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The First Irish Pilgrimage to Rome was in 1893 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII.  Two hundred and twenty five pilgrims took the following route:

Fr J Nolan CC Ballymena accompanied the pilgrimage as Special Correspondent of the Irish News and Belfast Morning News. 

I read the diary he kept and found it really enthralling.  I tried to imagine how those people, particularly the woman, dressed in the fashion of the day, travelling so far by train, boat and horse carriage.  I decided you too might like to know what happened during the month the pilgrims were travelling.    This is my edited version of their travels.

I have added some pictures taken from Fr Nolan's book and some  photographs and pictures of my own of the various locations.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Breda Waterson


Belfast to Dublin Monday 6th February 1893
Pilgrims travelled by train from Belfast to Dublin en route to Rome.  They booked into the ‘Gresham’ and then made their way to the Church of the Oblate Fathers, Inchicore where all other pilgrims were assembling for Rosary and Benediction.  The church was decorated with evergreens, banner and lights.  A banner which was to be carried in Rome by the pilgrims was produced by the Sisters of Charity.  It was made of white Irish poplin, trimmed with the richest gold lace.  The pilgrims were given badges which they were to wear at all times.
Dublin to London Tuesday 7 February 1893

Pilgrims boarded the ship ‘Rose’ at the North Wall, Dublin to depart at 9 am on their way to Holyhead.  The two hundred and fifty lay people were accompanied by ninety priest and three Bishops. 

London to Brussels Wednesday 8 February 1893

Pilgrims arrived at Chatham and Dover Railway Station and board their special train which departed for Dover at 9 55 am.  The train ran alongside the special steamer and the pilgrims quickly boarded.  Four hours later it arrived in Ostend, Belgium. 

Brussels to Lucerne Switzerland Thursday 9 February 1893

This morning the pilgrims were to leave for the railway station shortly after 6 am.  At the station it was discovered that some people had managed a quick trip back to see the Royal Palace again.

Switzerland to Milan Friday 10 February 1893

Breakfast today was at 8 am and then the pilgrims made their way to the Cathedral of St Leodegar where a ‘Grand Organ Concert’ was being held in their honour from 9-10 am.  There was a short time for sight-seeing before they left Lucerne at 11 am.

Milan Saturday 11 February 1893

After a good night’s rest and breakfast the pilgrims went to inspect the city.  Leonardo da Vinci had lived in Milan from 1494 to 1516 and there were many sculptures to be seen, two thousand of these were on the exterior of the Cathedral.  The building of the Cathedral, dedicated to ‘Mariae Nascenti’ started in 1387 and was not completed.  It had a capacity to hold forty thousand people.

Milan to Ancona,Italy Sunday 12 February 1893

All the Bishops and clergy had been granted permission by the Vicar General of Milan to celebrate Mass in any Church.  By 9 30 am everyone was comfortably seated on the special train which was to take them to Ancona in the elbow of Italy.

A visit to Loretto Monday 13 February 1893

The train left for Loretto at 9 35 am carrying the main body of pilgrims.  Many of the priests had taken an earlier train in order to celebrate Mass at the holy shrine. 

Ancona, Assisi and Rome Tuesday 14 February 1893

The train left Ancona for Rome at 8 25 am and around noon arrived at the town of Foligno, the junction for Assisi.  As all the pilgrims wanted to visit Assisi they paid an extra fee and their section of the train was shunted onto that line and they soon found themselves at the station in Assisi.

View on the way up the mountain to Assisi

Rome Wednesday 15 February
Today was Ash Wednesday and the pilgrims assembled at the Church of St Agatha, which is attached to the Irish College.  In the vestibule of the Church they were met by Fr Kelly, Rector of the Irish College.  He presented to each pilgrim a programme of the officially arranged events planned for them.
Rome Thursday 16th February

In Rome there are more than three hundred and sixty Catholic churches, each remarkable for their architecture, their paintings and decorations.  The pilgrims wanted to try to visit some of the most notable.  At 9 o’clock they assembled in the Church of St Clement, which is situated in the street leading from the Colosseum to the Basilica of St John Lateran, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.




Rome and a visit to Naples, Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius Friday 17 February 1893

This morning at 9 am the main body of pilgrims met in the Basilica of St Mary Maggoire. 


Side chapel

This is the largest Church of Our Lady in the world and is dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Snow’.  A shower of snow fell on the site of the Basilica on 15 August 363 and was taken as an indication that Our Lady wished the church to be erected on the spot.  It contains a portion of Our Lord’s Crib, which is exposed on Christmas Eve and also the bodies of St Matthias and St Pius V.

