The grand finale: Ireland 2017 (Part IX)

I was truly sad to leave my little cabin on the hill, with its lovely views and its army of chaffinches and its convenient location. To distract myself from the ache in my heart, I drew up a list of wonderful places I might visit after I left Kealkill behind me and made my way back to the ferry in Rosslare. This wasn’t hard to do because I had read about so many interesting sites in Sacred Stones of Irelandactually, the harder task was figuring out which potential destinations were most worthwhile and how I could string these together into a (marginally) logical itinerary. The ferry wasn’t departing until 8:45pm and I didn’t need to arrive in Rosslare until 8pm at the absolute latest, so I had quite a lot of time to work with. In the interest of maximising my ability to see great things, stretch my legs frequently, and avoid a long and boring wait at the ferry terminal, I put together the following proposed outline of the day:

Kealkill –> Ardmore (1 hr 45 min)

Ardmore –> Ring (20 min)

Ring –> Ballinageeragh (35 min)

Ballinageeragh –> Gaulstown Dolmen (15 min)

Gaulstown Dolmen –> Knockboy (30 min)

Knockboy –> Waterford (15 min)

Waterford –> Rosslare (1 hr 45 min)

If you don’t feel slightly horrified looking at that list, then something is wrong with you. Even *I* felt slightly horrified looking at that list, and I’m the one who wrote it and was going to try to make it a reality. Not only did I have six destinations to hit prior to Rosslare, but also these destinations were mostly to be found along small and windy country roads that would be as challenging as they were picturesque. On top of this, as on previous excursions, I only had precise navigational instructions for some of the sites. Actually, if I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t even entirely sure what some of the sites were. I was working from notes I’d jotted down while reading. Sometimes all I knew was that there was a sacred stone of some sort in the area, but I’d not indicated whether it was, say, a circle or a dolmen; for other proposed destinations, the name used by the author was slightly different from the names I was seeing on Google Maps or in online fora, so I couldn’t be certain it was even the same place. No matter! You can’t have much of an adventure if you’re already certain of the outcome, right? RIGHT??

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this final day of sightseeing, and it wasn’t even the crazy agenda that was putting me off. I kind of felt that, with my trip to Gougane Barra the previous afternoon, I had already experienced my denouement; there was a sense of closure and finality, and doing more touristy stuff after that seemed excessive. However, I was genuinely interested in the sites I’d read about, and it seemed so wasteful to not take advantage of my proximity (I apply this word generously here) as I passed by on my way to Rosslare.

As you’ll have seen in my schedule above, my first destination was Ardmore, in County Waterford. Unbeknownst to me, I was visiting the town on the penultimate day of the annual Ardmore Pattern Festival, which culminates on St Declan’s Feast Day on July 30th. “Pattern” is another word for “pilgrimage”, so I had come to see stuff related to St Declan at precisely the best or worst time of year, depending on how you feel about sharing spaces with other people. My initial reaction was very negative, but then I thought maybe I should just roll with the serendipity and enjoy the unexpected opportunity to participate in a cultural phenomenon. When I quickly found a (free and convenient) parking space, my mood improved still further.

Ardmore Round Tower, which was founded anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries

At the time of my arrival in Ardmore, all I knew was that it was home to St Declan’s stone–a large and geologically distinct boulder sitting down in the bay. According to legend, St Declan left his bell behind in Wales when he returned to Ireland after a trip, and so God caused the boulder to float across the sea, carrying the bell back to St Declan. This is only one of many Irish stories in which a sacred stone functions as boat, and this is only one of many sacred stones under which the faithful crawl in order to receive blessings; however, it was the only such stone to which I had ready access during my trip to Rosslare.

The other interesting part of Declan’s story is that he reportedly was so grateful to God, he swore that he would set up shop, spiritually speaking, wherever the rock landed. Thus, in Ardmore you also find a ruined church and holy well dating to the 5th century, an oratory (which possibly once contained the grave of St Declan himself) dating to the 9th or 10th Century, and a cathedral dating to the 12th Century. The latter two of these are located in a cemetery which also features a round tower and is a good starting point for a hike around the headland. The cemetery was conveniently close to where I parked, and so I began my sightseeing there.

