Ardmore Cliff Walk

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St. Declan and the Cliff Walk

Jan in her wellies. Photo by David Lansing.

Before we head out on the Cliff Walk, Honor suggests that we put on a pair of wellies provided by the hotel. “It’ll be a bit slippery out there,” she says.

I might put on some wellies but just glancing at the stacks of green boots in the wet room, it’s clear nothing will fit my rather large feet. Just as well. They’d probably make me look like a potato farmer. Jan’s wellies, however, make her look quite stylish.

It’s gray out. And drizzling. (When is it not gray and wet in Ireland?) Honor leads us down a gravel path lined with wild garlic. The scent is overpowering. A few minutes later we’re standing beside some old stone ruins. St. Declan’s oratory—a little church originally built around the 8th century on the site of Declan’s monastery.

St. Declan, Honor tells us, was one of the first Irish saints. “He came before St. Patrick.” What they say about Declan is that he established a firm toe-hold for Christianity in the southern parts of Ireland back in the 5th century but it was Patrick that sowed the seeds across the land.

Near the oratory are more stone ruins. The site of a sacred well. The well is far older than Christianity in Ireland, going back to the days of the pagan goddesses who guarded and oversaw the proper use of things like water and food. Then Declan and the Christians came along and co-opted the well and its pagan ceremonies, replacing them with what’s called a “Pattern.”

A Pattern is a series of ritualistic events (like how we celebrate Christmas). The Pattern in Ardmore is held on St. Declan’s feast day, July 24, when thousands of people gather to circle this well while reciting a specific sequence and number of prayers before being allowed to take water from the well. Which is then either drank to cure what ails you or taken home where you might dip your fingers in it every morning before saying your prayers. Or anoint a sick child.

It’s all a little crazy, of course, but then so are most of the strange little rituals of all religions. That, however, doesn’t stop some in our group from reverently dipping a hand in to the well and drinking the mossy green water. Including me. Just in case.

The ruins of an oratory built on the site of St. Declan’s monastery on the clifftops of Ardmore (Ard Mor means Great Height). Photo by David Lansing.

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