Across the bay was Mine Head and below us yachts sailed the deep blue sea.
Leaving the trailhead, we keep the sea on our left and pass St Declan’s Church, named for the 5th century saint who Christianised the Decies people before St Patrick’s arrival in AD 431. Ardmore is believed to be the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland.
The pavement is a ‘promenade’, overlooking the beach and inner bay. Ardmore’s plentiful and informative interpretation boards with maps are a welcome feature of the route. Opposite the pavement, a line of antique ‘thatched’ cottages -actually skilfully painted ‘flats’ as used on a stage set — are a colourful wayside attraction.
The street climbs past the pier. An ornamental garden with a limestone plaque relating the legendary history St Declan’s Stone overlooks the bay. At the Cliff House Hotel, a leafy path takes us the ruin of St Declan’s Church and the well where he baptised converts; on Pattern Sunday in late July hundreds visit this shrine. All that stands is the east gable, a wall to the right and the well at the other end of what would have been the floor of the small chapel. The stone-carved, time-worn religious statuettes and the icon above the well are fascinating. Flowering valerian, bright purple against the sky, dramatically set off the latter. Unfortunately, some latter-day un-Christians have scratched crude crosses on the stones, a great pity, and an ugly defilement of this ancient and beautiful artefact.
Continuing along the narrow path, bordered by wildflowers, we overlook cliffs and coves and then, by complete surprise, come upon a tall, broad, half-tilted pylon of rusted steel lying in against the cliff below us, the wreck of a 180ft Maltese-owned crane-barge being towed from Liverpool to Valletta in 1987. Gulls roost on it and divers explore the seafloor beneath. Pearly-grey fulmar soar and glide around the wreck on rigid wings and nest on cliff ledges nearby.
Now, off to the right is a concrete, turreted tower, one of 81 watchtowers built around the coast after a Napoleonic fleet was spotted off Bantry in 1796. In summer, the meadow around it is deep pink with carpets of clover. Westward, one sees three farther towers; fires lit on one would alert the others of an invading fleet.
Nearby is The Lookout Post, dating from World War II. Interestingly, a signboard illustrates Fin, Humpback, Minke Whales, Dolphins and Basking Sharks, and records the dates of the sightings in the bay below.
Farther along, Fr O’Donnell’s Well, built of unmortared stone, might have been erected by medieval Christians, but dates from 1928, when locals raised it in memory of the priest, who daily read his office in this quiet place.
The path now takes us inland, between fields, and after a dirt track, we reach a tarred road, keeping left. Ahead is the graceful Round Tower of the “cathedral“, built in the 12th. century, and having a magnificent frieze of stone carvings (the “arcade”) on the gable wall depicting bible stories. Two ancient Ogham stones are kept within the roofless cathedral walls. Also on the site is that the 8th century St Declan’s Oratory, said to be the saint’s burial place.
Town streets, passing two pretty whitewashed, thatched cottages, return us to our trailhead near the beach.
Castlebar International Four Days Walk Festival, July 3-6
Since its inception nearly fifty years ago, this festival has grown steadily in popularity and now attracts walkers from all over the world. With three walks on each of the four days, ranging from country rambles to 20km road walks, this festival has something to offer all walkers. The bars and hostelries of Castlebar will welcome the footsore walkers each evening, with several special events planned, including a ‘Traditional Irish Night’ in the Welcome Inn Hotel on Thursday. See castlebar4dayswalks.com for further details and registration.
Midleton Hillwalking Club, midletonhillwalkers.com
JUN 2: Wednesday walk, Marlogue Loop, Cobh, 2hrs, meet Distillery Lanes Car Park, Middleton, 7pm.
JUN 6: Cahergal Loop, Sheep’s Head, grade C+, 4.5hrs, meet Distillery Lanes Car Park, Midleton, 8.45am.
Kenmare Walking Club, kenmarewalking.com
JUN 6: Killaha to Mucksna walk, suitable for all walkers, meet the Square, Killarney, 11am.