St Declan’s Oratory, looking out towards the Celtic Sea

Oddly enough, festival-goers seemed more interested in the shops and restaurants and games down in the centre of town, so I pretty much had the cemetery to myself. The weather had been overcast in Kealkill when I departed (Cork was sad to see me go), but Waterford was sunny and clear. Ardmore was beginning to win me over.

St Declan’s Cathedral, which has some unusual Romanesque panels on the exterior wall at the western (left-hand) end

Unlike the roofless church I’d encountered in Baltimore, this one was not filled with brambles and could easily be entered. I popped in for a look because I was curious what it would feel like to stand inside a building that was completely intact except for what is arguably its most important feature. There is actually something quite pleasing about the idea of attending Mass when you are both simultaneously inside and outside, since you could enjoy all the glory of religious architecture as well as all the intrinsic beauty of nature (but, then again, also wind and precipitation…); taking this vision one step further, I imagine it would have been quite a stirring, if frequently damp, experience for Catholics who secretly held mass outdoors at old sacred stones during times when they were not able to openly attend church.

It’s a good thing I strolled through the cathedral shell, since it enabled me to see this:

According to the Internet, which is never wrong, this ogham stone dates to the 5th or 6th Century

This is one of two ogham stones located in the cathedral. Ogham is an early, 20-character alphabet originating in the 1st Century. It was used in both Ireland and western Britain (mostly Pembrokeshire), and the bulk of the Irish specimens are found in the general region of Ireland in which I had been spending my time. Apparently, the two stones in St Declan’s Cathedral likely say: ‘of Luguid son of .. the tribe of Nad-Segamon’ and ‘Amadu’ (or ‘beloved’ in Latin). I was really pleased to see these examples because, even though I had an ogham site on my to-do list for later in the day, you  just never know how things will work out [foreshadowing!].

I followed the helpful signage out of the cemetery and around the headland, enjoying the opportunity to do some exercise and get some sun on a day that I’d anticipated would mostly be spent cooped up in my car. Although I could see some dark clouds approaching in the distance [more foreshadowing!], it was clear and bright where I was, and there were many birds and wildflowers to enjoy.

This was definitely taken in Ireland, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for my homeland

As I looped back in towards the centre of town, I began to hear strains of music floating up the hill on the breeze. At first I thought that someone was having a garden party, but when I headed down towards the beach I discovered a group of women line dancing to some hard-core American honky tonk. I had expected to find many weird and wonderful things in Ireland, but that was most definitely not one of them. The ladies were doing some sort of demo as part of the festival (because nothing says “celebration of a 5th-century saint” like coordinated foot-stomping) by the beach where St Declan’s Stone rests. I can’t quite tell you what emotion I felt stirring in my bosom as I listened to the twangy tunes while breathing in the scent of greasy street food and gazing out to sea, but it probably wasn’t reverence.

Not the most seaworthy-looking of vessels, but even the sleekest of yachts looks awkward when dry docked

It wasn’t until I’d gotten all the way back to my car and was looking at my GPS to programme in my next destination that I realized I’d missed out on seeing St Declan’s Well and the (other) old church ruins. I had a long moment of indecision because I was beginning to feel twitchy about making more progress on my journey, but then I did the math and decided that I had sufficient time and would regret it if I didn’t go have a look.

Although Ardmore has done an excellent job posting visitor information throughout town, I was led astray during my trek to the well. I reached a fork in the road where the left option led down to a hotel and the right option led back up to the walk I had previously taken around the headland; signs for these pointed towards 11 and 1 o’clock respectively, with the label for the well dead centre. To me, this meant that I needed to carry on up the hill, but then keep going straight before the clifftop walk bent away towards the right. There was, in fact, a road, which then turned into a footpath, that allowed me to do this; however,  as I proceeded along this path, I not only could not see a well, but also was pretty sure that I was wandering through someone’s garden. After I felt sufficient misgivings, I turned to retreat and, lo and behold, could see where I wanted to go–but it was below me. I retraced my footsteps, took a speculative trip down to the hotel, walked through the hotel’s parking lot, and then finally found a very understated path leading to the ruins. You really do have to be committed to find some of these places.

