Who was Ireland’s first Christian missionary? People in Waterford will almost universally answer – and many historians will agree – that it was Declan of Ardmore. From a royal family in the Deise region, he was first taught about Christ by a holy man named Dioma. A strong tradition holds that Declan then traveled to study Christianity in Rome and returned as a bishop to his native Waterford in the early 5th century.
Soon, however, he was disconcerted to hear tales of a newly arrived British-born evangelist who was also preaching the gospel. Who would become Ireland’s first bishop? To fix this, legend has it that Declan travels from Ardmore to Cashel to meet Patrick. Here it was agreed that the Saint of Waterford would have unquestioned authority over the Deise, while Patrick would become Primate of all Ireland – so face was saved on all sides.
A completely renovated 115km walking route commemorating this historic meeting was reopened last October by Rural and Community Development Minister Heather Humphreys. Connecting Cashel to Ardmore, it follows Declan’s journey en route to meeting Patrick. This means that Ireland now has a pilgrimage route comparable in length to that traveled by most pilgrims visiting the Spanish Camino.
Kevin O’Donnell is an Ardfinnese who is credited with the idea of revitalizing St Declan’s Way. He conceived his plan when he traveled the Camino and saw the economic benefits it had brought to an underdeveloped region in northwest Spain.
He now hopes that St Declan’s Way will become an “Irish Camino” and immediately points out the trail’s strong credentials. “The route connects the Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle and Ladysabbey before crossing a pass in the Knockmealdown Mountains to Mount Melleray Abbey. Continuing through Lismore and Cappoquin, it ends beautifully at Ardmore. Around almost every corner there is something of interest, and the route is the perfect length for a week’s walking holiday,” he says.
St Declan’s Way is, he says, “now on its way to becoming a major attraction, drawing tourist spending to west Waterford and south Tipperary”.
Grainne Moynihan, wife of Lismore, is on the management committee for St Declan’s Way. She thinks pilgrim walkers are a new kind of clientele for Irish tourism that should be warmly welcomed. “These are people who are looking for good value for money but who are also ready to treat themselves after a long day of walking. We now actively seek out these clients as they spend well and integrate easily into local communities.
“They focus their spending directly on rural and less developed areas, which car travelers don’t. Simply put, the Pilgrims’ March creates many very positive impacts for rural communities. »
As the road crosses the monastery grounds, the mountainside Cistercian Abbey of Mount Melleray is opening a pilgrims’ hostel to cope with the expected influx of visitors from St Declan’s Way. One of the monks overseeing this development is Father Denis Luke. He believes that increasing attendance is crucial for the survival of the abbey because “monasteries have always been places of safety and welcome for pilgrims, and it is important for Melleray to continue this tradition”. The new hostel, he believes, “will offer visitors a space to connect and deepen their faith.”
Dr Phil Brennan of Waterford Camino Tours has already guided several groups along St Declan’s Way. The march of the pilgrims is, according to him, more than an exercise in the open air. “It’s not an easy task to walk from Cashel to Ardmore, but in doing it many people discover a courage they never knew they had. The pilgrimage gives people time to process their thoughts, and once they’ve finished, they find their perspective on life has become clearer and more comforting.
St Declan’s pilgrimage route is now fully signposted and can be walked independently. Those who wish to be guided can join a stage three walking group tour on Saturday April 16, for Pilgrimage Week 2022, and stages four and five on April 30 and May 1. For more information and booking, see stdeclansway.ie.
John G O’Dwyer’s latest book 50 Best Easy to Moderate Irish Walks is published by Currach Books in April
walk the path
A tradition has developed that St Declan’s Way is traveled south from Cashel to Ardmore. The route was covered by fast walkers in three days, while many pilgrim trekkers finish in five days. For a rewarding experience, however, and time to absorb the variety of scenery and plenty of antiquities along the way, I’d suggest a more leisurely six-day outing as below.
Stage 1 – Cashel to Cahir, 21 km
From the iconic Rock of Cashel, you’ll pass a ruined Dominican abbey and the magnificent Georgian Church of Ireland Cathedral before following quiet roads to the ancient monastic site of Lough Kent. From here the road continues south before dogleg west to reach historic Cahir and your first night.
Stage 2 – Cahir west of Goatenbridge, 18 km
It’s a wonderful start today, as you follow the River Suir south past the ramparts of Great Butler Castle and continue to the ornamental bridge leading to Swiss Cottage – a fine example of an ‘ornate cottage’ from the Nineteenth century. Then it’s through the picturesque village of Ardfinnan, where a monastery was established in the 6th century by St Finnian. Finally, you pass the medieval Lady’s Abbey before crossing the River Tar and ending near Goatenbridge.
Stage 3 – West of Goatenbridge to Mount Melleray Abbey, 20km
Today is the highlight of your walk: crossing the Knocmealdown Mountains. After a steady ascent on benign trails, you reach a large tower built in honor of Republican leader Liam Lynch, who was shot here during the Civil War. Then it’s over a pass known locally as the Crois for a great descent to the famous Cistercian abbey of Mont Melleray, making for an unforgettable night.
Stage 4 – Mont Melleray to Cappoquin, 17km
This morning, country lanes and quiet back roads lead you past the breathtaking castle, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. Beyond is the beautiful heritage town of Lismore. It was founded as a monastery in the 7th century by St Carthage and is well worth an hour or two to explore. Leave Lismore with regret, by the walk of Lady Louisa. Continue south of the Blackwater River to reach Cappoquin crossing an elegant bridge for your overnight stay.
Stage 5 – Cappoquin to Aglish, 15 km
Today you head south to the spectacular Hindu Gothic Gateway and the bridge leading to the Dromana House. It was originally built to accommodate the local lord, Francis Villiers Stuart, on his return from his honeymoon in Brighton. Then, rustic lanes and back roads lead you to the deeply rural village of Aglish.
Stage 6 – Aglish to Ardmore, 24km
The last leg of your pilgrimage passes through Geosh and Mount Stuart, before returning to the beautiful and sylvan St Declan’s Road. This takes you over the River Licky to a junction of the busy M25 at Grange. Now it’s only a short hike through fields and along side roads to finish dramatically along the wide beach to Ardmore and the end of your journey.