Ardmore, County Waterford: Inspiring writers, painters and pilgrims for centuries
With a permanent population of about 300 people, the tiny seaside village of Ardmore, County Waterford is a charming little oasis. Save for the odd passing car, the only sounds are the waves and the lonely calls of seagulls across the broad blue expanse of ocean. Strolling along the sandy beach on a rare bright winter’s day, it’s easy to sense how this tranquil spot has inspired modern day writers and artists, as much as it once inspired ancient pilgrims.
Set in a small sheltered bay, tucked into the south coast of Ireland, Ardmore exudes a ‘far away from it all’ peace. In the center of the village, a beautifully preserved round tower and the crumbling ruins of St Declan’s Church only add to the feeling that this is a place apart.
Ardmore is said to have been home to the first Christian settlement in Ireland. According to local lore, St Declan was one of four Christian missionaries who set about converting the Irish long before St Patrick ever arrived. St Declan’s monastery at Ardmore, now vanished except for the round tower and church, is said to be the very first on the island.
St Declan had an eye for a good location. Ardmore’s small, secluded bay stretches out towards the vast and wild Atlantic Ocean. The mile-long stretch of sandy beach is bounded on one side by gently rolling hills sprinkled with farmhouses, on the other by rugged cliffs against which the waves crash in great spumes of sparkling sea foam.
A fishing village for centuries, artists and writers have supplanted early Christians. Nestled between the ancient sites are a host of modern galleries and boutique craft stores, all selling original work by local artists.
This was the bolthole of the writer Molly Keane. A scion of Anglo Irish gentry, Keane used her devastating wit to chart the decline of her class in the newly created Irish state. She started writing at 17, knocking out a series of brilliantly observed, wickedly funny novels about the families who lived in the increasingly decrepit Big Houses of Ireland. She wrote plays too, and her comedies were hits of the London stage. But tragedy struck in 1946; her husband died suddenly and a play she wrote failed spectacularly.
Keane moved to Ardmore with her two daughters, settling in to a house on the cliffside to mourn her losses. For twenty years she published nothing and then came Good Behaviour, probably her finest novel and the first time she published using her own name – until then she had used the pseudonym M.J. Farrell. It was a huge commercial success, critically acclaimed, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Salman Rushdie won that year for Midnight’s Children). But Keane was not remotely disappointed. According to her editor, then 77-year-old Keane returned to Ardmore and celebrated by hosting six parties in a single week.
Keane went on to publish two more novels and died in 1996 at the age of 92. She is buried in the Church of Ireland church in the centre of Ardmore.
Ardmore was also the inspiration for the American writer Nora Roberts, who set three of her best-selling and unashamedly romantic novels here. The fictitious Gallagher family run a pub in the village, “in the shadow of an ancient tower”. Darcy Gallagher, intelligent and beautiful, woos a wealthy businessman; Shawn Gallagher a talented songwriter, “full of loneliness and desperate longing,” succumbs to the mysteries of magic and meets his destiny; Aidan Gallagher, with a hint of wildness glinting in his eyes, falls for a young American woman who “soothes his heart and stirs his blood”.
Visual artists too have found inspiration here. The Ardmore Gallery and Tearoom features paintings and crafts by a host of local artists and some from further afield. In the summer it hosts painting classes for both adults and children. Among the local artists is Brigid Shelly, known as the ‘cow painter’ because of her fondness for painting the animals. She lives locally and has her own gallery in the village.
The remnants of St Declan’s monastery dominate the village. The round tower is still in remarkably good condition and dates back to the 12th century. The church was built a little later but the stone carvings on its exterior walls originally graced an older church on the site.
It’s quite possible that these are the last vestiges of the very first Christian settlement in Ireland. There is some historical evidence of Christian communities living along the south coast in the middle of the 5th century, prior to St Patrick’s arrival on these shores. The area is certainly the most likely landing spot for Christian missionaries coming from Gaul. The local tribe at the time were known as the Déisi. Legend has it that St Declan was born into the Déisi royal family and studied in Wales or Gaul. There he learned of the new religion of Christianity. He travelled to Rome and was eventually anointed a bishop. On his return to Ireland he successfully converted his tribesmen.
As a local saint, St Declan is revered to this day. On his feast day on July 24th, local people gather to celebrate St Declan’s pattern, a pilgrimage around local spots associated with the saint. His Holy Well on the cliffs overlooking the bay, and the spot he retired to at the end of his ministry. More recently a pathway has opened up between Ardmore and Cashel in County Tipperary, once home of the King of Munster. It’s said that when St Patrick did arrive, St Declan travelled to meet him in Cashel. The two had crossed paths previously when the met in Italy along the path to Rome. St Declan was returning home while St Patrick, not yet a bishop, was travelling towards the great city.
Even out-of-season, Ardmore attracts a steady stream of visitors. Hewn into the cliffs above the bay is possibly one of Ireland’s most spectacular hotels and certainly its best loved according to a recent poll of Irish people. The aptly named Cliff House Hotel has stunning uninterrupted views across Ardmore bay. Its 39 rooms are set over six levels and a grass effect on the sloping roofs means that much of the building blends seamlessly into the landscape. The ingenious design also means that the room terraces are entirely screened from neighbouring eyes and each room feels like its own private cocoon. The thriving local art scene and natural surroundings is reflected in the décor with its palette of marine blue, fuchsia, aubergine and sea green. Needless to say original work by leading Irish artisans adorn the walls.
The hotel dates back to the 1930s but was rebuilt in 2008. Despite the contemporary surroundings it still has that old world charm and reliably warm, friendly service. The bar looks out on to bay and in winter a crackling fire burns there all day. The bar menu is excellent with an emphasis on seafood. For true decadence though, the restaurant (also sea-facing of course) offers award-winning fine dining with sumptuous dishes of the most imaginative pairings, all beautifully presented with the artistry of a master painter. For anyone in need of further relaxation, the hotel’s spa has a swimming pool and outdoor Jacuzzi with views across the bay. Or try an outdoor seaweed or peat and ginger bath.
A visit to Ardmore may or may not result in divine or artistic inspiration, but it will certainly leave even the most world-weary of souls refreshed and rejuvenated.