Walk Declan’s Way in a Week

Second Reading

NATURAL BEAUTY A walker pauses to take in the surrounding beauty on a section of St Declan’s Way. Pic: Facebook.com/@StDeclansWay

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

A few weeks ago I wrote here of the resurgence of interest in pilgrimage walks, I mentioned the trail launched recently to follow in the footsteps of St Columbanus, the 6th century Irish monk who founded monasteries in France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. The Irish Columban Way is the starting point of a wider European trail, stretching 6,000kms, which links places associated with the Irish saint.
The 530km Irish section starts in the saints native place, Mount Leinster in Co Carlow and ends in Bangor, Co Down, where he lived for a quarter of a century. It crosses counties Wexford, Kildare, Laois, Meath, Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh. It then transfers to France and ends in Bobbio in Italy, his most impressive foundation. It became a cultural centre equal to the famous Benedictine Monastery of Monte Cassino.
Since I wrote of the Columban Way, a friend told me of another pilgrimage trail, launched last autumn by the Minister for Community and rural Development, Heather Humphreys. Called St Declan’s Way, it links Cashel in Co Tipperary and Ardmore in Co Wexford. It is 115km in length, a distance that can be walked relatively comfortably in a week and equal to that covered by most pilgrims along the Spanish Camino.
St Declan was a significant figure in the early Irish Christianity. The Jesuit historian, Fr John Ryan, author of the seminal study Irish Monasticism, stated that Declan ‘was known in Ireland as an active missionary worker before St Patrick’s coming’. The ancient biographies of his life contain contradictory information, but according to tradition he was a member of an aristocratic family and from near Cappoquin in Co Wexford.
He has become known as the ‘patron saint of the Deise’. It seems that christianity came to his community, before the mission of St Patrick, given its proximity to Britain and France.
As a youngster, Declan was introduced to the Christian way by a local spiritual guide, Diouma with whom he spent sometime. He went to Rome to pursue clerical studies, where he was ordained as a priest and bishop by the pope and sent back to Ireland to promote the christian message.
On his journey home he met St Patrick, on his way to Rome to complete his clerical studies and be ordained before St Patrick. They were to meet again, this time on Irish soil. St Declan’s main foundation was in the beautiful setting of Ardmore in Co Waterford. Today an impressive round tower, a stone oratory and other minor ecclesiastical ruins mark the site. Devotion to St Declan has remained constant throughout the centuries.
His feast day on July 24, still attracts devotees to the area up to modern times it was a day of great religious and social celebration. The distinguished poet, Tadhg Gaelach O’Suilleabhain wrote a lively poem in the 1790s describing the event.
After St Patrick came to Ireland, Declan went to meet him in Cashel to discuss how the Christian evangelisation of Ireland might proceed. The result of the summit was that Declan and St Ailbhe of Emly were to spread the word in Munster and Patrick in the rest of the country.
St Declan’s journey home from Cashel to Ardmore is the new pilgrim trail. A Tipperary man, Kevin O’Donnell came up with the plan, inspired by his experience of walking the Camino in northwestern Spain. According to him, ‘the route links the Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle and Ladys Abbey before crossing a pass in the Knockmealdown Mountains to Mount Melleray Abbey, continuing through Lismore and Cappoquin, it finishes beautifully in Ardmore. Around almost every corner there is something of interest and the route is the perfect length for a week-long walking holiday’.
It does seem an eco-friendly, active and historically interesting journey.