St. Declan of Ardmore (or Déaglán) is one of the pre-eminent figures in the early Irish church, especially here in Munster. Much of what we know of Declan comes from texts written centuries after his life that are hagiographical in nature, and often imbued with political messages. He is associated with the great tribe of Waterford known as the Déise. According to his Life, Declan was one of four saints (along with Ailbe of Emly, Ciarán of Saigir and Abbán of Moyarney) who preached the Gospel in Munster before Patrick arrived in Ireland. In one story, Declan and Patrick met at Cashel, and this event is commemorated in a long distance trail known as St. Declan’s Way (see below).
Though the story of Declan preaching Christianity before Patrick has to be taken with a reasonable degree of scepticism, we know that the Déise in particular were perhaps more likely to have prolonged contact with Christianity than many of their rival tribes from elsewhere in Ireland. The Déise inhabited parts of west Wales, and would have connected Munster to Christian communities in Roman Britain through trade and movement.
However, it is important to never take hagiographical writing about early Irish saints at face value. The focused writing on him in the 12th century may be seen as part of the competition between Ardmore and Lismore. This competition was driven over which monastery would be appointed as the episcopal see, gaining power, prestige and wealth along with the role of bishop. It was a struggle that Lismore eventually won.
Whatever the truth about St. Declan, his monastery at Ardmore has long been a place of significance, and Declan became a key devotional figure who inspired pilgrimages for centuries, with large crowds that gathered every year for his feast day on the 24th July. The site of his monastery is beautifully positioned, as the indicated by the name Ardmore that derives from the Irish ‘Ard Mór’ meaning ‘a great height’. The monastery was believed to have been founded by St. Declan himself sometime in the 5th century, though there is little that dates to that early period visible, beyond traces of what appears to be the early monastic enclosure that can be made out to the north-west when viewed on Google Maps satellite view. An unusual round tower, a small stone oratory and a medieval cathedral with ogham stones all indicate the importance of the site. Each of the key features is detailed further below the gallery. You can access the monastic site by simply heading into the village of Ardmore in County Waterford and follow the signs up the hill. But it is much more rewarding to discover them by taking the Ardmore Cliff Walk. On a fine day there are few more exhilarating experiences than the Ardmore Cliff Walk. It combines a stretch of truly lovely coastline with early medieval monastic remains with a good dollop of natural heritage all along the way.