St Declan’s Well, from which St Declan drew water to baptise new converts to the faith. I have read conflicting information about the figures on top, but apparently there were originally three–one representing Jesus (left), one representing the repentant thief (right), and one representing the unrepentant thief (destroyed)

The church here is even lacking even more critical features than the one up near the oratory and tower, but it is attractive and interesting in its own right. At the far end of the building (another generous use of a word), visitors have created a shrine near an age-worn crucifix; as at St Finbarr’s Oratory, you can see where pilgrims have chiseled and scratched crosses into the stone. I read an interesting account of a modern-day pattern here–not just the general festival I had witnessed but the actual walk associated with the pilgrimage–and it seems that there are still people who celebrate St Declan’s Day in the traditional way, making circuits around the ruins, praying, interacting with the shrine, and collecting water from the well. The only people I encountered at the site were a flirtatious old guy and his long-suffering wife, so I can’t say I was really in the religious zone during my visit.

This church was probably built in the 12th Century but likely replaced an even older structure (or structures) dating to the time of St Declan

Phase 1 of my trip had taken up considerably more of the day than I’d expected because Ardmore had so much more to offer than I’d realised when planning. That was no problem, since I had some flex time built into my schedule, but I was definitely feeling ready to move out once I’d seen the holy well. Onwards and upwards (or eastwards)!

The next item on my itinerary was a court tomb–the only one in Waterford and the most southerly one in Ireland–located on the edge of a seaside cliff somewhere in the vicinity of Ring in a region known as Ballinamona Lower. I think. I don’t actually know because I never got there. I was trying to follow instructions I’d found online and, for some reason I cannot fathom, no road names or numbers are provided for anything after you turn off the main thoroughfare; everything is described using distances (in kilometres) and numbers of turnoffs. To make matters worse, I was approaching from the south but the instructions were from the north, and although I thought I had identified the roads that would get me to some recognisable point in the directions, I was clearly wrong. The situation had some added hilarity in the form of Gaelic-only roadsigns and a traffic jam caused by a seemingly endless herd of cows crossing the road. It didn’t take me long to throw in the towel on this quest, though it greatly pained me to do so because the local name for this tomb is “Cailleach Bheara’s House”. Yes, that’s right: I had another shot at visiting somewhere connected (even remotely) with the Cailleach, but I was thwarted a second time. Clearly I have angered her.

I had better luck with phases 3 and 4 of my journey, though they also took me to properly remote (but English-speaking) parts of the county. The first of these was Ballynageeragh, a portal tomb near Dunhill. It has a double capstone design and is an impressive structure even if it has had a little modern work done to improve its structural integrity:

Ballynageeragh was excavated in the 1940s and found to contain flint pebbles, burnt bones, and charcoal

Next up was the Gaulstown Dolmen, which is evidently considered one of the most impressive not just in Waterford but in the whole of Ireland. It is located on the property of someone who has a gate at the end of their (very long) drive. Rather than just put the gate, say, 100 m closer to the house–which would be imperceptible from the house itself, and remove an intimidating barrier to visitors–they installed it at the very end of the driveway but left a little gap where pedestrians can squeeze through and hike in to find the dolmen. Although there is a sign on the road, it’s not at all clear where the actual tomb is and how you are supposed to get there. As I have said before, you do have to earn your right to enjoy these sites.

I photographed the Gaulstown Dolmen from all angles and firmly believe that this is its most impressive

The last visit I wanted to make before heading into Waterford (town) for a meander was to the Knockboy stone row and ogham stones. Remember what I said before about being glad I saw the ogham stones at Ardmore since that was my only shot at them during this trip? Yeah. I didn’t make it to either Knockboy site, and I am still not entirely sure how that happened. All I know is that there is a Knockboy neighbourhood just outside the town of Waterford, and the stones are not there. They are, in fact, somewhere near(ish) Dungarvan, which was also the nearest town of note when I got lost trying to find the Cailleach Bheara’s house earlier in the day. The area must be cursed. In my defence–lest you think that it’s I who am cursed, and that the curse involves being an idiot who is hopeless at navigation–I just want to state for the record that I deliberately avoided the confusing obscure online instructions for this destination, and instead relied on Google Maps. Google seemed to be sending me to the correct place, and because it had done so well throughout the rest of the trip, I didn’t think to question it. It’s not as if Google hasn’t led me astray in the past, so I’m not sure why I was so trusting in this instance.

