Sunday, 7 April 2013
Returning to the beach and cathedral in Ardmore after many decades
I was in Waterford at the beginning of March, enjoying an early Spring break as I photographed and catalogued some more buildings by the architect AWN Pugin, including Manor Saint John, which once belonged to the Wyse Family.
Strolling around the heart of the city, Christ Church Cathedral was resplendent in the glow of floodlight and moonlight. After finishing my Pugin quest, we thought of heading out to see Co Waterford’s other Church of Ireland cathedral, Saint Carthage’s in Lismore.
But it was many years since I had been on the Waterford coast road, and before noon two of us found ourselves following the Copper Coast from Tramore west towards Dungarvan. Over lunch, I recalled that I was last on the beach at Ardmore when I was a young teenager on my grandmother’s farm near Cappoquin. I then realised Co Waterford has another, oft-forgotten cathedral: Saint Declan’s in Ardmore.
Moments later we were driving out of Dungarvan, on the road that climbs above Ring and Helvick Head, and heading for the small fishing village and seaside resort of Ardmore, just five miles off the road from Dungarvan to Youghal. Perched on the side of a cliff overlooking one of the finest beaches on the south coast, Ardmore has breathtaking views of the Atlantic.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ardmore is part of the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore; in the Church of Ireland, Ardmore was part of Waterford and Lismore until recent years, when it was transferred to the Diocese of Cloyne and became part of the Youghal Group of Parishes.
But local people claim this is the oldest Christian settlement in Ireland. They insist Saint Declan brought Christianity to their corner of south-west Waterford long before Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432.
Saint Declan’s life
Local historians usually date Saint Declan’s life between 350 and 450, and say it was he who brought Christianity to the people of the Decies, an ancient principality in Co Waterford. Tradition says he was born near Cappoquin and Lismore, and some accounts say he was baptised by Saint Colmán. At an early age, he travelled to Rome, where another Irish pilgrim, Bishop Ailbe, recommended him to Pope Hilary who consecrated him ad bishop and sent him back to Ireland with a mission.
On his way back through Italy, Saint Declan met Saint Patrick on his way to Rome. Back in Ireland, Saint Declan began his mission, assisted by disciples he brought with him from Rome. They built churches, preached sermons and baptised people throughout the Déise region in west Waterford.
After a second visit to Rome, Saint Declan returned through Wales to Ireland. Legend says he left his bell behind him in Wales, but he was seaborne when he realised his forgetfulness. His prayer for the bell’s recovery was answered when a boulder carrying the bell came sailing over the water to his boat and helped him to navigate the way to Ardmore, where he founded his monastic city on land donated by the King of the Déise.
He frequently visited Cashel, the seat of royal power in Munster, where Declan and Ailbe renewed their friendship – Ailbe was later known as “the Patrick of Munster” while Declan became “Patrick of the Déisí.”
Saint Declan’s Cathedral
On a hill above Ardmore, the ruins of Saint Declan’s Cathedral, dating from the eighth or ninth century, stands alongside the 30-metre, twelfth century round tower, and an older oratory built on the site of Saint Declan’s grave.
The cathedral, built on the site of the original monastery, spans a number of periods, with parts dating from as early as the ninth century and the nave from the twelfth century.
The west wall of the cathedral incorporates stone carvings retrieved from the earlier ninth century building. The pictorial panels include carvings of various biblical scenes of images, including Adam and Eve at the Tree of Knowledge, Solomon’s Judgment, the Visit of the Magi in five panels, and an early image of a harp, known as the “Ardmore Harper” but perhaps a representation of King David as the psalmist.
Inside the cathedral, two Ogham stones are displayed in small alcoves. One commemorates Lugaid, the son (or grandson) of Nia Segmon; the other is carved with one simple word, Amadu (the loved one).
The Annals of Inisfallen record that the builder of the cathedral, Ó Duibrátha, Uasal-shagart (“noble priest”), died in 1203 shortly after finishing his work. Further work was carried out in the 14th century on the south wall and the west gable.
Round tower and oratory
The round tower was built in the twelfth century – one local historian says it was built at the same time as the Tower of Pisa, “but on a firmer foundation.” The conical cap fell off the tower and was replaced in the 1800s. Today, this is one of the best-preserved round towers in Ireland.
The 30 metre tower is divided into four storeys, marked off by projecting string courses. The entrance doorway four metres above the ground made the tower a refuge for the monks or a safe place for their books and sacred vessels.
¬Simple openings provide light to each floor except the top floor, which has four equidistant windows. Inside the tower, 16 corbels supported wooden floors, and five of these are carved with grotesque faces.
