Camino - Brendan O’Mahony’s Story

The Camino Ingles:
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as The Way of St James, is a pilgrimage route that has existed for  more than 1000 years. This Camino began when English and Irish pilgrims could not walk through France during the 100 years war and so sailed into the nearest port, Curuxeiras Docks at Ferrol. It was from here, that I began to walk the Camino on July 17th..

The Camino walk was chosen to mark the 4th., anniversary of our son Conor, who at 32  had died of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) on July 25th. 2006. Conor was a fluent Spanish and Portuguese speaker and always had a great love of Spain. Holy Year was to be celebrated in Santiago on July 25th the same day as Conor’s anniversary. He was christened Conor James after his maternal grandfather Jim O’Connor, so it seemed appropriate to do the walk, given that the dates were more than a co-incidence. This was the right time to go on the Camino.

Planning began in July 2009. At a family dinner we discussed what positive outcome might come from the walk, along with remembering Conor. We decided that a campaign would be launched to raise funds for a charity. On reading about the work that  CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) were doing – our decision was made.

A lot of research was put into the route. How long was each stage, where were the stops and how long it would take?. Maps were scrutinised and self help course in the local language Gallego was embarked upon. The plan was coming together on paper!! Fitness would be vital., so boots, socks, a 26 litre pack and ancillary gear were acquired and the training began. I walked 10k most morning at 6.00 a.m. with the 10kg pack.

By June Bank holiday weekend it was crunch time. The first day’s Camino was  29km. I had never walked that far in one day, so I set off to walk from my home to Kilsheelan village and back, with the full pack, on the Saturday - It was 29km. It went fine and took  6 hours. 6 weeks to go.

Then my Achilles tendon kicked up. I was out of action for 3 weeks. Panic set in but the Physio assured me that I would be fine in time.  2 weeks to go. My weight was down to 15st 11lb  and so on July 16th I flew to Spain and next morning I left  Ferrol to walk the 29km to Ponterdeume.

Day 1. Ferrol to Pontedeume
The first two days were the most difficult. I began to walk at 7.a.m  Outside Fene the going got tough, The temperature rose 35C and the route was up rough steep mountain tracks washed out by recent rains. The 10kg backpack seemed to weigh a ton but the only way was up. I  had seen no soul for three hours! I walked on and after 8 hours I crossed the medieval bridge into Pontedeume. I was exausted . The first day was over. I had dinner  and packed for the morning.  I was asleep at 9 p.m. The mantra of the Camino is: Walk, Eat and Sleep!  

Day 2: Pontedeume to Betanzos. 22 km
I woke to brght sunshine. I felt great, no aches or pains.. I got early mass and my sello (Crediential stamp) from the parish priest. I set off . Everyone I met called out ‘Buen Camino’. I walked 10km to Mino, a beautiful town with wonderful views of the large Betanzos estuary. After a wrong turn I saw two ladies. They  called me. ‘Senor Está indo na dirección incorrecta’ They introduced themselves as Magdalena and Carmen and before I knew it I was sitting drinking a glass of  red wine. Thin slices of delicious Serrano ham, cheese, eye watering onions and slices of sweet juicy tomatoes the size of saucers materialised. Both had perfect English. The impromptu lunch went on for 30 minutes but I had to leave. Kisses on both cheeks and ‘Buen Camio Brendan’ saw me off. I crossed the riverbed at O Porco and despite being on tarmac the hills were worse than yesterday. It got hotter and hotter so there was a palpable sense if achievement when I marched through the Pont Vella and up into the medieval town of Betantos. Elena in the Tourist Office had a  bed in Viones in a barn for the next night. All was in order I had lost some of my maps at a toilet break so tomorrow would be full of surprises.

Day 3: Bethanzos to Viones. 17Kms or thereabouts.
. After breakfast I left for Viones. I crossed the bridge at Limiñon meandering uphill through trees from there. The Camino waymarking (a scallop shell points the way) is very good. I felt good. When I passed the beautiful old San Tomé de Vilacoba  church, I had walked  21 km. I discovered villages have more than one name and next stop Vizoño was indeed the ‘ lost village ‘ of Viones. Hope soon turned to despair the refugio was full. Plan B. I called Antonio at the pension in Meson do Vento to  collect me at the bottom of the infamous hill 5km further on. He would drive me back next day to complete the walk. Dinner at 8 was with the family. Madre had prepared pulpo - octopus tentacles.– delicious. I hadn’t to pack. I was walking back up the hill next day. Bliss. I slept the sleep of the just or something akin to it.