Frankly, though, I had by this point seen so many rocks (let’s face it; sacred or not, that’s what they are) and so much scenery that it was okay. I didn’t mind. The day was growing long, my back was growing sore, my energy was flagging, and I was ready to grab a cup of tea in Waterford and power through the last 50 miles to Rosslare. But then two fun (and here I use the term not generously, but ironically) things happened. First, Google twisted the knife that it had already plunged in my back by directing me to Rosslare via the ferry from Passage East. I didn’t realise it was a ferry route when I set out and I had no cash to pay for my ticket, so I drove all the way to the departure point–an arduous journey made even more tedious by a roadblock and a pair of slow cyclists–only to have to turn around and retrace my footsteps (or…tire treads).

Second, my brakes stopped working, which nearly caused my heart to stop working as well. I was approaching a roundabout, tried to slow down, and…just kept right on speeding along. Luckily there were no other cars in my immediate vicinity, but this was a serious dilemma. I would be okay as long as I stayed in the slow lane and encountered no traffic, but this was not something I could guarantee. I kept trying to find a place to pull over so that I could think through my options, but I was on a stretch of road that had no shoulder. After what seemed like an eternity, I did finally come to a parking lot where I could let the car rest and ponder what to do. No garages were open at that time of day, and none would be again until Monday morning. Additionally, I was suddenly aware that my emergency road service coverage might not apply in a foreign country. I couldn’t leave Ireland without my car, so I would need to wait there until it was fixed–if that was even possible; if it wasn’t possible, that made things even more complicated. If I missed my ferry, I would need to buy a whole new ticket and also arrange additional hotel stays. I would not be able to get a refund on the hotel I’d already booked in Pembroke. I might miss some work. I would definitely miss the play for which I had tickets the following day. This was potentially not just complex, but also really expensive. However, I recognised that nothing mattered as much as my safety, so I would just have to suck it up and figure something out.

Of all the lucky things that happened to me during my trip, I’d have to say that the top of the list was not crashing into someone when my brakes failed; the next one down was that my brakes worked again when I restarted my car after finishing my mild panic attack. I tested them out a few times at different speeds and they seemed okay, so I decided to make a go for Rosslare–driving below the speed limit, far behind anyone else. If I could just get on the ferry and get myself back to the UK, I knew that the logistics of this emergency would be so much easier to deal with.

I now know that the brakes failed because one of my brake callipers had been jammed into place such that it was permanently pushing the brake pad against the rotor and creating a whole lot of friction; in turn, this friction created a whole lot of heat that caused my brake fluid to boil and evaporate. Once the fluid was gaseous, there was no way to generate the hydraulic pressure required for the brake system to respond when I pressed down the pedal. By letting the car rest for a while, I gave the fluid a chance to…well, become a fluid again. I don’t know why it reached the boiling point when it did, or why it never did again, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (also, I’m so impressed I understand all that other car stuff, I am willing to give myself a pass on this one minor point).

I arrived in Rosslare with plenty of time to buy myself some dinner before checking in at the dock and, eventually, boarding the ferry. I stayed awake during the voyage, which was quite a bit choppier than the first one because of “adverse tides”. I curled up on a bench and weathered the waves just fine but was, all the same, extremely grateful to reach the other side. We disembarked around 1am and I made my way to The Dolphin Hotel, a no-frills establishment that had the benefit of both being the closest accommodation to the dock and having a 24-hour check-in. From my point of view, at that time of night, it was on par with The Ritz.

I was so glad I’d had the foresight of reserving a room rather than trying to force myself to drive home in the middle of the night. After all my exploring and driving and hiking and driving some more and getting lost and then having my brakes stop working and then doing even more driving, I was tired. In fact, I was more than tired; I was weary. It had been a memorable week packed full of beautiful, fascinating, delightful, and inspirational things, but it had also been pretty intense. I had accomplished a whole lot. Now it was time to rest.