Thursday, August 18, 2022

Ardmore, home of Waterford’s famed round tower, is one of our county’s stunning all-year round destinations.   

In the fourth part of our series, Dermot Keyes heads west to St Declan’s hallowed ground in Lismore before spending an immersive afternoon on the Helvick Peninsula… 

 “WHEN DECLAN was old, he returned to his Hermitage (Dísert), a place of solitude and prayer, to get away from his city, where his monastery was located.”  

So reads the brief essay which accompanies the Turlough Cowman/James Hurley monument to St Declan on the Cliff Road overlooking Ardmore Bay, erected to mark the Millennium celebrations in 2000.  

“In art, he is often shown with his little bell, which, according to legend, was waited across the sea from Wales (where he had been visiting) on top of a large stone after his servant had forgotten to pack it. ‘Follow that stone’, said Declan, ‘and wherever it comes to land will be my place of resurrection.’ It landed in Ardmore.”  

A trip to Ardmore was a rare treat in our childhood. The wide bay and its calm waters, the gently sloped cliff overlooking the beach upon which the village expanded over the centuries and, of course, its famed round tower, remain firm favourites with locals and visitors alike.  

Over the years, it’s a place I’ve returned to many times, be it for work, pleasure or, occasionally, to be alone with my thoughts and away from the rigmarole of routine. For this particular country lad, it still only feels ‘down the road’ from Waterford city once I get behind the wheel.  

Its stunning Cliff Walk has offered me some hint at the contemplation Declan, “the Patrick of the Déise” must have enjoyed here some 16 centuries ago. I’ve also considered Declan’s good fortune that the large stone which bears legend to his Ardmore story didn’t find its way to the far less hospitable Sceiligs off the Kerry coast. Talk about a good ecclesiastical break!  

The start/end point of St Declan’s Way, the 115-kilometre pilgrim walk which links Ardmore to Cashel (officially re-opened last September), the seaside village was at its picture perfect best when the Waterford News & Star ventured west last week.  

“I’ve seen a few people around with walking sticks who look like they’ve been on (the pilgrim trail) ,” said David Coe, who works as a mixologist at The Cliff House Hotel’s bar.  

“That our own version of the camino is being accessed is great news; you’re probably talking about a couple of weeks’ walk between here and Cashel for most people taking the route and it’s brilliant to have people visiting the area in the most traditional way possible.”  

A native of Portlaw, this is David’s second year working at the five-star hotel, which also boasts a Michelin Star restaurant – and he’s clearly enamored with the area.  

“I’d only been to Ardmore a couple of times prior to getting the job last year but when I got here, it was just as I’d remembered it, which is a good thing,” he said.  

The stunning five-star Cliff House Hotel, overlooking Ardmore Bay.  

Success and development 

“Development around here has been managed well in tandem with all the success Ardmore has had in the Tidy Towns. The village is quiet enough in the winter, and busy in the summer, whereas the hotel is busy all year round. During the summers we get a lot more non-residents coming into us but then we have more summer staff so it balances itself out well. There are a lot more international guests around this year, staying with us and visiting the area, which is good to see as well.”  

Come September, David will represent Ireland at the Giffard West Cup Cocktail Competition Global Finals, which will be held at the Giffard Distillery in the western French city of Angers.  

“I won the Irish heat in Dublin in April so I’m really pleased about that and I’ve had great support from the hotel as well. I’m the first member of my family to represent Ireland internationally so it’s a very proud moment for me.”  

Cliff House General Manager Patrick Shields said since the hotel’s re-opening in June 2021, “it’s been like one continuous season right through winter and into summer. And this summer is actually quite similar to last summer; business levels last summer were extremely strong upon reopening and we’ve maintained those levels right through the year, which has been very, very pleasing. We definitely think there’s still a huge appetite this year for staycations and that’s certainly what we’re seeing in Ardmore.”  

The 39-bed hotel and spa’s owners (every room faces the sea) also run the Urchin Bar & Adventures on Ardmore’s Main Street. Featuring a bar, a lounge and outdoor dining area, Patrick added: “It’s been absolutely buzzing with live music every night this summer. As well as serving food inside, we have the pantry which serves teas, coffees, pastries and food outside from early morning. It’s got beachside access as well and then of course we have the adventure activities available from there as well, including sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, rock climbing and much more – and that’s flying as well.”  

