Rothar Routes

Cycle routes & pilgrim journeys in Ireland and Europe …..

Barrow Towpath Development

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood Close to the Sugar Factory, Carlow

The proposal to develop a 115km long cycle trail along the Barrow towpath is certainly generating plenty of healthy debate. Public information events have been held this week in towns along the Barrow. A balanced debate has been conducted on ‘Today with Sean O Rourke’ and we heard a balanced report on the RTE Nine O Clock News tonight.

I attended the Carlow Information event yesterday. It was well attended and it seems to have finally captured the public imagination. For a while I have been wondering if the general public was aware or interested in the proposal.

The Information event consisted of detailed plans, maps, drawings, videos and pop up banners. Waterways Ireland staff were on hand to answer queries, and one couldn’t but be impressed by it all. On the face of it, it looks like a massive win win for Carlow!

A 115kms off road cycle track along a beautiful river is certainly every cyclists dream and I am sure local tourism providers must be salivating at the prospect of 100,000 German cyclists advancing south from Kildare to St Mullins!

I haven’t met anyone who is against the promotion and development of the River Barrow and of tourism in Carlow. But there are real concerns about the nature of this project. (And the painting of objectors as a ‘rent a crowd’ or as serial objectors is a cheap shot and unfair to the individuals involved. The funny thing about the individuals against the project, is that they are probably the people who use it most, and know more about the river and the threat this development poses).

As a cyclist I have to be honest and say I have a slight conflict of interest – I am a big lover of off road cycling. And I have included this route in my book South Leinster Cycle routes which will be on sale in the next few months. But I am not in favour of the proposal for a number of reasons.

My thoughts on this project are that the idea is great and the motivations for the proposal are all very laudable. However I believe they are misplaced. I say that because I am more familiar with cycling on the Barrow Track than most – I cycle it most weeks of the year. I have cycled every inch of it and  on a number of occasions I have cycled from Grand Canal Basin in Dublin, down the Grand Canal and the Barrow Line to Carlow.

Why am I opposed to it you might ask?

(1) For one, this river is notorious for flooding!

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Milford, County Carlow

Every year, without fail, the river bursts its banks. Sometimes it does it for weeks on end and flooding isn’t confined to the winter season. I have seen the path impassable in June. Obviously when it is flooded it cannot be used by anyone – unless they are in a boat!

But the big problem is that the floods damage the hard surface areas. Waterways Ireland have, by stealth, laid hardcore surfaces on long stretches of the river bank and every year this is damaged and washed away. The vast majority of the planned surface (84.8%) will be covered with an unbound surface type. I am not an engineer but I cannot see how this will not be badly damaged each winter and after heavy falls of rain. This will result in potholes.


Clashganney is beautiful even when flooded – but impassable!

(2) This is a living breathing ecosystem. It has been described as ‘the most beautiful riverside walk in these islands’ by environmentalist Dick Warner. And it is. A hard core path through the middle of it can only harm the balance of nature. The river bank is teeming with wildlife and plant life. I am no expert but while on my bike on the grassy path, I have encountered hares, otters, foxes, rabbits, swans, water hens, herons, kingfishers, egrets and buzzards not to mention the more common species we are all very familiar with. I fear the cycle path will have a negative impact on their habitat. They own it too!

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Mickey Webster’s Lock, Carlow

(3) This is a well established national long distance WALKING route! The route is shared with walkers, runners and fishermen. Throw in the targeted 100,000 German cyclists and we are likely to have mayhem! That 100,000 figure is not mine – it is in the planning application!.

It is widely recognised that there is a major problem in Ireland with access to land for walking. There are few rights of way and as a result many of our long distance walking routes actually end up being routed for long stretches along roads! Here we have 115kms of a grassy path and we are thinking of removing the sod and replacing it with a hard surface!!

This has potential to be dangerous for users. I am not scaremongering. But I have been on my bike while fishermen have been casting their rods and that has always presented danger for me as a cyclist. It would be some catch for a fisherman but not too nice for the biker!

There is also the danger of someone ending up in the river. And I speak from experience because, yeah I know it sounds stupid but I was that cyclist! I was deposited in the River close to the Sugar factory one December day some years when my front wheel hit one of the many ruts caused by heavy vehicle traffic that has rutted the track. Luckily I could swim and got out.

