An appreciation: John Brierley (RIP). El CAMINO (The Irish Times)

Dublin, By Jim Yates, July 17th 2023 (THE IRISH TIMES) 

All who walk the Camino become part of a worldwide family. John was the father of that family

Born: April 2nd, 1948.

Died: July 2nd, 2023

John Brierley was a self-effacing man who never courted publicity and rarely gave interviews, and to most of the public he was unknown. But to those who love outdoor life, hiking, hill walking and especially walking the Camino, he was a hero, inspirational and well loved.

He was a former chartered surveyor who set up a successful business in Dublin. In midlife he found that his business was dominating his time. He was irritable and working long hours with little time for family life and had reached an existential crisis. He decided to take a year’s sabbatical from his work and he, with a camper van, his wife and two children, headed off to travel the world and “find himself”, as the saying goes.

When in France he came across the small town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de Port, snuggled up into the foothills of the Pyrenees, a place that would change the course of his life. He noticed people with backpacks with scallop shells hanging from them and hiking sticks at the ready, busying themselves for a day’s hike. He asked what was going on and was told this was the beginning of the Camino Frances, a gruelling 900km pilgrim walk to Santiago Compostela in western Spain. There was a feeling about the place that caught his imagination and he knew that one day he would walk it.

Two years later he did, and it transformed his life in so many ways and at the end of the journey he knew which path in life to take. On arriving home, he gave up his secure, pensionable and well-paid job and moved to Findhorn, a spiritual retreat in Scotland where later his family joined him. They lived there in a caravan for seven years. His wife agreed with his life-changing decision, she had her husband back and their children had a less stressed-out father and they were never happier.

When walking the Camino, he noticed there was no comprehensive map covering the whole journey, so using his expertise as a surveyor he compiled his first of many Camino guides, complete with detailed maps, accommodation listings and the history of the villages, towns and cities and places of interest along the way with miscellaneous hints and suggestions to help make the journey more bearable.

Since then, his guides cover all Camino’s routes, run into many editions and have been translated into many languages. To keep them up to date he walked all the routes on a regular basis and did his last one earlier this year. He returned home where he finally succumbed to the three kinds of cancer he had been battling with for some years.

John was one of those rare individuals who could inspire people to do things they thought themselves incapable of doing such as carrying your home on your back and walking 900km over three mountain ranges and across a hot and arid landscape. Or to believe in themselves when they felt the world was against them. Many hikers have little experience and John’s guides are a lifeline to those novices. John was like the father of the Camino family. All who walk the Camino become part of that worldwide family.

People walk the Camino for many different reasons; some are out for adventure, some to test their endurance or their capacity to stretch themselves to the limit or to simply have fun and meet people from all over the world. Many are carrying heavy burdens, have suffered unbearable sorrow and loss in their lives, some with broken hearts and others with terminal illnesses. The reason why John was so special was because he had empathy with those suffering a personal crisis, those who were struggling with life. He had overcome his own struggle and understood how hard theirs was as they made their way on the road to Santiago.

His mantra in life was simple: have an open mind, an open heart and be kind.

May his good soul rest in peace

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