History of the Irish Trust

The Irish Pilgrimage Trust - almost 50 years old

England 1954. A small group of young people with special needs set out for Lourdes, led by a young doctor.

From this unobtrusive beginning The Pilgrimage Trust and subsequently The Irish Pilgrimage Trust and other associated groups have grown over the past 50 years. 

The story begins in Chailey Heritage Craft School in Sussex where a young doctor, Michael Strode, worked. Here with the support of the Warden at Chailey the idea of The Pilgrimage Trust began to take shape.


Prompted by the work of the Anglican chaplain who organised holidays for some of the young people in the school Dr Michael and Peter Keevney, assisted by two other adults, planned a trip to Lourdes. With the support of the Duke of Norfolk, Dr Michael, Peter Keevney, two other adults and four young people from Chailey set out for Lourdes with the Birmingham Diocesan Pilgrimage. In 1955 a second pilgrimage departed for Lourdes. This time they travelled with the National Schools Pilgrimage at Easter and received a great welcome from Bishop Bright, who took an immediate interest in the group. On the journey home Bishop Bright suggested a dramatic extension to the work: he suggested that Dr Michael and his helpers extend their work to include more schools and institutions. The challenge was accepted and in order to appeal for funds a charitable trust was established in 1956. The numbers grew from an initial 43 young people with 28 helpers in 1957 (at a cost of 25 pounds per pilgrim), to 81 young people and 62 helpers in 1961.

Group 19 photographed in Lourdes during the Easter Pilgrimage 1969.

The numbers in 1963 were 168 young people and 173 adults. This prompted Michael Strode to write that ‘both administratively and economically I think we are moving towards the summit’ and to acknowledge in 1964 an evolving tradition within The Pilgrimage Trust to be ‘that target figures would often be comfortably exceeded by the day of departure’!

Early travel schedules were a bit different to those of today: on the day of departure the pilgrimage would meet at Victoria Station in the afternoon where tea would be served. Then at about 5.30 everyone made their way to Westminster Cathedral for Benediction and then back to Victoria where the journey began: by train to the channel crossing that took place around midnight, departure from Boulogne at 2.30am and arrival at Lourdes at 6.30pm or so. It was ten years before air transport was considered: 251 young people travelled by plane in 1965 from Gatwick and Heathrow airports and in 1970 flights from Edinburgh and Manchester became a reality.

Expansion continued in England and in 1971 the first Irish group joined The Pilgrimage Trust's and the first group travelled in April 1972 on pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Anthea O’Grady takes up the story from there:

As the Irish organisation grew and gradually became a separate Trust, The Pilgrimage Trust also expanded and found new areas of work. In the mid 70’s the Trustees of The Pilgrimage Trust agreed that Group 38 based in the South West of England would bring nine young people with learning disabilities. This group included parents, and most importantly, the professional experience that care of these young people needed. Groups that would invite young adults with special needs were also established. Called ‘Jet Set’ these groups invite young adults to travel to Lourdes during Easter Week. In 1972 a separate Trust was established to explore the possibility of having a property in Lourdes. In 1974 the Trustees purchased a small hotel called the Domaine Regina in Bartres and renamed it Hosanna House. In the intervening years a chapel has been added and extensive renovation and remodelling work has adapted the building for special needs.

Expansion continued intenationally. In 1985 a group from The West Indies under the leadership of Pokar Chandiram brought four young people and four adults at Easter. This group has now expanded to other parts of the West Indies.

Bishop Bright greets some of The Pilgrimage Trust pilgrims during an early pilgrimage. Pictured also is Fr Michael Bryne.

The picture was taken on the 12th April 1972 as the First Irish Group returned home from Lourdes

In 1996, The Pilgrimage Trust and The Irish Pilgrimage Trust co-sponsored a group from Slovakia. Fr Hugh O'Byrne of The Irish Pilgrimage Trust, then a governor on The Pilgrimage Trust Board, was an active member of the group who helped this fledgling extension of the work of The Pilgrimage Trust in Slovakia. In 1999 a group from Romania joined the Easter pilgrimage. Significantly in 1994 a group from America travelled to Lourdes for the Easter Pilgrimage. Preparation for this extension was again jointly encouraged by The Pilgrimage Trust and The Irish Pilgrimage Trust. Joe Earley, Michael McGloin, Moyna Troddyn and Willie Loughnane travelled to New York with members of The Pilgrimage Trust headquarters to assist the organisers in America - many of them with strong immediate Irish backgrounds.

In 2004 a group from Croatia joined the Easter Pilgrimage. Here again the influence of The Irish Pilgrimage Trust helper living in Zagreb encouraged a number of young people to come to Lourdes in 2003 when they joined Irish groups. Travel to Lourdes in 2004 was via Paris but for the 2005 pilgrimage this very innovative group teamed up with an Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Croatia and travelled over land in a former Jumbulance Bus - an interesting connection with the early years of The Pilgrimage Trust through their contact with the Jumbulance pilgrims from England and Dick Clitheroe.