Near the cathedral, the Beannachán or Saint Declan’s Oratory, also known as Saint Declan’s House, may be the oldest building on the site, dating from the eighth century. Tradition says Saint Declan is buried inside. Over the centuries, generations of pilgrims have scooped out earth from the top of the saint’s grave, leaving a deep trench inside the oratory.
The walls of the oratory were restored and a pitched slate roof added in 1716 by Thomas Milles, Church of Ireland Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1708-1740).
Below the monastic site, at Díseart Decláin, Saint Declan’s Hermitage, his well and the church he retired to stand near the beginning of a cliff walk above the town. The well served as an early bapistry, while the church or hermitage probably dates from the twelfth century.
The walk along the cliff path begins near the Cliff House Hotel and ends back in the Main Street. The route passes an old Coastguard Station, built on the Odell estate in 1867 and burnt down during the Civil War; the wreck of the Samson which ran aground in 1987; an abandoned World War II coastguard lookout; and an older lookout tower, known as the castle and abandoned in 1921.
Ardmore after Saint Declan
Saint Declan’s successor, Ultan, is said to have died in 555, but details of the history of the monastery are sketchy after that. Ardmore’s status as a diocese, with its own bishop, was confirmed at the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. Although Ardmore was not included in the list of dioceses approved at the Synod of Kells in 1152, it was named as a church that claimed the right to a bishopric, and intermittent Bishops of Ardmore continue to make an appearance between 1170 and 1210.
Bishop Eugene of Ardmore took the oath of fealty to Henry II in 1172 and was a witness to a charter in Lismore between 1172 and 1179. However, he later moved to England, where he was Suffragan Bishop of Lichfield in 1184 and 1185 in the absence of Bishop High de Nonant. In England, Bishop Eugene was known as “a man of high repute and saintly life.” He was well-paid as Suffragan Bishop of Lichfield, and is said to have returned to Ardmore with inspiring ideas for rebuilding the cathedral.
Bishop Ua Selbaig, who died at Cork in 1205, may have been Bishop of Ardmore, although other accounts describe him as Bishop of Ross. Sometime after 1210, Ardmore was united with the Diocese of Lismore, the cathedral became a parish church and the Diocese of Ardmore faded from memory.
The round tower was defended in 1642 by a 40-strong military force loyal to the Confederation of Kilkenny against a besieging force led by Lord Broghill, Roger Boyle from Lismore, later Lord Orrery, and his nephew, Richard Boyle, Lord Dungarvan.
The chancel of the cathedral continued in use as the Church of Ireland parish church until 1838, when the present parish church, Saint Paul’s, was built on the slopes below. A year earlier, Saint Declan’s Roman Catholic parish church was built on the shoreline, above Saint Declan’s Rock.
On the beach below the hill and the village, on a rocky ledge, Saint Declan’s Stone is said to be the “travelling boulder” that bore the bell that guided him to Ardmore. Saint Declan’s “Pattern” is celebrated on his feast day, 24 July, or on the nearest Sunday. During the pattern, local people and visiting pilgrims crawl between the stone and the underlying rocks as they pray for healing and blessings.
Apart from Saint Declan and the monastic sites, Ardmore has its own unique literary tourism.
The Cork-born writer Katherine Thurston (1875-1911) and her husband Ernest Temple Thurston (1879-1933) lived for some years at Maycroft. Many of their novels are set in Ardmore, thinly disguised with fictitious names like Ballysaggartmore, Carrigmore and Rathmore.
The English writer and radical journalist Claud Cockburn (1904-1981) moved to Ardmore in 1947, and was a columnist for The Irish Times until his death. His wife Patricia was a close friend and neighbour of the novelist Molly Keane (1904-1996), who moved to Ardmore after the death of her husband, Robert Keane from Cappoquin. Molly Keane is buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard.
The American novelist Nora Roberts – unknown to many readers of this column, but one of the highest-earning and best-selling romance writers – has made Ardmore the location for “The Gallaghers of Ardmore Trilogy,” her three novels based in Ardmore: Jewels of the Sun, Tears of the Moon and Heart of the Sea.
Ardmore, which won the Tidy Towns Competition in 1992, retains its own innate charm. With its pretty location, quaint streets, thatched houses, hotels, cafés, restaurants and bars, it is both a pleasant place to live and a delightful seaside resort, and the population of 330 people increases in size during the summer season.
The Main Beach is a mile long, and there are several other beaches, including Goat Island, Ballyquin, the Curragh, and Whiting Bay. Surprisingly, an out-of-date sewage system and modern farming practices that cause run-off from fields to pour into the bay, have made it difficult for Ardmore to maintain its Blue Flag Beach status. But, paradoxically, this problem has slowed down the pace of housing development, helping to preserve much of Ardmore’s charm.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay was first published in the April 2013 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).