Each pilgrim with The Trust is assigned to a group and are identified in Lourdes by their group number. From the first moment at the airport each pilgrim becomes familiar with this number and wears it with pride during the week in Lourdes. While there can be a certain reservation by 'new' comers at the beginning of the week within a few days it becomes the most natural thing in the world. Often it is only when we return to Irish soil that we become self-conscious of walking around with funny hats, colourful sweatshirts and numbers!
Easter Sunday is our day for travelling! Lift off is from Dublin, Belfast, Shannon and Cork. Our pilgrimage is more than a thousand pilgrims - some 450 young people and around 600 adult helpers. We leave Ireland for TARBES airport, just 10km from Lourdes. When we arrive we are ferried by a fleet of coaches to our hotels in Lourdes. Uniquely our pilgrimage does not use the hospital at Lourdes: we stay in many of the hotels that have mushroomed around the grotto.
Our groups are generally 24 or 25 people and they form a family for the week. In this group most activities take place: group masses, visits to the grotto and the places in the town and Bartres associated with the life of St Bernadette, trips to McDonalds and generally an excursion to Gavarnie up in the mountains.
Sunday is a busy day. Often it means an early start. Pre-Lourdes meetings have taken place with parents and
guardians, pick up points along the route agreed, times and phone numbers double checked. No matter how much planning there is always a last minute question or query and then full steam ahead to the airport.
The airports are usually a hive of activity: we cause a stir! Often helpers from yester-year make themselves available at the airport checking-in desks to smooth the process. Lift off is the moment that everybody waits for.
Tarbes airport is a small airport that has in recent years been completely reconstructed with the needs of pilgrims uppermost in the plans. When we arrive we are greeted at passport control where the officers have become accustomed to the arrival of The Trust groups - our pilgrimage announces the start of the new pilgrimage year. Together with HCPT we are the largest English speaking pilgrimage in Lourdes each year.
Somewhat tired but excited after the journey many pilgrims set up base in the hotel and after a quick bite to eat are off to pay a visit to the grotto. The Irish Pilgrimage Trust organises a Mass on Easter Sunday evening and this for many is the first introduction to the wonderful lively prayerful liturgies of the week.
Evening meal in the hotel is often followed by a fire and safety check in the hotel, maybe a quick visit to watch the candle light procession and then an early night to regain strength and energy for the week ahead.