Walks for the Weekend: St Declan’s Path, Ardmore
An uplifting walk along a cliffside pilgrim path in Waterford
Ardmore cliff walk. Photograph: John Foley, johnfoleyimages.com
If history consists of stories that later generations agree to tell about the past, then this place has inspired much history. Ireland’s earliest Christian saint provided seed corn here for compelling mythologies that bonded later generations of Deise inhabitants. Ardmore, Co Waterford, enjoys a sublime location, a vibrant artistic life along with an expansive beach and today I have come to record the nearby St Declan’s Path for my book Pilgrim Paths in Ireland.
And it is beachside where I begin by heading southeast to gain the shoreline bookending the strand, where a rock is reputed to have floated ashore and thereby miraculously guided Declan to Ardmore. As sea fog rolls in to subsume the landscape in misty surrealism, it is upwards past the spectacularly located Cliff House Hotel. Working with the maxim that what can’t be cured must be endured, I plough on through the gloom, crossing a stile to Declan’s hermitage and holy well. Here, the saint performed baptisms and even today it remains a place of pilgrimage.
My route now meanders around a peninsula, with mighty inclinations dropping seaward. Soon, the rusting remains of the Samson become discernible in the ethereal light. This ship came unhitched while under tow and fetched up below Ardmore Head to become – like the Plassey wreck on Inisheer – an unlikely, but popular tourist attraction.
Denied the famously expansive views from Ram’s Head, I explore instead two lookout stations: the tallest served as a watchtower in Napoleonic times, while the other dates from the second World War. Beyond is a curious structure built over a spring that is referred to locally as Fr O’Donnell’s Well. Surprisingly modern, it was built in 1928 by JP O’Rahilly, who believed in the curative power of the waters beneath.
Swinging inland, the renowned Ardmore round tower emerges spookily from the swirling clag as it rises gun-barrel straight to a majestic 29m. Encountering a local man within the monastic site, the conversation, almost inevitably, begins with the (mixed) fortunes of Waterford hurling. Subject finally exhausted, we segue to monastic history.
He tells me that the oldest building is Declan’s Oratory, within which lies the saint’s remains, and that the tower was one of the last completed in Ireland. The oratory is closed, but he points to an ornate gable of the Romanesque cathedral, depicting bible scenes, and tells of two ogham stones inside.
Afterwards, I am irresistibly drawn to the tower. Agreement has not been reached as to the purpose of these edifices, but in school I remember being assured they were refuges during Viking attacks. Gazing upward this seems unlikely. The ease with which defenders could be burned out appears undeniable. Certainly, were bloodthirsty Vikings to now appear over the horizon, my instinct would not be to rush into the tower’s claustrophobic confines, but to leg it speedily in the opposite direction.
Heading back to my start point, it strikes me that, whatever their purpose, we should be grateful to the round tower builders. Minimalist creations of the greatest beauty their true wonder is that, for over 1,000 years, they have articulately spoken to succeeding generations about the extravagant flourishing in early Christian Ireland of culture, learning, architecture and art.
Getting there: from the N25, Cork/Waterford Road take the R673 to Ardmore.
Suitability: easy outing on minor roads and green tracks. Care required when traversing the cliff-side.
Time: about 75 minutes, but allow extra time for exploring.
Map: unnecessary as the walk is well signposted.
Pilgrim Paths in Ireland is published by Collins Press.