The 'Rian Bó Phadraig' is an early ecclesiastical highway, possibly a
fifth to seventh century roadway or track linking the ancient
ecclesiastical centres of Cashel in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co.
Waterford. The continuation of the Rian southwards from Lismore to
Ardmore suggests an association with St. Declan of Ardmore who preached
Christianity in Munster counties prior to St. Patrick.
The Ardmore route is explored is some detail by Michael Mulcahy in his article 'St Declan's Road' in the Ardmore Journal, 1988. It is worth noting that in early Christian times there were main roads from provincial capitals to outlying parts of a province. Thus, for example, early tradition refers to St. Declan driving his chariot from Ardmore to Cashel. At that time roads from Cashel connected primary sites in Thomond, Kerry and strongholds of the Decies. All provincial capitals in turn were connected with Tara by the four great roads which dramatically converged there.
The standard reference for those interested in the Rian is Rev. P. Power's article The Rian Bo Phadruig - the ancient highway of the Decies, published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1905 which traces the origins, geography and traditions associated with the route.
The ancient roadway was explored in Smith's history of Waterford in the mid 1700's, when it was clearly traceable across the untilled landscape. A significant contribution made by Rev. Power was the tracing of hundreds of Irish placenames along the route, unrecorded on the 1840 Ordnance Survey maps. The evidence they yielded remained unexploited by non-Irish speaking historians and travellers like the aforementioned Smith.
These Irish usages revealed that the road was used by holy men of Cashel and Lismore. On the north side of the Knockmealdowns, for example, one of these sites (a well known as 'Tobar Mochuda') is associated with Mochuda, the founder of Lismore, beside which lies archaeological evidence of a chapel founded by him. Rev. Power traced the Rian from Cashel to Lismore via Ardfinnan, Kildanoge and the summit of the Knockmealdowns, and classified the route in four sections:
(a) Cashel to Ardfinnan, a distance of 15 miles
(b) Ardfinnan to Lismore over the Knockmealdowns, a distance of 12 miles
(c) Lismore to Ardmore, a distance of 20 miles
(d) Lismore to the Bride river, a distance of five miles
The preservation of the ancient road through the centuries was attributed to the reluctance of farmers to work the land bearing the saint's name. Its appearance, where unobscured, is that of a turf track with grass or heath overgrowth, visible as a short depression. It measures seven feet wide on average, flanked on both sides by grassy banks measuring a few inches to several feet high. This gives the overall impression of a furrow in places, and is more clearly defined from the Waterford county boundary to Lismore.
The ancient folkloric tradition offers a colourful and epic interpretation of the origins of the route. The legend relates how St. Patrick's cow, quietly grazing the banks of the River Tar has its calf stolen by a cattle thief from Kilwatermoy or somewhere south of the Bride river in Co. Waterford, twenty miles away. The cow sets out, thundering furiously though the mountains, horns raking the landscape in pursuit of thief and calf. The supernatural beast eventually recovers the calf, leaving in its wake the striated and furrowed route that was thereafter to be known as 'Riann Bo Phadraig' or 'the track of St. Patrick's cow'.
The evidence, however, does not support the claim that St. Patrick was directly associated with the route. Lismore was founded in 634 ad, some two centuries after St. Patrick, and the road's primary purpose was to link Cashel and Lismore. More likely, as discussed by Rev. Power, the tradition of paying a cow tribute by locals to the successors of St. Patrick - the holy men who travelled the route – explains the origins of the name.
Although recent intensive farming, road widening, land drainage and afforestation, make stretches of the Rian unidentifiable, it is still possible to retrace the steps of the early saints of Ireland and the furrows of St. Patrick's cow with the aid of Rev. Power's map, a sense of history and the capacity to wonder.
Ardmore Enterprise Co-operative mapped and placed some signs the route in 1994 and produced a series of maps and a brochure. The brochure listed 64 sites of historic, natural and archaeological significance along St. Declan’s Way.
In 2005, the St. Declan’s Way Committee was formed to revive the route and this has now resulted in the fully waymarked trail we have today.
The route as marked today differs in several places from the route mapped in 1994, particularly the section over the Knockmealdown Mountains. For reference the 1994 maps can be seen below. These maps should not be used for navigation purposes.