Cas­tles and four-leaf clovers

De­tours and dis­cov­er­ies along St De­clan’s Way in Ire­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - ROSAMUND BUR­TON

MANY years ago an Ir­ish friend lent me a map of an an­cient high­way which threads its way along quiet coun­try lanes, grassy tracks and river­side paths, pass­ing a string of cas­tles and fairy forts, small vil­lages and mirac­u­lous wells.

Stretch­ing 96km be­tween the fish­ing vil­lage of Ard­more on Ire­land’s south coast and the town of Cashel in County Tip­per­ary, this age-old pil­grim route was made fa­mous by Ire­land’s beloved Saint De­clan, who pre-dates Saint Pa­trick. I in­stantly wanted to walk St De­clan’s Way, but it wasn’t the right time. So I pho­to­copied the map and filed it away.

When I’ve all but for­got­ten my dream I have a small win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to Ire­land and fol­low this his­toric way. Ex­cited at the pos­si­bil­ity of this ad­ven­ture, my heart sinks to see the black-and-white copy has faded over time. What’s worse, the friend who lent me the map orig­i­nally has now died. I de­cide to ring the lo­cal Ir­ish tourist of­fice.

‘‘I’ve heard the path is very over­grown,’’ is all Norma, who an­swers the phone, can tell me. I no­tice in the bot­tom cor­ner the name of the com­pany that pro­duced the map and a tele­phone num­ber. I dial it and a man called Barry an­swers. Barry tells me he did the walk 10 years ago, but from what he’s heard the way marks are now faded and the path has not been main­tained. He gives me the num­ber of Richard Lin­coln in Ard­more, who he says might be able to help me.

‘‘He went to Africa yes­ter­day,’’ the woman at the other end of the phone replies promptly. His de­par­ture sounds very fi­nite. I ex­plain that I want to walk St De­clan’s Way and am look­ing for a map. It tran­spires that Richard is a gas en­gi­neer work­ing in Africa for a few weeks and I am talk­ing to his wife, Mary.

She tells me that Richard’s mother, a his­to­rian, spent 30 years re­trac­ing St De­clan’s Way. Mary owns Ard­more Pot­tery and sug­gests I drop in and pick up a map. I can hardly be­lieve my luck. Es­pe­cially when I ex­plain I am on the other side of the globe and she of­fers to post a map to me.

As I pon­der on her spon­ta­neous gen­eros­ity, I re­alise how of­ten in Ire­land peo­ple go out of their way to help oth­ers. De­spite the fact I live half a world away, part of me will al­ways be­long to Ire­land.

Per­haps it is the pain of un­re­quited love, the way this coun­try has of wel­com­ing me with open arms and yet at the same time al­ways hold­ing me at arm’s length, con­stantly cre­at­ing within me the sense that, al­though it is where I was born, I do not re­ally have a place here. IT’S day five. I’m ly­ing in bed savour­ing that de­lec­ta­ble mo­ment of com­plete com­fort on wak­ing and wish it would last for­ever.

Susie Wing­field is walk­ing with me over the moun­tain to­day. When I was 18 and first moved to Dublin to go to drama school, Susie and her hus­band, Philip, let me stay with them and their three chil­dren for the first cou­ple of months. Philip and Susie now live at Sal­ter­bridge near Cap­po­quin on the south­ern side of the Knock­meal­downs. Susie and Philip ar­rive at 9am, say­ing the vis­i­bil­ity is so bad up the moun­tain that driv­ing here they were un­able to see more than a few yards in front of them.

Al­though the moun­tains are not high, it’s easy to lose your way in bad weather. Philip drives us to Ardfinnan so that we can rej oin St De­clan’s Way from the stone bridge. Susie and I are walk­ing up over Bot­tle­neck Pass to Cas­tle Dod­dard, which is on the County Wa­ter­ford side of the Knock­meal­downs. Be­cause Philip will be pick­ing up Susie from Cas­tle Dod­dard later in the day, he of­fers to trans­port my back- pack so I don’t have to carry it.

Susie and I fol­low a path in be­tween some houses in the vil­lage and out on to the old road, pass­ing a ru­ined stone build­ing which was a fever hos­pi­tal dur­ing the famine. More peo­ple died of cholera and ty­phoid dur­ing the famine than they did of star­va­tion. Trag­i­cally, peo­ple flocked to the over­crowded work­houses to get food, and it was in these places that the dis­eases abounded.

Ten min­utes later, we stop at the ru­ins of Lady’s Abbey, which 600 years ago was a Carmelite fri­ary. A lime­stone tower with its arched en­trance still stands, and in a wall be­yond it is a beau­ti­ful Celtic-style arched win­dow.

Susie is an ex­cel­lent walk­ing com­pan­ion. She has a great knowl­edge of wild­flow­ers. She points out the snow­berry with its white puff­balls and the tiny white eye­bright with its sunny yel­low cen­tres. As its name sug­gests this plant was used in tra­di­tional medicine for sooth­ing sore eyes.

