When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.
There are times of great uncertainty in every life. Left alone at such a time, you feel dishevelment and confusion like gravity…
(John O’ Donohue)
We can’t wait to lead our first group along St Declan’s Way at the end of August. Our voyage in business has taken a circuitous route since we started out 4 years ago but it has led us to where we want to be. In a strange, somewhat fortuitous twist of fate, the pandemic has given us the time to take a more circumspect look at our tours and to hone in on what can work best for us as we come out the other side. It has not been easy to be honest. Like many others, we’ve had to press pause for most of the last 18 months. We’ve had to dig deep. We’ve had no choice. We are ready to rise again.
On the Camino of life you quickly learn that you cannot do it on your own. St Declan’s Way is no different. Each journey is only as good as the people you share it with. What stays with you are the unscripted moments that you could never plan for. Over the course of the 5 arduous days of walking, you learn to rely on the comraderie of others when the going gets tough. It’s the chats that carry you – the stories, the laughs, the songs. 23km each day 5 days in succession is not easy. An elemental solidarity kicks in and you know you’ll make it to the end. It’s hard to explain it. Strangers become friends almost unknowingly. It’s sealed over a pint or a cuppa when the walking is done. It’s the simple things that make it all the more worthwhile.
Before starting out on our path from the Rock of Cashel, we take a little time to connect to source – from where it all began. It was at this very location St. Patrick conferred on St. Declan the status of Bishop of the Déisi Muman people of Waterford after one of the many occasions when they met here. What few realise is that Declan had been working with missionary zeal in the South East of Ireland long before the coming of St. Patrick in 431AD and that his epic Camino over and back to Cashel from Ardmore to meet with Patrick actually predates the iconic Camino de Santiago in Spain by over 400 years. A carved stone icon of Declan stands quietly, resolute, amid the silent ruins of a bygone time. In the stillness you feel the timeless wonder of it all.
St Declan’s Way is more than a journey of 115km but a journey through time of well over 1,500 years. Here on this ancient ‘Rian Bó Padraigh’ once trodden by the saints of old, we pass castles and forts, holy wells and hidden vaults, breathtaking views and barren places – an eclectic collage of visual sensations that seep deep into the prism of the mind as we make our way. Faint whispers rise above the hallowed hill and linger for a while. In the solitude, you hear the distant echo. You sense the presence of those who have walked this way before. It is they who have blazed the trail… we who follow in their steps.
The Knockmealdown Mountains are absorbing in their beauty and in the challenge they present. Day 3 and the limbs are tiring. The 14km hike over the mountain pass down into Mount Melleray will live long in the memory. This is wilderness; bleak, barren, remote yet compelling in its simplicity and in the honesty it asks of you. The lens widens to reveal a pattern that can be lost in the minutiae of life below. The panorama opens up as one vast kaleidoscope of vista and colour that rolls out gracefully to the seas beyond. Your eye gravitates to the River Blackwater as it navigates its mystical course through shimmering light en route to Youghal. You’ll be glad of the cuppa when you descend the tree lined pathway into the Abbey. You might just feel like something a little stronger when you realise that you still have another 10km to go before you arrive in Lismore! It’s all part of the Camino experience.
Herein lies the magic of St Declan’s Way. Each trail gives you space to breathe, to step back a little from the world for a while and connect to source again. It is good to detox, to clear the head of all that burdens it, to find perspective. It is strangely reassuring to know that whatever it is you’re going through, others before you have gone through more and persevered to the end. The destination matters, but so too the steps in between. Along St Declan’s Way, no two days are the same; one day you’re hiking over a mountain, another by the water’s edge as it rolls from source to the seas beyond, passing castles and forts, old monastic settlements and vibrant eco spaces – each concealing secrets beyond the gaze of the passer-by.
We place a real value in creating experiences along the way that will live long in the memory. We have assembled a team of guides that allow us to do just that; Iain Tweedale from Wales with his quietly spoken wisdom to match the warmth of his smile, Br Phil Ryan with his assuring stride and intimate knowledge of the land, Alice O’ Donoghue with her honesty and passion for all things ‘Lismore’, Mark Rylands who leads us over the Knockmealdowns in a way that brings the microscopic to life, not to mention the ‘Boss’ herself, Elaine, who has a way of putting everyone at their ease and making sure we all make it to Ardmore with a spring in our step even when our energies are waning. Almost unknowingly, you unearth reserves of courage that you never knew you had and somehow you find the strength to keep going. You re-claim the truest version of yourself. You feel the release from all that has held you back to this point. You find your way home.
Our planning is done and the pieces are falling nicely into place. Coach transfers are sorted each day in association with Suirway Coaches, we come back each evening to the comfort of our en suite rooms whether it is in The Tower Hotel, Waterford, Cahir House Hotel or the Guest Rooms in Mount Melleray Abbey. Luggage is transferred onwards each day and waiting for you in your room on arrival, packed lunches on your table each morning for the day ahead, dinner each evening – all culminating in a Gala Dinner on the final night in the 13th Century Choristers’ Hall in Waterford Treasures to celebrate the feat and to receive your stamped Pilgrim Passport. It was from here over 500 years ago Mayor James Rice set sail to do the Camino de Santiago on two occasions. Ancient vaults welcome the pilgrim home once again. It’s fitting too that our first group is from Celbridge in Kildare. Our very first Camino started our with Bridie O’ Connor and her friends over 4 years ago. We’ve seen them every year since. Loyalty of this kind is priceless!
It’s hard to stay positive when the elements conspire against you. Trust us, there were days over the past year when we wondered if our business would withstand the tumult. Our raft was floating out to sea at the mercy of elements we were powerless over. You connect to something deeper to carry you when the winds are up. You’ve got to trust the universe, you’ve got to trust yourself. You will find your bearings all over again. You’ve just got to wait for the tide to turn!
Do not fight against the torrent, do not look for that immediate quick fix, never worry what the world will think, do not force a resolution that will not last; instead seek out stillness, listen to the lapping of the waters, observe the majesty of the birds in flight, become aware that you are part of something far greater than yourself. Peace of this kind is rare. It does not present itself cheaply. You have to earn it. You have to be prepared to step back from the world as you know it and simply breathe.
Then you discover for yourself what philosophers, poets and mystics have tried to articulate over the years – the source of life is all around us. You feel it in the kindness of a friend, in the humming of a lark, in the setting of the sun. Listen and you will hear. Wait for the door to open. Wait for the dawn to break!
…When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you
begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark.
The sense of encouragement you feel from the friend is not simply her words or gestures; it is
rather her whole presence enfolding you and helping you to find the concealed door.
The encouraging presence manages to understand you and put herself in your shoes.
There is no judgment but words of relief and release.
(John O’ Donohue)
Dr. Phil Brennan and his wife Elaine look forward to rolling out St. Declan’s Way this autumn. It will be lovely to share the path with Our Lady’s Hospice and The Marie Keating Foundation in the months ahead and to be welcoming groups from Escape Travel, Norway and Celtic Journeys, USA from Spring 2022. You can contact Phil and Elaine directly on firstname.lastname@example.org For further information, check out www.waterfordcamino.com