Subject to planning approval, four bedrooms are set to be added to the far side of the hotel, which would bring bedroom numbers up to 43, something Patrick and his colleagues are “very excited about”.  

Katie Lincoln of Ardmore Pottery & Gallery, which her mother Mary founded in 1983.  

Just down the Cliff Road, Ardmore Pottery & Gallery is a year shy of the 40th anniversary of its opening by Mary Lincoln, who got the venture off the ground “with a Credit Union loan and a prayer”.  

While Mary is still involved in the business primarily through her pottery, daughter Katie took on the day-to-day running of the business in January 2020, both on the shopfloor and in the expanding online area.  

“Part of this shop was actually my bedroom,” Katie sunnily told me in an outlet decorated by a striking range of Irish art and craftwork created by over 150 designers and artists.  

“My mum set the shop up when I was a kid and since she’s a potter, it’s always been a workshop combined with a shop,” she said.  

“From the get-go, she always stocked other Irish makers and artists and she’s retained that selling point since day one. She’s still advising me on the business as well as making pottery here because I was involved in a completely different field before I came back to Ardmore in 2019 and we’ve retained that vein in terms of what we stock here. It’s a mix of a shop, a gallery space and a workshop and it’s a very welcoming space here, looking out onto the bay with the beach just below us.”   

Katie admitted her return home wasn’t pre-ordained, written in the stars or anything like that. “I went to college in Dublin, I married a Dub (Anto Howard) and lived there for 20 years. I was working on a freelance basis in television and my mum was getting to the stage where she wanted to be a little less busy when it came to front of house work in the shop so she spoke to me and my sister Sarah about it and everyone thought it’d be Sarah who’d step in because she has her own range of pottery that she makes. But I think my sister knew that it’s a job which involves a lot of chat with people and dealing with the public so my husband and I had a chat about it and realised the opportunity that moving back represented. It was about two years before we actually made the move but now that we’ve done it, we just love it. We feel really lucky that we made the move before the pandemic – I was still only getting the knack of operating the cash register before the pandemic arrived but ourselves and our two boys Tom and Jimmy settled into life here really well before home schooling came into all our lives.”  

The move towards online business was accelerated by Covid, with the Local Enterprise Office’s (LEO) Trading Online Voucher proving welcomingly timely.  

“It’s a huge job getting a website up and running and if the shop doors had been open, we wouldn’t have got the site developed to the extent we did and we’re really happy with it. Teresa Lenane, who is from the village, is working with us two days a week to help us grow and develop the website so creating our online presence during the pandemic was a real silver lining for us. So it’s a case of onward and upward on that front. But what a place to work. It really is lovely to be home.”  

Éimhín Ní Chonchúir, Manager of Sólás na Mara, pictured outside the business at Helvick Pier.  

An Ghaeltacht 

Driving out of Ardmore, bound for An Rinn and Helvick, I had only one regret. I wish I’d been in the village longer, where very tasteful new homes are being completed on the seafront next to the parish church. I’ll rectify that matter when next I trek west.  

Passing through An Sean Phobal, the final resting place of my Grand Uncle John Keyes, the sun continued to blaze brilliantly. Only a handful of vehicles came into view on the short trek through the heart of the peninsula before the right turn down into Helvick.  

Based in a former fish auction house adjacent to Helvick Pier, Sólás na Mara Manager Éimhín Ní Chonchúir produces tea and coffee for her afternoon city visitors, prior to our unwinding in the serenity of Helvick’s seaweed baths.  

“My brother Cian is the physiotherapist here, hence the wellness side of the business – massage and skincare – that we’ve added onto the seaweed baths, while my husband David (Towey) is responsible for crafting everything here, keeping us tipping away and going,” said Éimhín.  

“We opened on the May Bank Holiday back in 2013 and, slowly but surely, we’ve been growing and it’s genuinely been a lovely experience for all of us. We want people to visit here, have a really pleasant experience and hopefully come our way again down the line.”  

My visit coincided with the business’s busiest week of the year, but Éimhín and her team still accommodated us with an early afternoon seaweed bath.  