Rome Saturday 18 February 1893

Today the pilgrims assembled in the Basilica of St John Lateran where Mass was celebrated by the Most Rev Dr McCormack, Lord Bishop of Galway.  This basilica is dedicated to St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist.  It is the Cathedral Church of Rome.  Its greatest treasure is the Holy Table of the Last Supper.  This relic is kept above the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, and is exposed on Holy Thursday and December 21, the feast of St Thomas.  In the gothic tabernacle of the Papal altar are preserved the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, and a number of other extraordinary relics, including a wooden altar on which St Peter said Mass.  Five Ecumenical Councils had been held in this church between 1123 and 1512

The Jubilee Mass in Rome Sunday 19 February 1893

Today the group were attending the Jubilee Mass in Peter’s and arrived at
7 am to find thousands of pilgrims already there. 


It was said that over two hundred and twenty thousand pilgrims gathered in the Basilica and in St Peter’s Square.
The group, proudly carrying their banner, eventually gained entry to the Basilica and found that they had a splendid view of the high altar and the greater portion of the church.  All around them were banners of different nationalities and members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, all wearing their full uniform.

    Statue of St Peter                   Interior of St Peter's
in Basilica of St Peter, Rome           Basilica, Rome


Tomb of St Peter in the crypt of St Peter's Basilica                                                  

Rome Monday 20 February 1893

Today the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of Mass for the Irish pilgrims in a small temporary oratory at the new Irish Augustinian Monastery in the Via Boncompagni.  Construction of The Church of St Patrick, which is to adjoin the monastery,  had recently begun and some people were disappointed that it had not progressed further. 

The Papal Audience Tuesday 21 February 1893

On the first wet day of the pilgrimage, as was the custom for such an occasion, the pilgrims travelled to St Peter’s Square by carriage. 

The beautiful banner which had been produced by the Sisters of Charity, with the picture of Pope Leo XIII on one side and St Patrick on the other led them as they made their way into the audience chamber.

First the ladies, walking in twos, the lay gentlemen and the clergy came last.

Rome to Florence Wednesday 22 February 1893
Today the pilgrims left Rome by special train to journey to Florence.  During their time in Italy they had really missed ‘a nice cup of tea’ so they were delighted to have tea made for them by the travellers in the next carriage.  Scarcely had they finished their tea when the axle of the back carriages caught fire and the train had to stop while repairs were carried out.  They eventually continued and travelled through vineyards and tunnels and over bridges, arriving in Florence at 6 30pm.
A glimpse of Florence Thursday 23 February 1893

After assisting at Holy Mass in a church near their hotel the pilgrims set out to explore the beautiful City of Florence.  Florence is situated in a plain and surrounded by hills.  The river Arno divides the city into two but four bridges allow for ease of travel.  The group were determined to see the churches before anything else.

Florence to Pisa Friday 24 February 1893

After an early breakfast the group left by train for Pisa.  On arrival, afraid they might miss out something of interest, they hired a guide and set out to explore.  As usual, the first place visited was the Cathedral which is built entirely of white marble with black and coloured ornamentation.

Genoa to Nice Saturday 25 February 1893

With only a short time available in Genoa the plan was – visit the Cathedral, Church of St Ambrose, Church of St Matthew, Church of the Annunciation and the house in which O’Connell died.

Nice to Avignon Sunday 26 February 1893

The pilgrims attended early mass in the Church of Notre Dame before alighting the train.  They passed some beautiful scenery as they travelled through Cannes, Antibes and the lovely Bay of Agay before stopping briefly at Frejus for refreshments.  They had intended staying in Marseilles but, owing to an outbreak of cholera in the town, were advised to proceed to Avignon.

Avignon to Lyons Monday 27 February 1893

After a good night’s rest the group members set forth to visit places of interest in Avignon.  First, at the Grand Central Square, they saw the Town Hall and the Pope’s Palace where the Pope had resided for many years during his exile from Rome. 

Then the group visited the Cathedral before returning to the station.  Their arrival in Lyons was witness by a very large crowd who seemed pleased and delighted to see the Irish pilgrims.

Lyons to Paris Tuesday 28 February 1893

The pilgrims attended early Mass in the Church of Notre Dame de Fourviere and after breakfast made their way to the station.  After a long journey they arrived in Paris at midnight.

A day in Paris Wednesday 1 March 1893

The Irish pilgrims assembled for Mass at the Cathedral of the National Vow, Montmatre.  The foundations had been laid in 1881 and money was still being collected from every parish and convent in France.  Those who donated had their name are inscribed separate stones.  The dome had not yet been roofed over.

Paris to London Thursday 2 March 1893
This morning the travellers left Paris for Calais.  They had a pleasant crossing from Calais to Dover where a special train was waiting to take them to London.  Before retiring to bed the travellers were keen to read the London evening papers.  It was the eighty third birthday of the Pope and they wanted to know how he had spent his day.
London to Dublin Friday 3 March 1893

The Irish pilgrims left London to travel to Holyhead where a splendid paddle steamer waited to take them back to Ireland.  Many admitted feeling relief and regret as they stepped on board.  The sea was rough and the travellers said a prayer of thanksgiving as the Dublin Harbour lights were sighted.


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