St De­clan’s Way, or the Way of Pa­trick’s Cow, as this part of the way is known, be­comes a boreen. Hav­ing pushed our way through a bram­ble hedge to avoid a deep muddy pud­dle, we reach a foot­bridge over the River Tar. Here St De­clan’s Way joins the walk­ing track called the Tip­per­ary Her­itage Way and there are nu­mer­ous small wooden sign­posts point­ing us in the right direc­tion.

We have been steadily walk­ing up­hill and are now at the foot of the Knock­meal­downs. We pass rowans with their bright, blaz­ing red berries hang­ing in clus­ters. These el­e­gant, slen­der trees are also known as moun­tain ash or quick­beam, and are said to sym­bol­ise ac­tion and en­ergy.

The track climbs through a for­est. A sign points to the right but, ac­cord­ing to the map, St De­clan’s Way is left so we take the left turn­ing. As we climb higher the weather fluc­tu­ates be­tween pock­ets of sun­shine and the soft misty rain that I’m so fond of. Li­lac-coloured ling heather and the fuch­sia-pink bell heather cover the banks. Tightly knit spi­der webs are sus­pended from the spiky gorse, catch­ing fine droplets of rain which glis­ten like jewels in the sun­light.

‘‘The finely wo­ven webs look like cra­dles for baby fairies,’’ Susie re­marks as we stop to ad­mire these ex­quis­ite nat­u­ral cre­ations and imag­ine the tiny oth­er­worldly be­ings ly­ing nes­tled in the prickly gorse for safety.

A lit­tle fur­ther on, the Tip­per­ary Her­itage Way turns to the right and crosses a bridge while St De­clan’s Way con­tin­ues straight

ahead. Ini­tially we fol­low the steep track up the moun­tain, but when I look at the map I suspect we should be head­ing fur­ther west, so we turn back and take an­other track.

As we climb higher we cross lit­tle streams buffered by cush­ions of sphag­num and bright green Cather­ine moss. A wide stream bub­bles over the rocks as it cas­cades down the moun­tain. On its banks grow ferns and fox­gloves. Tall, ma­jes­tic plants with strik­ing pur­ple flow­ers, fox­gloves are be­lieved to be fairy plants. In some re­gions of Ire­land it is said that the fox­glove bends its head as a sign of re­spect if a fairy host is pass­ing by. It was con­sid­ered the king of Ir­ish herbs and its juice was used to cure those wast­ing away due to fairy in­flu­ence.

Af­ter about 2.5km we re­alise the track we are fol­low­ing is go­ing around the moun­tain rather than over it. We’ve been en­joy­ing the walk so much, we’re not par­tic­u­larly con­cerned. We sit in the rain, eat­ing de­li­cious salami sand­wiches be­fore again re­trac­ing our steps back to where we de­vi­ated from the sign­posts. We turn back on to the track head­ing up the moun­tain, which we orig­i­nally took hours ear­lier.

I keep look­ing



map. None of the mark­ings makes sense, but at least we are walk­ing up­hill. Then the still­ness is bro­ken by Susie’s mo­bile. It’s Philip. He wants to know where we are. Susie tells him op­ti­misti­cally that we have found the right path and are nearly over the moun­tain.

We emerge out of the wood­land and into the heather. Through the mist I can just make out a cairn; mo­ments later it dis­ap­pears in a mass of white cloud. There’s no sign of a path through the heather, so I get the com­pass out. We head south hop­ing we’ll reach Bot­tle­neck Pass, which is the county boundary be­tween Tip­per­ary and Wa­ter­ford. From there if we head straight down the other side of the moun­tain, we should be at Cas­tle Dod­dard.

It’s 4.45pm. Time is get­ting on. We need to keep mov­ing. I des­per­ately want to get over the pass, but when I look at her, up to her knees in heather with the rain swirling around her, and the moun­tain in a white blan­ket of mist, I re­luc­tantly agree. I know it is easy to get dis­ori­en­tated here, es­pe­cially in these con­di­tions.

We turn around to find the wood­lands are now en­gulfed in cloud and to­tally in­vis­i­ble. We head down­hill and even­tu­ally reach the barbed wire fence en­clos­ing the forestry. Susie rings Philip and asks him to meet us on the road out of Ardfinnan.

I feel ut­terly de­spon­dent. We have spent the en­tire day look­ing for the right way and not found it. I still have no idea of how to get across the moun­tain, so it’s not as if I can head off alone to­mor­row know­ing where to go. I keep run­ning round and round in my mind where we might have gone wrong.

Then, be­cause Susie and I are both tired, we wan­der off in the wrong direc­tion, adding an­other 2.5km to our walk be­fore we fi­nally reach where Philip is wait­ing for us.

It’s nearly 7pm when, in soak­ing wet boots and with a new blis­ter, I ar­rive back at Cas­tle Grace. De­spite the ma­jor set­back, it was mag­i­cal up on the moun­tain in the mist. This is an edited ex­tract from Cas­tles, Fol­lies & Four-leaf Clovers by Rosamund Bur­ton (Allen & Un­win, $24.99)


A street sign in Cashel, County Tip­per­ary, points to St De­clan’s Way; a stream runs through a glen in the Knock­meal­downs, left


The im­pos­ing Knock­meal­downs loom large in the dis­tance

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