It’s Easter, and I’m among a group at a Cistercian monastery in Co Waterford. A moody day of frowning skies, watery light and no birdsong doesn’t, however, dampen our collective enthusiasm. We’re mostly strangers to each other, but already there is a feeling of camaraderie and shared purpose for we are about to celebrate Pilgrim Paths Week.
Led by members of Knockmealdown Active, we plan footing an ancient pilgrim path, reputedly first trodden by St Declan on a pilgrim journey to royal Cashel. And we aren’t unusual. Across Europe, people who wouldn’t normally give religion the time of day, are being lured back to seek meaning and healing on penitential trails carved by the feet of our pilgrim forefathers.
The high peaks glower ominously as, 130 strong, we leave Mount Melleray by following signs for a hilltop cross. Rustic tracks take us up past a reservoir which once supplied the water that ingeniously powered the abbey, decades prior to general electrification.
Abandoning signs for the cross we swing left to gain open mountainside before lingering awhile to contemplate the dreamy spires and winsomely elegant Abbey buildings. Melleray Abbey was originally located in Brittany and housed mostly overseas monks. When foreign clergy were expelled from France in 1830, the English and Irish at Melleray fled to Ireland and founded a new Mount Melleray at this austerely beautiful location among the foothills of the Knockmealdown Mountains.
It’s onwards and upwards now, crossing the col separating Dyrick from Knocknafallia. A tiny stream laboriously dug by industrious monks to provide the abbey water supply now proves an invaluable handrail. Arriving where the swollen Rough Glen River cascades furiously downwards causes no worries; plenty of helping hands are available to assist the crossing.
Gaining the ancient Rian Bó Phadraig, we go right and ascend towards Bottleneck Pass, while denied even the mistiest glimpse of the surrounding landforms. Legend holds that this trail takes its name from a huge cow owned by St Patrick that charged up the mountain in pursuit of a stolen calf.
A sense of disconnection from the 21st century now comes upon us as our world dissolves to opaque mist. It is us against the elements in a surreal, timeless realm, and as if to test our resolve, the weather immediately turns foul. Battered by high winds, stinging hail and driven snow, there is still no complaining, for this is a pilgrim walk and our privations are inconsequential when compared with the travails of medieval penitents.
Despite an appellation more suited to a John Wayne western, Bottleneck Pass proves unremarkable and I have passed over it before I notice. Further on we gain a forest edge where, safely out of the chilling wind, we enjoy a welcome lunch.
Afterwards, it’s left and down a steep zig-zag path known locally as Na Staighre to gain sympathetic underfoot conditions on a forest roadway. Here, the yellow arrows for St Declan’s Way lead unerringly downhill to join the Tipperary Heritage Way. This conveys us to Goatenbridge (denoted Goat’s Bridge on OS maps), and the profound satisfaction that comes with completing a penitential journey. Over refreshments in the Glenview Lounge the conclusion is that this, worst of days, is already transforming itself into the best of memories, for we have defeated the harshest conditions, like pilgrim since time immemorial.
ST DECLAN’S WAY, CO WATERFORD
Start point: From the Waterford town of Cappoquin take the R669. At The Cats pub go right. The entrance to Mount Melleray is on the left.
Suitability: Demanding walk requiring reasonable fitness. Navigation skills necessary, as the route follows high mountain terrain that is not fully waymarked.
Time: 4 hours.
Map: OSi, sheet 74
Information about pilgrim walks in Ireland: www.pilgrimpath.ie