The Irish camino: walking in the footsteps of the saints

Local communities throughout the country are developing old pilgrim trails

Sat, Jul 20, 2013, 01:00

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.”

As we dally by the riverbank to absorb the serenity, Conor Ryan, who works as an animator with Knockmealdown Active, suggests that with the number of pilgrims completing the Camino rising to more a quarter of a million in recent years, the time is now opportune to revitalise the path .

But can South Tipperary and Waterford really capture a slice of the rapidly growing and lucrative reverential trails market? Ryan believes so.

“This month’s inaugural walk is part of a strategy to turn St Declan’s Path into a fully functioning Irish pilgrim route,” says Ryan.

He believes the trail will, in future, “appeal strongly to walking enthusiasts because of its length and variety. I also expect it to attract visitors who have family ties linking them to the towns and villages along the route,” he says.

But how is it all going to work for the reopening walk? “Accommodation or car parking will be at each day’s destination, with participants bussed from there to the walk start point each morning, from where they will walk the pilgrim route to their cars or their accommodation,” says O’Donnell. “The participation fee is €70 for five days, or €20 per day. Full details are at knockmealdownactive.com.”


St Finbarr’s trail
In a similar vein, two communities in Co Cork have expended monumental effort on developing a pilgrim trail along the way St Finbarr reputedly journeyed on his way to found a monastery at Gougane Barra. Since then, a tradition of walking the 30km path, particularly on St Finbarr’s Day, September 25th, has developed. The route has been fully waymarked as a year-round pilgrim path and is being promoted as the “Cork Camino experience,” says David Ross, spokesman for the Drimoleague/Keakill St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path Committee.

“Besides the obvious tourism benefit,” says Ross, “communities along the route are happy to discover and share the rich Christian heritage, which for centuries prompted their forbears to walk St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way in search of solace, meaning and spiritual fulfilment.”


Clare and south Galway
Another route with spiritual resonance on an epic scale is the newly inaugurated Clare Pilgrim Way. Ireland’s longest redemptive trail circuits Cos Clare and south Galway in five stages, linking all the main spiritual and ecclesiastical sites in the area.

According to Pius Murray, a member of the community-based group behind the venture, “The Clare Pilgrim Trail is aimed at facilitating users to reconnect with nature and through this experience develop a heightened sense of spirituality.”

Here, Murray succinctly captures the essence of the ageless siren call that is increasingly drawing lovers of inspirational landscapes to explore Ireland’s mystical pilgrim paths.

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