Ancient pilgrim trail is Ireland’s answer to the Spanish Camino
Imagine if you could, celebrating Ireland’s national holiday not in March, but in the summer. It’s hard to visualize the event with barbecues and beach parties, isn’t it?
Yet it could have happened, because July 24th commemorates an Irish saint whose credentials are comparable to those of St Patrick. St Declan of Ardmore, considered by many historians to have preceded our national apostle as the first Christian missionary in Ireland, is nevertheless virtually unknown outside his native Waterford.
The murky world of medieval Church politics has a lot to answer for here. This allowed the deeply revered saint of the Diese region, Co Waterford, to fade from public consciousness as the northern church rose to prominence. History was then deftly 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 evangelizer of the Irish people.
St Declan’s Way winds through Tipperary and Waterford
Now Waterford’s patron saint must reclaim his heritage. An old pilgrimage route he walked is re-walked as a richly symbolic journey. The newly revived St Declan’s Way winds through captivating terrain in Tipperary and Waterford, commemorating the saint’s journey 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, Declan traveled from Ardmore to Cashel to meet Patrick. Here it was agreed that the Waterford saint would have undisputed authority over his native Deise, but Patrick would become the higher-profile primate of all Ireland.
But now Waterford’s patron saint is going to rise from relative obscurity to reclaim his pilgrim’s heritage. A fully upgraded 115km walking route commemorating his historic journey to Cashel has recently reopened.
Connecting Cashel with Ardmore, it follows the route Declan took on his way to meet Patrick. This means that Ireland now has a pilgrimage route comparable to the distance walked by most pilgrims visiting the Spanish Camino or St James. And it comes without the penalty of going through an airport.
St Declan’s Way can typically be completed in 3-6 days
St Declan’s Way is completed by fast walkers in three days, while many walkers finish in five. However, for a truly rewarding experience, you need time to enjoy the variety of landscapes, many antiquities and captivating views along the way. And to really relax into the simplicity, mindfulness, and reflection that comes with pilgrimage, I would suggest a more leisurely 6-day excursion this 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 stay.
It’s a great 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’s on through the picturesque village of Ardfinnan, where a monastery was founded by St Finnian in the 6th century. Finally, you pass the medieval Lady’s Abbey before crossing the Tar River and ending up near Goaten Bridge.
Today is the highlight of your walk: the Knocmealdown Mountains crossing. After a steady upward climb on benign paths, you reach a large tower built to honor the 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 wonderful descent to the mountain Cistercian Abbey at Mount Melleray, which makes for an unforgettable overnight stay.
This morning it’s country roads and grass paths that lead you past the stunning castle, owned by the Duke of Devonshire. Beyond is the magnificent heritage town of Lismore. It was founded as a monastery in the 7th century by St Carthage, and is worth taking an hour or two to explore. Leaving Lismore, by way of Lady Louisa’s walk. Continue south of the River Blackwater to reach Cappoquin 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. It was originally built to welcome the popular local gentleman, Francis Villiers Stuart, on his return from honeymoon in Brighton. Afterwards, rustic lanes and byways lead you to the deep country town of Aglish.
The final stage of your pilgrimage leads through Geosh and Mount Stuart, before picking up the lovely 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 just a short walk through fields and back roads to end spectacularly next to the great sweeping beach that leads to Ardmore and your journey’s end.
St Declan’s Way: Sport Ireland has approved the St Declan’s Way route in July 2021
There is a guided walk along all five stages of St Declan’s Way organized 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 guide to the Irish Pilgrimage Paths is available from bookshops and gillbooks.ie