The Irish camino: walking in the footsteps of the saints
Local communities throughout the country are developing old pilgrim trails
Imagine celebrating our national feast day, not in March, but in high summer. Hard to visualise the occasion with bikinis, barbecues and beach badminton isn’t it? Yet it could have happened, because July 24th is the day of commemoration of an early Irish saint whose credentials are comparable to those of St Patrick.
Regarded by many historians as having predated Patrick as an Irish Christian missionary, St Declan of Ardmore is, nevertheless, virtually unknown outside his native area. The murky world of medieval church politics has much to answer for here. It allowed the deeply venerated saint of the southern Déise region to fade from the public consciousness when the northern church rose to prominence. History was then adroitly rewritten to suit the needs of the time, with Patrick, the first Bishop of Armagh, promulgated above Declan as the initial and single-handed evangeliser of the Irish people.
Now Waterford’s patron saint is to reclaim his inheritance. An ancient pilgrim trail that he footed regularly is set to be traversed again as a richly symbolic journey. Meandering 94km through extravagantly varied terrain in Cos Tipperary and Waterford, the newly revitalised St Declan’s Pilgrim Path commemorates the saint’s many excursions from his monastery at Ardmore to the royal seat at Cashel.
Overgrown and virtually forgotten for decades, the trail is, mainly through the efforts of a Tipperary man, being returned to public consciousness. Dense briars and rhododendrons have been diligently cut back in preparation for the first full-length public walk of the route, which takes place from July 24th to 28th.
And so on a bright, blue-sky, July morning, I find myself rambling rustic lanes by the River Tar and traversing timeless monastic ruins at a point where the handsome Knockmealdown Mountains erupt spectacularly from the fertile plains of Tipperary. With me are Kevin O’Donnell, the instigator of the pilgrim path project, and some members of Knockmealdown Active, the volunteer group that is staging the inaugural St Declan’s walk.
An ‘Irish Camino’
O’Donnell, the group’s chairman, comes across as a quietly passionate believer in the venture. He conceived the idea for revitalising St Declan’s Pilgrim Path when he walked the Camino de Santiago, in Spain, some years ago. Now he wants to dub St Declan’s Path an “Irish Camino” and immediately points to the strong penitential credentials of the trail from Cashel to Ardmore.
“It takes five days to complete and goes up to more than 500 metres when crossing the Knockmealdown Mountains by the prehistoric Bottleneck Pass route,” says O’Donnell. “This needn’t put people off, though; the first two days from Cashel and the last days to the coast are on easy terrain. Walkers without the fitness or time to do the full journey will have the option to join for stages of the route.”