Walk for the Weekend: Mount Melleray, Co Waterford

St Declan’s Way is an ancient pilgrim route linking Cashel with Ardmore

“You must be crazy!” Thus opined an acquaintance after I informed him I was on my way to join a pilgrim walk over the Knockmealdown mountains.

I knew what he meant. Storm Jorge was forecast to lash Ireland later in the day and a number of events had already been cancelled. Still, it was a gloriously benign morning and I knew the route wouldn’t take us over the highest summits.

Others appeared to agree. Soon after reaching Goatenbridge a bus laden with pilgrim walkers arrived from Mount Melleray Abbey. They seemed quietly confident we could – like teak-tough pilgrims from times past – dare to cross the Knockmealdowns against the teeth of a gale. Still, it was more in hope than assurance that we followed uphill the walking arrows for St Declan’s Way, an ancient pilgrim route linking Cashel with Ardmore, Co Waterford.

First stop was the impressive Liam Lynch Monument. Built in the style of a Celtic round tower, it marks the spot where the leader of the anti-Treaty forces was shot in one of the final acts of the Civil War.

Onwards then beneath reassuringly blue skies with memorable views to the lowlands below and the inundated flood plains of the river Suir beyond. Falling into chat with an unassuming fellow walker, he spoke about his many experiences of leading pilgrim groups on the Spanish Camino; I later discovered he was Alphonsus Cullinan, Bishop of Waterford.

Benign paths now conveyed us deeper into the mountains before a descent led to a tiny road, towards a high pass known locally as “the Crois”. Here the winds increased markedly and hail came rattling over us. But it soon passed, and with everybody in fine fettle our leaders decided retreat would not be the order of the day.

It proved the right decision, for in what seems like no time we gained the head of the pass. Beyond lay open mountainside. Here we followed a newly created pathway for St Declan’s Way with the snow-streaked heights of Knocknafallia mountain rising to our right and dense woodlands providing welcome shelter to our left from the rising storm.

Tiny canal

Next to capture our curiosity was a tiny canal laboriously dug by industrious Cistercian monks to draw water from the mountainside. Presenting the baffling illusion of flowing uphill, it is known locally as “the source” and was built to provide Melleray Abbey with a fresh water supply.

Afterwards, we entered the welcome embrace of forestry, now confident of the fact that nothing could derail our pilgrim endeavour. Sure enough, the dreamy spires of Mount Melleray were soon protruding above the treetops that swayed above like drunken sailors.

Passing the Abbey farmyard, rain spattered the gale; then, as we raced towards the abbey, the full force of Jorge came upon us. Escaping within, the wind howled mournfully outside as we were treated to a serene tour of the church by a Cistercian, Fr Denis Luke.

Enjoying the warm glow of success after our battle with the elements, we then retreated to the welcome embrace of the coffee shop. Here, over tea and scones, everyone agreed that walking pilgrimages to Mount Melleray must continue in the future.

Start: From Clonmel take the R665 to Ardfinnan. Cross the bridge, then go left and uphill and continue to Goatenbridge village. The start point is Knockballiniry car park, which lies about 1km directly ahead.

Suitability: A generally unchallenging outing entirely following tracks and waymarked reassuringly with arrows for St Declan's Way.

Time: 4.5 hours

Distance: 18km

Map Discovery Sheet: 75

Further information on St Declan's Way: pilgrimpath.ie

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