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27 May 2022

OPINION (AN COLÚN): An ancient Irish route emulating the Camino experience

OPINION (AN COLÚN): An ancient Irish route emulating the Camino experience

Three pilgrims on St Declan's Way recently, heading up to a pass in the Knockmealdown Mountains.

St Declan's Way is an ancient 115 kilometre routeway that links the ecclesiastical centres of Ardmore and Lismore with the Rock of Cashel. According to tradition, it's the route that St Declan took to meet St Patrick in Cashel.

25 years ago a group of locals tried to turn the old route into a waymarked way. Unfortunately their efforts failed. Perhaps it was because leisure walking wasn't as popular as it is now.

Then, a decade ago, another group tried to get the route opened up and signposted. This time the endeavours were rewarded and now the route has established itself in the minds of many walkers. Last month there was a big reward when it was announced that Sport Ireland had finally approved the trail, thus conferring an official stamp of approval that this was a leisure facility for hikers which met the required standards.

During the last two weekends of July I joined 160 fellow pilgrims to walk the trail over a period of five days, spread over two weekends. This event was organised by a group called Knockmealdown Active and it was a massive success. The organising standards, the stewardship, were excellent throughout. It was a very friendly event. Each day was split into chunks of manageable distances and the weather was sweltering for a considerable part of it.

St Declan's Way is in fact a conglomeration of a number of ancient trails including the Rian Bo Phadraig (which means The Track of St Patrick's Cow), Bothar na Naomh and Declan’s Road (which ran from Ardmore to Lismore). According to tradition St Declan travelled by chariot from Ardmore to Cashel, going via a pass over the lofty and majestic Knockmealdown Mountains.
The rising popularity of pilgrim paths like St Declan's are evidence of a spiritual hunger gnawing away at our insides during this excessively materialistic age. The people who are walking these trails instinctively feel that there's more to life than logic, science, deadlines and your productive output.

One of the highlights of the trail for me was the third day, which was the Knockmealdown section. The Knockmealdowns are a lovely range which I have walked in many times over the decades. We climbed up to a pass with the mighty bulk of Knockmealdown itself (794 metres / 2,605 feet) constantly before us. When we reached the pass there was no wind, just sunshine and calm, and a very special view southwards over lush landscape, the Blackwater River and the ocean beyond. I paused and thought of the many pilgrims who enjoyed this view before me, over the centuries, including, perhaps, monks walking to nearby Mount Mellaray monastery in the 19th Century.

An hour later and we could hear the bell of Mount Mellaray tolling through the woodland. Then we could see the monastery's tower picturesquely rising above the trees. We passed a series of terraced ponds created by the monks and a large farm run by the monastery as well.

After a sandwich and a cup of soup at Mellaray we set out again on the final part of the day's 28 kilometre hike, our destination Lismore.

Lismore has a population of 1300 and is one of the most picturesque towns in Ireland. A part of its charm is the large woodland around it which seemed to be mostly deciduous trees. Lismore Abbey was founded here in 635 by St Carthage above a steep bank of the Blackwater River. The reputation of the Abbey grew so great that it was the most celebrated monastery in Southern Ireland.The abbey was replaced by a castle in 1185.

Lismore Castle is a magnificent sight as you approach the town. It's the Irish home of the Duke of Devonshire and therefore, sadly, the public can't visit, but, in a way, gazing on its beauty from outside is enough. The castle has been owned or visited by many notable people, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Fred Astaire, John F Kennedy, John Betjeman, Cecil Beaton, Dominic West and Lucian Freud.

The third day was my last day on the trail and I didn't make the last two sections. By all accounts they were equally enjoyable with Ardmore being another highlight.

Unfortunately, when I woke up on the fourth morning I realised that my body had let me down and I was going nowhere. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. There were several blisters on my feet which were exceedingly sore and were pleading with me at each step, “Rest! Please rest!”

At the same time my right foot was badly swollen with a gout attack (a very nasty pain) and there were a couple of unpleasant sores on my body. I decided discretion is the better part of valour and to leave the final two days of my pilgrimage until a later date.

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