Rothar Routes

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

A Walk in the Burren

By the time we finished secondary school Leo McGough aka The Hurling Hobo, @thehurlinghobo, had enrolled us all in the cult of Clare hurling! So I have a soft spot for this beautiful county and I was delighted to take a break last weekend from my Darragh and Eimear’s wedding celebrations for a short walk in the Burren. It is the most unique landscape in Ireland, with its rolling limestone hills, underground rivers and caves, unique flora and fauna. An area steeped in history and heritage sites. It’s tricky walking territory and you need to focus on each step as the limestone is full of crevices and cracks, loose rocks and stone walls. That makes it hard to take in the natural beauty surrounding you, so it’s wise to stop and gaze as often as possible! Not everyone in the past was so taken with the wonders of the Burren:

“It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…. and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”

Cromwellian general, Edmund Ludlow (1617-1692).

An Bhoireann….” a stony place..”. Never was a place so well named for this area of north Clare is world renowned for its unique landscape. Between those rocks and crevices is a unique eco system where alpine and mediterranean plant species are found side by side. It is a botanists paradise!

The Burren landscape was formed millions of years ago and there are clues to its ancient past in the rock surfaces, with fossils such as the coral below in abundance:

The Burren extends from approximately Corofin northwards into Galway, covering an area of about 530 square kilometres. A small part of that is designated a national park and thats where we completed this short walk around beautiful Mullaghmore mountain. The walk extends over a series of rocky terraces with beautiful lakes, some are turloughs (temporary lakes found in limestone areas), the colours of the water were stunning.

We often hear about the farmers in the Alps bringing their cattle to high pastures in the summer. This practice is called transhumance. For thousands of years, Burren farmers have marked the end of summer by herding their cattle onto ‘winterage’ pastures in the limestone uplands where they spend the winter grazing. This ancient reverse ‘transhumance’ tradition is synonymous with the Burren and is key to the survival of the region’s famous flora and fauna.

Farming practices in the Burren

Saturday Cycle

Mute Swan protecting cygnets….. wouldn’t take him on!

A bit of sunshine on a Saturday afternoon and a nice cycle along quiet country roads and on the Barrow Track… never fails to surprise.. The network of local roads in this country is tailor made for cycling. Today brought me out towards Ballylinan, Barrowhouse and home via Maganey and the Barrow Track. I estimate that once I left town I met fewer than 10 cars in 35kms and yet was never more than 15kms from Town..

There is a really well kept monument to the Barrowhouse Ambush, just outside the village, which was erected on the 100th anniversary of the Ambush in May 2021. The site was the location of an ambush by the B Company, 5th battalion of the Carlow Brigade of the Irish Republican Army of a convoy of Royal Irish Constabulary officers. Two local volunteers, William Connor and James Lacey, both young men of just 26 years were the only fatalities on that day.

I love the roads around Killeen, Barrowhouse and across to Kilkea. It’s great cycling terrain, good surfaces, quiet roads and flat! There’s always something to see and there’s the Barrow Track to approach Carlow Town from.

Today I had just met Dermot McGrath at Westfield Lock, and we fell into talking about Carlow v Wicklow. I’m tipping Carlow for the revenge in Aughrim tomorrow! Just after I passed Dermot I pulled the bike to a quick halt as I saw this beautiful group of Mute Swans.

Dermot’s dog appeared too and Daddy Swan was on point right away, hissing and making himself big to scare him away.

A lovely loop for anyone looking for a quiet route to cycle.

I’ve been through the desert on a bike with no name… it felt good to be out of the rain!

Al Qudra Cycle Track U.A.E.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

“A Horse with No Name’ courtesy of Dewey Bunnell, America

We are just back home from a visit to our youngest, Ronan, and his wonderful fiancee Hannah in Dubai last week. It was our first visit out and it was so much more than we could have wished for! It was a marvellous week and we built in a lot of sightseeing, walking and cycling.

Yes Dubai is a tourist Mecca, with a skyline to outshine Manhattan, but it also mixes the old and the new. Part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it is one of the most westernised societies in the Middle East – not sure that is a recommendation though! I much preferred their promotion of their own culture, hospitality and their pride in their place in the Arab and Islamic world.

It was marvellous to go out and visit Ronan and Hannah; we take it for granted that they are doing fine but nothing beats family and the importance of those ties was reinforced over our visit. They really looked after us and it is heartening to see their interest in being active and interested in the culture of the country in which they are making their living, while still obviously very much tied to their roots on the glorious Emerald Isle of ours!

The highlights of this trip for me were the walks, the cycles and the sightseeing; you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy yourself and to broaden your horizons.

It’s hard to believe it is a week since we had an incredible cycling experience in the Al Qudra desert, cycling on the 50kms Al Qudra cycling track. Such a contrast to cycling here at home! The day time temperature was 33 degrees and we planned our cycle for the evening, starting in daylight and finishing under the desert night sky.

With 50kms to cover and no towns or villages on the route, it meant carrying a lot of water. I was parched after a few hundred metres but quickly adapted. The route itself is tarmac, in excellent condition but what a strange environment; sand dunes and a scorching sun overhead, silence… but with eyes peeled looking for Arabian sand antelopes and a longed for sighting to the endangered Arabian Oryx. ‘Inshalla’, we might catch a glimpse – and we did!