Barrow in Flood

Barrow in Flood at Braganza, Carlow Town

(4) Maintenance. I was taken aback by the lack of information on proposed maintenance of the surface, once it is laid. There appears to be no plan. I commend the representative for being honest and telling me that they recognised the surface would be pot holed by rain and floods etc. but he didn’t realise the extent of the flooding that occurs or the amount of pot holing that is created by rainfall and temperatures alone. There is no detail about maintaining the surface in the plans. I was surprised to hear representatives not realising the extent of flooding that occurs and more surprised that they would ‘have to see’ what could be done.

But in truth knowing how the track is currently so poorly maintained I was not really that surprised. Heavy machinery is used to cut hedges, grass, transport stone and rock along the tow path. This has caused dangerous rutting and subsidence. It has resulted in extensive areas of grass being removed and replaced with a pot holed hardcore surface. When I attended an information event in the Lord Bagnel, maybe two years ago, the engineer told me that this was the only way the work could be done because of budget restraints. That’s understandable but obviously not really acceptable. The conundrum now is that the track will still have to be maintained and if it is necessary to use this type of equipment, surely the new surface will also be torn up and damaged while trying to maintain it! Cyclists currently using the track face an annual problem with punctures when hedges are cut as there is no tidy up done. Thorns are worse than glass for punctures and if you puncture on the path it can be a long walk to civilisation!

This is the major issue that prevents me from supporting this project. Millions will be spent on developing, what all the promoters would genuinely hope to be, a major tourist attraction. i can tell you, that once the surface becomes pot holed and if the potholes are not repaired within a reasonable time, cyclists will give this a wide berth and the damage will be irreversible. We will have no cyclists and no grassy towpath.

I have outlined in earlier posts my own ideas about alternatives and I won’t go into them again now but I will finish by saying this is a very important planning application that requires extreme caution. I am all for development but it must be sustainable and I suggest Waterways Ireland be required to provide full detail about future maintenance plans and budgets before this can be agreed to.

Comparisons with the Mayo Greenway and Waterford Greenway are futile as they are not comparable routes. these are laid along the path of old railway lines and not along an established walking route and a towpath used daily by many fishermen.

Waterford Greenway Tunnel

Waterford Greenway Tunnel – a different type of route. Magnificent cycle route.

The target of attracting 100,000 German cyclists seems overly ambitious to me! Assuming that they would come in June, July and August, they would have to literally be bumper to bumper on the towpath all summer long and I haven’t yet seen all the camp sites, bed and breakfasts and hotels to cater for such numbers. I hope I am proved wrong on that!

To finish on a positive note, the plan definitely excites, and recognises the untapped potential of the Barrow. It needs serious revision and due consideration by our planners and all the partners involved. The success of the Waterford Greenway shows there is interest in off road routes; but we need to ensure that the Barrow Blueway is fully thought through. I can see no reason why the grassy towpath couldn’t be properly maintained as a natural surface with quality development close to the towns and villages.Thousands of cyclists cycle the Camino in Spain across farm land without any difficulty and the best stretches are the unbound surfaces there too!

Olivia O Leary mentioned recently that this could be more appropriately developed as a pilgrim route and I fully agree with her. The potential is enormous. Think about it. We have St Miullins in deepest south Carlow, we have St Fiacre, Duiske Abbey In Graiguenamanagh and Ullard; St Laserian in Old Leighlin and the great St Columbanus from nearby Myshall. There is serious potential to develop an eco friendly pilgrimage route incorporating the lives of some of Ireland’s most important saints. It could rival the Camino and truly attract 100,000 Germans, French and Italians in time!




8 Responses to “Barrow Towpath Development”

  1. Danny Fennelly

    As a frequent walker of the barrow track im delighted with the proprosed hard surface on this, iff done right it will mean we can use this lovely walk way all year round,something we cant do at the moment as when its rains a lot some of the surface gets very muddy and a challenge to walk. With a hard surface you could both cycle and walk this with extreme comfort and this would also allow parents and grand parents to bring the prams along the track to enjoy the lovely views to be had along this lovely river.As i said iff done right, so please everyone before ye make up your minds, give waterways ireland a chance to put their proprosal forword and then decide. Im a keen road cyclist and i have also cycled along the barrow track for many years and its such a beautiful feeling to see the many types of wildlife that live along the river, also as a keen cyclist i never leave home without a puncture repair kit, as cycling and punctures go hand in hand. Progress can benefit all of us

