It is sometimes said, however, that the past never completely vanished, but sooner or later comes to revisit us. And so, it has recently come to pass that Waterford’s patron saint – who is regarded by many historians as the first Christian missionary to preach the gospel in Ireland is reclaiming his pilgrim inheritance.
Born into a royal family of the Deise region, St Declan was initially taught about Christ by a holy man named Dioma. A strong tradition holds that Declan then journeyed to study Christianity in Rome and returned as a bishop to his native Waterford during the early 5th Century.
An ancient pilgrim trail that he footed, and was followed in his honour by many thousands of medieval pilgrims, is now being walked again as a richly symbolic journey. Meandering through extravagantly varied terrain in Tipperary and Waterford that is rich with antiquities, the newly revitalised St Declan’s Way commemorates the saint’s excursion from his monastery at Ardmore to the royal seat at Cashel.
The reason for his journey was the arrival in Ireland of a British-born evangelist who was also preaching the gospel. Which of them would become the leading Christian saint among the Irish? To sort out this conundrum, tradition has Declan travelling from Ardmore to Cashel to meet St Patrick. Here, it was agreed that the Waterford saint would have unchallenged authority over the Deise, with Patrick becoming primate of all Ireland. Patrick also promised never to enter the territory of Declan – so honour was maintained on all sides.
A fully upgraded 115km walking route, commemorating this historic journey and meeting, was re-opened in October 2021 by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys. Linking Cashel with monastic Ardmore, it follows the route taken by Declan on his way to meet Patrick. The result is that Ireland now has a spirituality-based trail that is comparable in length to the amount walked by most pilgrims visiting the Camino.