Castles and four-leaf clovers
Detours and discoveries along St Declan’s Way in Ireland
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