    • Turlough

      Thanks for airing your views Danny and your viewpoint is as valid as mine. I certainly agree that Waterways ireland be given the opportunity to put their case. A lot of money has been spent to get the proposal to the planning stage and it is the biggest tourism infrastructure project ever in Carlow. Having said that I must add that they have an appalling record of maintaining the Track. Shamefully bad.
      If it goes ahead and is maintained as it it is needed to be it could transform tourism in the county and create jobs and spend in rural areas that are in decline.
      But if it goes wrong….
      My take on walking along the river as it is would be that it is a wilderness area and you have to expect muddy underfoot conditions – it’s part of the natural experience ! We can’t tame all environments to cater for buggies and prams but I would wager that if the grass bank was level and cut it would cater for them with ease. Obviously there are days and times when you wouldn’t put a dog out on it!
      Walking on hard surfaces is so much more severe on the feet and body compared to walking on grass. Long distance walkers would walk on the margin (if any left) rather than on a hard path.

      Thanks for reading my post and giving your perspective.

    • vincent kavanagh

      I always thought cycling to be a sports where people put up with a lot of discomfort weather wise and surface wise,these days everyone wants extreme comfort and wont even bother to buy correct wear for the area of nature they wish to enjoy,we are not the only creatures that use the barrow track and it is home to many,id like to drive a few hundred thousand bikes through your house and garden and then tell me its comfortable.

  2. Tom Donagher

    I agree surely all the professionals advising on the project have taken all requirements of the water plane & environmental habitat into consideration minimizing any destruction while maximizing benefits to local communities. After all at end of the day the current paths may be there generations as hopefully the new ones will given the go ahead but both will have a common element they were man made. I too look forward to seeing both the toe paths, Canals & rivers reworked in time to maximize the enjoyment citizens of Ireland & tourists can derive from this natural asset of the state making it the jewel in Ireland’s Ancient East product portfolio. Lets hope agreement can be reached via Council planners, An bord Planela or the supreme court but lets see the project go live as soon as is feasible in a practical format with maintenance & marketing programs included in the development approvals.

    Tom Donagher Avlon House B&B , Carlow Town.

  3. graigphoto

    Great to see some proper discussion on the issue, even if I am totally against the proposal as it stands. Ecology damage and maintenance are big issues for me.
    Thanks for starting/facilitating the discussion

  4. John Whelan

    The original Blog is well reasoned, fair-minded and balanced. It is good to see this quality of informed comment and discourse online. As someone who grew up along the Barrow and loves the waterway it would be dreadful to think that any harm would be done to this fabulous waterway amenity. I would love to see as many people as feasible and as safely sustainable possible enjoy this largely unspoiled environment. Yet I would rather see it overgrown than over run and damaged. There is pressure and a need for rural communities to be allowed tap in to the natural resources at their disposal for sustainable economic benefit and badly needed employment and tourism. However, this should not be realised at the cost of damaging this fragile eco-system and habitat, which is a central and core part of its charm and appeal. Surely, a sensible, reasonable and responsible balance can be struck. Surely, the opposing objectives are not entirely mutually exclusive?
    One thing seems clear, we should make haste slowly and get it right. There is a great opportunity here to explore how rural communities can benefit from their natural landscape without the essence and environmental balance which is intrinsic to its value and appeal having to be sacrificed.
    I think the author here has given a few good pointers as to how mutual respect and regard for opposing opinions could help forge a good path forward for the Barrow towpath.

  5. Hike Cycle Ireland (Martin)

    Very interesting read. Didn’t realise the Barrow flooded so badly each year. I’ve travelled down to walk the Barrow twice now (Carlow to Bagenalstown and more recently, Athy to Carlow, I added a post on the latter recently) and must admit I love it just as it is. The grassy surface is a joy and perfect for these longer walks / days out. I agree there aren’t that many opportunities for off-road walking in Ireland (certainly compared to GB) and it’s great to have this long distance off-road route, I think it’s one of Ireland’s best walks. I cycle as well and love greenways but see the benefit of having a route primarily geared to walkers. It’s nice to be able to walk along, enjoy the nature and get lost in your thoughts without constantly being aware of and having to move aside for cyclists. I’ll still visit whatever happens but do fear the whole atmosphere of the route could change for the worse.

    • Turlough

      Yeah it’s a lovely walking route but I fear this development is going to be change for the worse and it will do serious damage to the surface and environment. One laid it will never be restored if it fails.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: