Pilgrim paths

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

ON THE PILGRIM PATHS IN THE LAND OF SAINTS AND SCHOLARS

At a time when 200,000 weary pilgrims a year queue up for their certificate in Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain, walkers in Ireland are re-discovering their own, much less visited Caminos.

Way before a religious hermit stumbled upon the bones of St. James in 814AD and kick started what has become the most popular long distance hike in the world, Pagans and then Christians were following ancient paths to sacred sites throughout Ireland.

Barefoot pilgrim on summit of Croagh Patrick

The pilgrimage to the hallowed peak of Croagh Patrick overlooking the 365 islands of Clew Bay in Mayo existed 3,000 BC and was popularized by the Patron Saint of Ireland 500 years before St. James’ way got going. It still draws 30,000 people to the summit on the last Sunday in July, or Reek Sunday.

Croagh Patrick's well worn scree slope

Patrick is also associated with an Island in Lough Derg, Co Donegal, attracting pilgrims from all over Europe since medieval times – a site so important that it was the only Irish place named on a world map of 1492.

There are other, more unfamiliar paths now being promoted as walking trails with a difference and together they make up about a dozen routes over 250 kms of tranquil country lanes, stone paved tracks, paths through meadows and forests, across heather moor and bog lands and over rocky mountain summits, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe.

In County Mayo the 30km Tóchar Phadraig (St Patrick’s Causeway) was in use in Pagan times as the Royal Road to Cruachan Aille, the original name for Croagh Patrick and during its clearance by a local initiative ancient stone flagstones came to light indicating its archeological pedigree.

The route leaves from Ballintubber Abbey and meanders over low lying fields and through a serene and timeless landscape dotted with a round tower, holy wells, druidic sites, famine graves,
medieval churches, mass rocks and sacred stones, including the miraculous rock of Boheh. This cup and circle marked stone from around 3,000BC was the focal point of Sun worshippers and used to divide the year into 3 in prehistoric times when standing at this spot at sunset on April 18th and August 24th the Sun lands on the very peak of Croagh Patrick and then proceeds to roll or slide down the Northern slope, the angle of setting Sun and mountain side matching exactly – a truly jaw dropping sight. Even without witnessing this phenomena the view of the iconic quartzite cone of ‘the Reek”, visable for most of the way, is what draws you irrepressibly onward.

Slieve League donegal, a pilgrim destination for over 1000 years

Other ways in the West include the spectacular Slieve League Pilgrim path with its 400m sea cliffs in Co Donegal and , in Connemara in Co Galway, the mountain pass of Maumeen – another Druidic sacred site that became overlaid with Christianity.

The gateway to St Patricks oratory at Maumeen

Statue of St Patrick at Maumeen co. galway

Two of the most striking and atmospheric of these age old paths are in the scenic Southwest and can both be enjoyed in a long weekend.
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Cosán No Naomh (The Saint’s Road) Dingle, Kerry. 24 km

The enchanting Dingle peninsula is the northern most of the five fingers of land jutting out into the Atlantic from Ireland’s southwestern coastline and near its western tip is glorious golden Ventry beach

Ventry Beach - the start of Cosan na Naomh (The Saints Road)

– the trail head for a centuries old path traditionally culminating 952 m higher, atop Mount Brandon, the highest peak in the country outside of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks.

Approaching the 952m summit of Mt Brandon

The summit of Brandon was, like Croagh Patrick, the scene of pre Christian revelry celebrating the festival of Lughnasa in honour of Lug ,the God of the Pagan Celts ,at the end of July. Come Christianity and the mountain was appropriated by St Brendan who supposedly spent time on the summit praying for a safe return from his sea voyage to America in a leather skinned currach nearly 1,000 years before Columbus.

From the beach it’s a relatively flat 18 km walk along tranquil ,fuschia lined backroads and fields to the grotto at the base of Mount Brandon from where a more arduous 6 km return hike to the Summit will reward you with breath taking views of the dramatic coastal and mountain scenery (if not shrouded in fairly common mist and cloud!)

