Imagine celebrating Ireland’s national apostle, not in March, but in high summer.
It’s hard to visualise such an occasion for a national feast day, accompanied by barbecues and beach volleyball.
Yet, it could have happened, as July 24 is the feast day for a saint with credentials comparable, if not superior, to St Patrick.
Regarded by many historians as holding by far the strongest claim to the title of first Christian missionary to Ireland, St Declan is, nevertheless, virtually unknown outside his native Waterford.
This is now set to change with the re-opening of Ireland’s longest pilgrim route.
Dedicated to Saint Declan, the 104km spiritual trail linked the ancient monastic city of Ardmore with royal Cashel in early-Christian times.
Local tradition attributes the origin of the route to Waterford’s patron saint riding a chariot to Cashel in the 5th century.
There, he was proclaimed by St Patrick as bishop of his native Deise.
In the 19th century, the tradition was given additional credence when historians identified that many vestiges of the ancient route were still existent in both counties Waterford and Tipperary.
Overgrown and virtually forgotten, the trail remained long dormant but is now set to be revitalised.
In 2016, St Declan’s Way was awarded €150,000 funding under the Rural Recreation Fund for upgrade works to the path. The process of de-vegetating the route and adding the necessary trail furniture has now reached an advanced stage, with Declan’s Way scheduled to re-open in the coming spring.
Conor Ryan, chairman of the voluntary St Declan’s Way Steering Committee, believes that with the number of pilgrims completing the Spanish Camino rising to more than 300,000, the time is now opportune to revitalise Declan’s trail and thereby attract spirituality based visitors to Ireland.
He is confident that this new pilgrim route will, in future, “appeal strongly to walking enthusiasts because of its length and exceptional variety”.
“I expect it to attract visitors who have family ties to the towns and villages along the route. This year’s opening is part of a strategy to turn St Declan’s path into a major attraction bringing tourism spending to west Waterford and South Tipperary,” he says.
Kevin O’Donnell, an accommodation provider from Ardfinnan, conceived the idea for revitalising St Declan’s Pilgrim Path when he walked the Camino de Santiago, in Spain.
Now he wants St Declan’s Path to become an ‘Irish Camino’ and immediately points to the muscular credentials of the trail.
“St Declan’s will link Ardmore, Cappoquin, Lismore, Mount Melleray before then crossing a pass in the Knockmealdown Mountains to reach Ladysabbey, Cahir Castle and the Rock of Cashel. There is something of interest around almost every corner,” he believes.
To mark the re-opening, Knockmealdown Active are organising a guided walk of the entire route, starting on Saturday, March 31, offering a historic opportunity to walk the full length of the restored trail. For the convenience of participants, the walk will not be over consecutive days but in five stages on the last Saturday of March, April, May, June and July. Information from 086 3541700 or by visiting www.pilgrimpath.ie
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