Imagine if you can, celebrating Ireland’s national holiday not in March, but in summer. It's hard to visualise the occasion with barbecues and beach parties, isn't it?
Yet, it could have happened, because July 24 commemorates an Irish saint whose credentials are comparable to those of St Patrick. Regarded by many historians as having predated our national apostle as the first Christian missionary in Ireland, St Declan of Ardmore is, nevertheless, virtually unknown outside his native Waterford.
The murky world of medieval Church politics has much to answer for here. It allowed the deeply venerated saint of the Déise region, Co Waterford to fade from the public consciousness when the northern Church rose to prominence. History was then adroitly rewritten to suit the needs of the time. Patrick, the first Bishop of Armagh, was promulgated above Declan and others as the first and single-handed evangeliser of the Irish people.
Now Waterford’s patron saint is to reclaim his inheritance. An ancient pilgrim trail that he footed is being walked again as a richly symbolic journey. Meandering through captivating terrain in Tipperary and Waterford, the newly revitalised St Declan’s Way commemorates the saint’s excursion from his monastery at Ardmore to the royal seat at Cashel.
He was drawn to Cashel by the arrival in Ireland of a British-born evangelist who was also preaching the gospel. Who would become the leading apostle of the Irish? To sort this out, tradition has Declan travelling from Ardmore to Cashel to meet Patrick. Here, it was agreed that the Waterford saint would have unchallenged authority over his native Deise, but Patrick would become the higher-profile primate of all Ireland.
But now Waterford’s patron saint is set to rise from relative obscurity to reclaim his pilgrim his inheritance. A fully upgraded, 115km walking route commemorating his historic journey to Cashel was re-opened recently.
Linking Cashel with Ardmore, it follows the route taken by Declan on his way to meet Patrick. This means that Ireland now has a pilgrim trail that is comparable to the distance walked by most pilgrims visiting the Spanish Camino of St James. And it comes without the penitential experience of passing through an airport.
St Declan’s Way has been completed by speedy walkers in three days, while many hikers finish in five. For a really rewarding experience, however, you need time to savour the variety of landscapes many antiquities and captivating views along the way. And to really relax into the simplicity, mindfulness and reflection that goes with pilgrim walking, I would suggest a more leisurely 6-day outing in the coming spring or summer:
From the iconic Rock of Cashel, you pass a ruined Dominican Abbey and the magnificent Georgian, Church of Ireland Cathedral before following quiet roads to the ancient monastic site at Lough Kent. Here, the route continues south before dog-legging west to reach historic Cahir and your first overnight.
It is a magnificent start today, as you follow the River Suir south past the ramparts of the great Butler Castle at Cahir and continue to reach the ornamental bridge leading to the Swiss Cottage — a fine example of a 19th-century cottage orné. Then, it is on through the picturesque village of Ardfinnan, where a monastery was established in the 6th century by St Finnian. Finally, you pass medieval Lady’s Abbey before crossing the River Tar and ending nearby Goatenbridge.
Today is the highlight of your walk: the Knocmealdown Mountains crossing. After a steady upward ascent on benign paths, you reach a large tower constructed to honour republican leader Liam Lynch, who was shot here during the Civil War. Then, it is over a pass known locally as the Crois for a great sweeping descent to the mountainside Cistercian Abbey at Mount Melleray, which makes for an unforgettable overnight.
This morning, it is country lanes and grassy roads leading you past the breathtaking castle, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. Beyond is the magnificent heritage town of Lismore. This was founded as a monastery in the 7th century by St Carthage, and is well worth taking an hour or two to explore. Leave Lismore, by way of Lady Louisa’s walk. Continue south of the River Blackwater to reach Cappoquin by crossing an elegant bridge for your overnight stay.
Today you head south and pass through the spectacular Hindu Gothic gateway and bridge leading to Dromana House. This was originally built to welcome the popular local lord, Francis Villiers Stuart, on his return from honeymoon in Brighton. Afterwards, rustic lanes and tiny roads convey you to the deeply rural village of Aglish.
The final stage of your pilgrimage leads by Geosh and Mount Stuart, before picking up the lovely and sylvan, St Declan’s Road. This carries you over the River Licky to a crossing of the busy M25 at Grange. Now, it is but a short ramble through fields and back roads to finish spectacularly along the great sweeping beach that leads into Ardmore and your journey’s end.
There is a guided walk along all five stages of St Declan’s Way, organised by the Knockmealdown Active volunteer group for March and April. Booking here.
- Further information on completing the route at stdeclansway.ie
- John G O’Dwyer’s guidebook to the Irish Pilgrim Paths is available from bookshops and gillbooks.ie