The graveyard of the 12th century Kilmalkedar church on the Cosan na Naomh

The route will certainly envelop you in the mists of time and takes in many ancient sites of interest including bee hive huts, holy wells, Churches, Ogham stones and the iconic Gallans Oratory whose dry stone sloping roof and walls have been keeping out the driving rain for 1,000 years.

The view west to the Blasket Islands from Mt Brandon

The route is well marked with posts sporting a yellow pilgrim symbol and directional arrows which will lead you across this beautiful Irish speaking area.

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Saint Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way – West Cork . 36 km
Drimoleague to Kealkill 22km / Kealkill to Gougane Barra 14 km

Starting at the Top of the Rock, Drimoleague, this two day walk follow’s in the footsteps of Cork’s Patron Saint Finbarr who visited in the 6th Century before setting off to Gougane Barra to set up his monastery in what became Ireland’s first National Park.

Kealkill megalithic stone circle and standing stones

There is a fine Walking Centre at Top of the Rock which as well as dispensing information on the many walks in the area offers transport, luggage transfers and accommodation for campers or in a range of wooden glamping “pods” and makes for a good base whilst undertaking this trail (topoftherock.ie).

Reckoned by John G. O’Dwyer, author of Pilgrim Paths in Ireland, to be the finest of them all this route reveals some of the best scenery in West Cork as it traverses three mountain systems and four river valleys.

The old mass path, St FinbarrsWay on the Ilen River

Serene and gentle at times alongside rushing streams and through lush green meadows the way becomes more demanding when it rises on old bog roads and forest tracks to cross the higher uplands and open mountainside, before reaching the cliffs overlooking the tranquil lake of Gougane Barra.

The bog road at Glanaclohy on St Finbarr's Way passes massive glacial erratics

It is this variety in the trail and the far reaching views of Bantry Bay and the mountains surrounding it that make this such a special walk that well rewards the effort put in on and rocky and boggy stretches.

The peninsulars below St Finbarrs Way reaching out into the Atlantic

Although mostly in the wild western counties there are pilgrim paths in other areas including, in the south, the 96km St Declan’s Way from Ardmore in Waterford to the Rock of Cashel in Co Tipperary which crosses the Knockmealdown Mountains, and Saint Brigid’s Way in the east, rediscovered or created in 2013 along a 112km route linking the Saint’s Shrine and Holy Well in Faughart, Co. Louth to her Monastic City in Kildare, passing a variety of Sacred Sites along the Way.

Also in the East is Saint Kevin’s Way in Co Wicklow, starting either in Valleymount or Hollywood where the Saint slept in a cave and ending at Glendalough. Both routes are less than 30km and take about six hours.
Although this way includes a fair bit of road walking the second half from Ballinagee Bridge up over the Wicklow gap, down along the Gendasan river and into the hauntingly beautiful lakeside valley make it worthwhile.
St Kevin came here to retreat from the world and spent his life in quiet contemplation and after his death in AD 618 his followers developed it into a thriving monastic centre of learning that has now become a tourist hot spot.

In the centre of Ireland is Clonmacnoise, another medieval seat of Knowledge and artistic culture and the destination of countless thousands of seekers over the centuries.

Looking down the Medieval highway of the Esker Riada towards the once great monastic city of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the river Shannon
Now know as the Pilgrim Path the way follows the ridge of the Esker Riada, a glacial gravel deposit that afforded the traveller a dry route raised above the wetlands of the Shannon Callows. Starting in Ballycomber the flat route takes 25km to reach the monastic site of Clonmacnoise on the mighty river’s bank to which it owes its original popularity being on a transportation hub of water and roadways. Now developed as a cycleway rather than a walking route it nevertheless is a worthwhile trip into the tranquil heartland of Ireland.

Details of these and other routes and the annual pilgrimages along them can be found at pilgrimpaths.ie.