Following the pilgrims footsteps

On Saturday 23rd July the Camino Society of Ireland came to our community to appreciate the role of the harbour in medieval pilgrimage. On a walk led by Damien McLellan, we met at Passage East, took the ferry to Ballyhack, and wandered the roads in search of pilgrims’ footsteps. Although long since passed, their echoes are still to be heard if you only take the time to listen. Medieval pilgrimage is now accepted as having been a tradition amongst Irish nobility and merchant classes. Through it, indulgences were earned, which many believed would shorten the soul’s time in purgatory. One of the best known perhaps is our own James Rice of Waterford who made the trip twice aboard ships from Waterford. Louise Nugent in her own blog recounts the journey of three of the Ó’Driceoil clan who did likewise. But little remains of how those of lesser means and position in society journeyed.

The first thing that struck me about Saturday’s Camino Society walk was the energy and enthusiasm of the group as Damien and I strolled into the community centre in Passage East. Gathered outside the Black Sheep Cafe for refreshments, it reminded me at once of those gatherings at cafes, refugios, or albergues along the Camino routes where walkers are collected, swapping stories with gusto with those of a like mind and shared experience.

Meeting us was our co-guide Breda Murphy and we were at once conscious of a well-oiled organisation that helped put us at our ease. The walk you see was originally to have a 25-30 person maximum, but such was the interest it had grown to almost 50. With crossings of roads and negotiating narrow footpaths, this was a matter of concern to us, but the obvious care and attention to booking in and managing the group from the committee of the Society gave a clear sense of shared responsibility.

At 11 am after a health and safety briefing and introductions by Joe, Damien took the floor to talk briefly about his theory and to place it in a historical context. Damien explained how Henry II had landed at Passage East in 1172 to cement the Norman invasion and had carved up the harbour area for various individuals and groups including the Knights Templars who gained the ferry rights to cross the estuary.

Damien sets the scene, photo courtesy of Jim McNichols

We then moved towards the strand, where I was to give an orientation of the area and some insight into maritime trade. The mist made my task a bit of a challenge as we couldn’t see as far as Duncannon, but I quickly explained the location, the direction of the sea, and the great highway that was the three sister rivers. I covered the importance of the strategic location of Passage, the spot where ships of old could easily sail to and find a refuge, and how because of this the area flourished and was even part of the city of Waterford, controlled directly by the corporation into the 19th century. I also touched on the relevance of the Norman invasion to this importance – how merchants settled in Waterford, exported animal and fish products across a network of alliances in the UK and the continent, and imported finished goods, wine, and salt. Such links and such regular sailings of course made it much easier for pilgrims to travel both away and home. I omitted to mention the Spanish Fort, however.

We then walked up the White Wall and Breda gave a sense of what life was like in Passage for ordinary people where men were often away at sea, or worse their widows were left to struggle alone to raise families with only their neighbours for support. Breda spoke of the work of the cockle women, how they foraged for cockles all around the harbour area as far as Tramore, how they harvested from Monday to Wednesday, boiled them up on a Thursday, and sold them on the streets of Waterford on a Friday. She introduced such characters as Nana, Masher, and Aunt Molloy and gave a true sense of their role in the community and also showed the group around the village where much of the evidence of the cockle pickers is still to be seen.

As we crossed on the ferry to Ballyhack we were relieved that the deck was not too busy, we had plenty of room as walkers. A lot more comfortable for us however compared to the lot of the medieval ferry, an open row boat, or perhaps a larger craft shared with farm animals and horses.

“Pilgrim landing” as we depart the Passage East Car Ferry. Photo courtesy of Jim McNichols

In Ballyhack we walked the footpath towards Arthurstown where we had a quick stop off for me to mention the emergency era minefield before turning up the Church Road to start making our way back towards Ballyhack. At the back entrance to the graveyard we were met by Liam Drought who was invited by Damien to give a local perspective on the area.

Liam first mentioned that where we were standing was a part of an old route that went up to the local Fair Green which was an area of great antiquity and which held a fair each July (25th – St James Day) that brought people from all over which he went on to describe. He highlighted the importance of agriculture and fisheries in the locality and the abundance of trade that had gone on in the past centered on the river. Living on Arthurstown Quay Liam had a number of very interesting points to make on how thriving the river once was. At this point Damien asked if I would recount another St James Day fair – a story of the locality and the Bristol fair in 1635 when a convoy of 50 ships departed under naval escort for protection from Barbary pirates.

A chart of Waterford Harbour by Francis Jobson 1591, showing the defences but also the day marks by which ships could safely navigate including Ballyhack church – named in the chart “Temple St James”
Trinity College Library. You can view the high definition here.
OSI historic series highlighting the church and the fair green
I think this is the only likeness I am aware of for the church, taken from a sketch of the area by Thomas Philips dated 1685. NLI

Next we entered the graveyard where Liam explained the location of St James Church, its fate, and how it was used as a day mark or landmark in ship navigation in the days of sail. The church was removed and used in the building of the protestant church at Blackhill, Duncannon.

Damien points to the location of the church alter
The Ilen entering harbour under engine power as we walked…co-incidental, but a very timely visitor

As we headed away again along the old road, Damien gave a short talk about the millstone quarry that once operated and then we joined with the main road, where a few of our party decided to head back to Ballyhack whilst the majority climbed the hill to our last stop. This was on a “Green Road” the extent of which was obvious from its width and fine retaining walls. We stopped a few hundred yards in where on a much sunnier day we could see Tory Hill and Mount Leinster away in the distance and Damien recounted the likely route a less well-off walking pilgrim would take to get back up the country and the very obvious stops. All of which was explaind in his article published by History Ireland – Reclaiming the Way of St James

On the Green Road

Damiens final remarks was to state that although the landowner had given us full permission to walk the green road that it only leads to the main road which is dangerous. In fact even though the historical footprint of the walk is very evident, Damien is adamant that having walked it once and cycled it twice from St James Gate in Dublin the only safe part of the walk for modern-day pilgrims is the Barrow Way, something he hopes the society may consider exploring.

Looking back on Byrnes from the ferry, as we head home

Returning to Ballyhack and having a lovely lunch in the comfortable surroundings of Byrnes of Ballyhack I could not help thinking of the rich maritime history we had showcased on the day. There’s much yet to be uncovered, or relearned of the areas past, and much that can be enjoyed by the modern walker. It just takes an eager spirit and perhaps some research and interpretation by others in authority. You could also get a sense of it from the water by boat tour with Bob and Walter on the Waterford Estuary Heritage Boat Tours.

Of course, we were also very much relieved that everyone had got around safely and we have the Camino Society committee to thank very much for that. And much more as it happens. The walk participants all paid a small fee towards the event and which the Society generously decided to top up towards our chosen charity, the Dunmore East RNLI. €500 – no small amount and we were thrilled to receive it.

This weekend the local lifeboat will be collecting, I’ll be helping out on the car ferry on Saturday so please give generously and if you see me please say hello

Buen Camino.

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