. The space is covered from wall to wall with maps and photographs of the routes. It is run entirely by volunteers and is open Thursday to Saturday between March and October.

Bernadette Cunningham is a volunteer from the society and has done the pilgrimage a number of times. She mentions that those who volunteer can be of great help to those thinking of doing the Camino, “Based on their own experience, they can provide general information about the various pilgrim routes to Santiago, and what it is like to do a long-distance walk,” she said.

The office also stocks guidebooks and brochures to assist pilgrims along the way. They can post out passports to pilgrims who cannot make it to the office before they depart.

James Street has a very particular layout which reflects the link with the Camino. Back in Norman times, the people of what is now Dublin 8 would assemble at the wide end of the street, where St. James’ Hospital sits. They would set up stalls for the pilgrims travelling to Spain. Scuffil described it as a “market day”, “It was designed for the assembling pilgrims,” she said.

The original St. James’s Church of Ireland chapel, across the road, was rebuilt in the 1800s, but it is now host to Pearse Lyons Distillery. To mark their historic past, the distillery now has a stained glass window depicting St. James and the Camino.

General manager of the distillery Tracey Flinter said that the piece, named St.James Way, was a “salute” to the past. “The stain glass windows that you can see inside today are specifically focused on the connection and the heritage of St. James – a salute to the church to say it was the former church of St. James.” The window has on it a sheaf of barley to represent the whiskey, the scallop shell to represent St. James and also the Irish emblem of the harp.

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