Day 4: Climb Every Mountain.
Had a lie in. Got up at 8.30a.m. After breakfast of hot black coffee, glazed donuts with custard in the middle. Some diet !! Antonio dropped me at the bottom of the hill. It was steep but manageable. It still took me over two hours but I was in no hurry. I finally strolled down to Hospital de Bruma  where there is  a beautiful renovated auberge and, as the name suggests,  it was a hospital for pilgrims going back 1000 years. I walked to Meson do Vento and was back in time for lunch.A strong  wind, that bent the eucalyptus trees double, came up around 8 p.m.. Meson do Vento means House of the Wind!! I packed and drifted off to sleep to the sound of wind whistling through the trees.

Day 5: Meson do Vento to Ordes.
The  easiest day so far. I was up early. Antonio took my photo and I was off before 8 a.m. All downhill now. The view in front became more picturesque. Fields on corn, as high as the proverbial elephants eye, rolled out before me. Pine and eucalyptus trees lined the horizon. The road meandered on in front of me for miles. It was the first opportunity I got to reflect on what I was doing here. My son Brian had loaded some of Conor’s music on to my iPod. It began with Bob Dylan’s nasal tones singing Forever Young. This verse is on Conor’s headstone because that’s how he’ll always be to us: Forever Young.

 May God bless and keep you always  May your wishes all come true
 May you always do for others  And let others do for you
 May you build a ladder to the stars  And climb on every rung
 May you stay forever young  May you stay forever young

I walked to Ordes accompanied by Conor’s eclectic mix::Rex Sixsmith, The Beatles, The Beachboys, Johnny Cash, Simon and Garfunkel, Nina Simone, Kris Kristofferson, The Eagles. The day got hotter 38 deg. – I didn’t mind. Arrived in Ordes: Two of the worst clowns I have ever seen were performing in the square. Their act was simple – run around a lot, fat clown drops stick, thin clown kicks him up the behind, run round a lot, thin clown drops his money fat clown kicks him up the behind. The kids loved it. I bought some fruit for lunch. 2 peaches, 2 bananas, a bag of cherries and strawberries – all for the sum of €1.37 !!    Every cloud……….

Day 5: Ordes to Marantes:
I walked to Marantes. The local council had ‘ moved’ the Camino  and though I was not lost  I didn’t know where I was – there is a subtle difference. I called  Kevin as I approached this huge orange Telekin warehouse. Kevin found it on Google Earth. He told me I was 2 km from destination. I stayed in the small Hotel San Vicente in Marantes just 10km from Santiago. The owner was kind, gentle spoken man- anxious to help . I asked about dinner. ‘Fish?’’ He said.  I had fish every night so far. When I came down there was a home cooked spread laid out.  The hotel did not do dinner but the manager had arranged for his elderly mother to come in and cook. She was a gracious lady who served without haste and had dressed and made up and dressed as if she was entertaining the king. Boundless, Galecian hospitality.

Day 6. Marantes to Santiago.
Early morning goodbyes. The walk was now partly on the N550, a busy road with lots of traffic. There are other pilgrims out in front of me and way behind as I climbed. I was buzzing and there was no effort in the walk. I was now just 5km from Santiago and going great..A young Brazilian man passed me, He had – of all things – a hand held GPS Sat. Nav.  Oh !  St James if you could see us now following your way via satellite. I came up over a rise – there in front of me were the spires of the cathedral in Santiago. I couldn’t believe it but I knew it wasn’t a mirage. I called Margaret. I was overcome and I couldn’t speak. I think I said ‘’ I’ve made it ! I can see the cathederal – I’ll  call you back’’.  I reached the cathedral steps and the six  days  - 150 km – 35 deg.C – struggling up hill – dehydrated -  all disappeared. I just wished Conor could be here. I had arrived in Santiago four years to the day after he last left home.

Margaret and Kevin flew in on Saturday. We went to mass in the cathedral on Saturday night. There was an estimated 150,000 in the main square but when the three of us walked the last leg together early on Conor’s anniversary on Sunday morning as we went up through the old medieval town, it was empty. We walked into the square for mass at 12 noon. Our other two sons Fintan and Brian had arranged to pause at noon and in spirit at least, we were all together again.

I’m back safe and sound. It was a wonderful experience. A milestone for all our family A heartfelt thanks to everybody who helped me walk the Camino. I had a list and on Sunday in Santiago I made a point of remembering all of you. I had walked the Camino Ingles and though I was alone in a physical sense, there were many family, friends, neighbours and sponsors and my son Conor, who had walked with me. Deus bendiga a todos. God Bless you all.

Phot: Brendan O'Mahony
Brendan O'Mahony