Plans have emerged for a major new Christian heritage walking trail that will pass through Newry en-route from Upper Lough Erne to Bangor.

The 266 mile route has the working title “The Way of the Saints,” passing through the four counties of Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and Down.

The plan is to attract visitors looking for active holidays, with a cultural component, and to develop “pilgrimage walking” such as that found at Spain’s Camino de Santiago and at many other trails across Europe. The route will also take in Rostrevor, Hilltown, Newcastle and Downpatrick on its route.

The trail would highlight Northern Ireland’s ancient heritage, including major Neolithic and early Christian sites along the way.

It aims to integrate the itineraries of a possible Northern Ireland stage of a Columban Way in Ards North Down and Fermanagh and Omagh boroughs, the St Patrick’s Way in Armagh Banbridge Craigavon and Newry Mourne and Down boroughs, and the Sliabh Beagh Way, through Fermanagh and Monaghan.

A map illustrates the proposed Heritage Trail Route
A map illustrates the proposed Heritage Trail Route

A feasibility report was commissioned by Tourism NI and the four councils. It states the strategic aim would be to “collectively raise awareness of the remarkable landscapes and towns in these southern areas of Northern Ireland, bring visitors to discover lesser-known rural areas and towns, and encourage tourism entrepreneurship.”

The report on the project was warmly received at this week’s Regeneration and Development Committee of Ards North Down Council.

Councillors said they should push ahead with the section of the trail within the borough, regardless of what other councils decide to do with the project. Councillors agreed that the whole length of the trail should be called “The Columban Way”, given the popularity of heritage trails dedicated to Saint Columbanus across Europe and in the Republic of Ireland. 

The European Columban Way is a pilgrim route which traces the footsteps of Columbanus, the Irish monk, from Mount Leinster where he was born in 543AD, through eight European countries, to Bobbio in Italy where he died in 615AD.

Columbanus left home to study at Lough Erne, then moved to Bangor Abbey, where he lived for 20 years, before gaining permission to spread the word across Europe. He founded a number of monasteries across the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms.

Ards North Down Alderman Deborah Girvan, who has worked extensively with Columban Way partners across Europe, said there was “huge potential” if it was marketed correctly.

She said: “Columbanus is much better known in Europe than he is in Northern Ireland, and he is quite well known in the Republic of Ireland. Bangor stands to be one of the key centres on this pilgrimage.

“In these Covid times, people are looking for outdoor activities and tourist attractions, and pilgrim routes are huge in Europe.”

She said: “We have two basic things that are missing – firstly the education, people don’t know about him, and secondly, the infrastructure. We don’t have enough safe places to walk, and that is why our green strategy is going to be incredibly important to this project.

“We have an amazing Christian heritage in our area. Bangor was started in Bangor Abbey, Newtownards was founded on Movilla Abbey, with Finian, and Nendrum was where Mochaoi was based.

“What people don’t seem to realise, and this is where education comes in, is the incredible impact that Columbanus had on Christianity in Europe, in Ireland, and ultimately across the world.

“The Republic of Ireland has already put a substantial amount of money into this. These routes are mapped out. People are walking them in France and Switzerland and Austria. The only place that has nothing for people is Northern Ireland.”

By Michael Kenwood, Local Democracy Reporter

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