Three to five pore opening minutes in a handmade cedar wood steam box was followed by 45 gloriously calm minutes in a bathtub filled with freshly piped, warm seawater along with locally harvested seaweed. The only lingering thought I had throughout it all was that I was sat there for work purposes. Oh, for a few more assignments like this!  

The famed seaweed baths at Sólás na Mara, which first opened its doors to customers in 2013.  

The session concluded with an overhead shower of fresh but not too cold water. I’d swear the rotation of the planet cranked down a few gears during my time in Helvick, another place I’ve had decades-old affection for.  

Éimhín, a proud local and mother of ceathrar páistí, added: “We’ve a lot of people visiting Dungarvan, Helvick and the Greenway and it’s fabulous. Staycations have made West Waterford and Helvick that little more discovered, which is great. And people who are planning to come here are increasingly trying to include a seaweed bath on their weekend away here, which is great. It’s a traditional Irish treatment; people used to come to take the waters, they were known as the ‘Gaybricks’ from Tipperary (phonetically, this comes from the Irish ‘d’oibrigh sé’ when Irish speaking visitors to the local baths would ask ‘Did it work?’). They came to the pools in Dungarvan, camped in a field above us here and took the waters every day. And now we have people coming back, sometimes each day of their holidays, to take the seaweed bath so it really is a case of history repeating itself… We’re so fortunate here, between the beach and the wider area, it’s nice and safe, everybody knows you, an Ghaeilge, an cheoil, gach rud, tá sé go h-álainn. And I’m delighted to be here. Tá sé go hiontach.”  

Seven minutes along the peninsula, my final visit of the day is to Joan Clancy, one of An Rinn’s best-known ambassadors.  

Sitting on the balcony alongside her art gallery, looking back towards Ceann Heilbhic, I do little to conceal my slightly slackened jaw. On a clear day from here, one can see all the way to Tramore’s Metalman, along with “the glow of Hook Head”.  

With the Comeraghs gloriously in view and the two-mile long Cunnigar literally down the road, there are few better vistas in Waterford than the one Joan has from her garden.  

“Things were very quiet, naturally, during the lockdown, but you just had to keep going and hope for the best,” said Joan.  

Joan Clancy, a long-time resident and one of An Rinn’s greatest ambassadors, standing in her gallery at Maoil a’ Chóirne alongside ‘Sea Voices of the Storm’, a painting by her daughter Blawnin 

“Having all of this on view around me was certainly a help. It’s impossible not to love this place. But of course, to get back to having a proper opening, like we had for Ross Stewart (‘Secret of Kells’, ‘Wolfwalkers’) in June, having people here with a glass of wine or a soft drink and everyone enjoying each other’s company, it was lovely. It was nice to have people calling in. We’re between exhibitions now so it’s by appointment to visit. If we were open today for an exhibition, I wouldn’t have been swimming in Helvick before lunch! But we came through two difficult years to the best of our ability; we have our loyal customers and clients and we’re getting lots of enquiries about the paintings. And then when they come to see the paintings, many say that the view outside vies with the paintings inside!”   

Having started to build a house in nearby Ballinagoul with her husband, the singer and actor Tom Clancy (1924-1990), the property we’re sat in came on the market in August 1987 so Tom and Joan bought it.  

“I was originally from Dungarvan and Tom was from over the mountain in Carrick-on-Suir and we’d always intended to come back here from the United States. Tom’s Uncle Peter used to come to Ring as a young man. He spoke Irish, he loved the songs and the traidisúin. So Tom and the rest of the family heard all these tales of this wonderful place when they were at home in William Street in Carrick and I think it planted a seed about this ‘Shangri-La’ in their heads and subsequently, Liam, Bobby and Tom made their homes here.  

“And then Paddy, Mary and their children used to rent a house down here during the summer so the four Clancy Brothers and their kids used to meet here. It was great for the kids – and of course the weather is always like this! It’s ever changing, but it’s always beautiful. It throws up its own mystery and intrigue.”  

Returning home with daylight aplenty to spare, my good fortune to have been born in this county and to still live and work here felt as clear to me as the sun over beautiful Helvick that blissful afternoon. 

Helvick Pier, set against the beautiful backdrop of Dungarvan Bay, with the Knockmealdowns out of picture further west and the Comeraghs beneath the wispy cloud 

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