The Arabian Oryx is the first ever example of an animal that has been successfully reintroduced into its original habitat after being declared extinct in the wild.
The only one of the four oryx species to occur outside Africa, the Arabian oryx inhabits sandy and stony deserts and is supremely well adapted to this hostile environment.
Its bright white coat reflects the sun’s harsh rays, while splayed hooves allow it to negotiate the sandy terrain more easily. It can survive for extended periods without a direct water source and is capable of travelling vast distances in search of new growth.
Arabian oryx are active mainly around dawn and dusk, and tend to rest in the shade during the heat of the day. They dig with their hooves to create a bed of cooler sand in which to lie.

We saw small herds of the Arabian Sand Antelope but the closest we got to any was unfortunately to a dead one on the side of the track..

Night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off the light.

Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve always been fascinated by the desert; perhaps it was childhood tales of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor and Arabian Nights; stories about the nomads and the camel – the fabled ship of the desert… so it was a great experience to be out there among the shifting sand dunes and the burning sun.

Magic of the shadows. can best be seen in the deserts

Mehmet Murat Ildan

The route was relatively easy when we completed it – there was little wind, the heat was dissipating as evening approached and conditions were perfect.

The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits and ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert. They were a source of huge inspiration for Irish Saints, in the 5th and 6th centuries, who sought out remote locations to live similar lives – none more remote than the Skelligs, and there are many Irish place names that feature the word Díseart – desert in English. There is one close enough to Carlow – Díseart Diarmada (Castledermot). One of our great saints and a Carlow man, Columbanus set out as a wandering Irish Perigini in Continental Europe. Ronan and I cycled from Canterbury to his tomb in Bobbio, Italy in 2010 on our way to Rome. Funny the connections you can make but they resonate with me.

The desert does not mean the absence of men but the presence of God.

Carlo Carretto

There is something magnetic about the pull of the desert; it’s primal, it’s harsh, it’s a place to empty your head. Certainly the vastness, the barreness, the solitude has an attraction especially in today’s busy non stop world. A welcome break from the traffic of Dubai!

There are a small few shelters to get a break from the constant sun – but bring your own water as there is none!

‘Tis a long road that has no turning….

It was amazing how quickly the sun dropped from the sky; we were racing to the shelter to take a photo of the sunset but it happened so fast we had no chance!

Definitely one of the highlights of the trip; others being visits to the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque, the Emirates Palace and Qatar Al Watan. But that’s for another post!

Local Loops are Lovely!

Not all bike journeys have to be epic! I had a lovely short cycle this evening along the Barrow to Maganey and returning via Sleaty. There is always something new to see to bring either a smile or a scowl to my face!

Leaving town I past a few lads, the worse for wear, falling around the Town Hall car park; I was to meet them later in Bridewell Lane, one of them crawled on the bonnet of a car, shouting for the Guards, blocking the lane and preventing cars driving through..mad stuff.

Not long after I met this man on the Barrow track, where I often bump into him and his pet Jackdaw who he brings for a walk!

One of the great advantages of the grassy banks of the River Barrow is its capacity to cater for all sorts of users. Hikers, fishermen, swimmers, cyclists and canoeists. I met a large group of canoeists who had pitched their tents at Bestfield Lock gates, something that would be impossible if this was converted to a hard surface to create a bike path. I often meet groups, usually on Bank Holiday weekends, who come down from Athy or Monasterevin on their way to St Mullins at the tip of County Carlow. These boys were well set up with all the gear!

The Barrow Track will always be special to me; it’s a beautiful green corridor full of nature and biodiversity that we are obligated to protect. We must ensure that no further damage is done to one of our greatest natural resources because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I spotted a cormorant and an egret today, birds that you won’t see too often in these parts but the Barrow is their home and needs protecting.

I cycled out to Maganey bridge and crossed over into Laois; three counties on this little loop, Carlow, Kildare and Laois! I wheeled left towards Knockbeg and it was a glorious evening on this quiet local road, one of my favourites.

With the sun setting in the west, the light at Sleaty was golden and perfect to take a photo of the famed St. Fiac’s Cross at Sleaty Church ruins.

Below is a lovely tale from the Schools Collection on the Dúchas website. It was recorded in Fairymount School, Crettyard in 1938:

“In the seventh century there lived in Sleaty or Sletty a saint whose name was St Fiach. The ruins of his church are still to be seen on the road leading from Ballickmoyler to Knock-beg. It is surrounded by a grave-yard circular in shape in the middle of a big field and is called Rathillenane. Tradition his it that every lent the Saint went to the doon of clopook and spent seven weeks in fasting and prayers. He took seven loaves with him and on those he lived during lent.
The doon is a circular pile of limestone rising sheer from a broad plain to a height of 150 feet. At its base is a cave or tunnel cut through solid rock beneath the hill in the direction of Stradbally. On the other side is a smaller tunnel facing for Luggacurren. Through this tunnel St Fiach (usd) used to go to three times every night to pray in the ruins of Clopook. The tunnel is half a mile long ending in a vault beneath the church. The writer travelled about 300 yards through this under ground passage, some years ago. On the top of the doon is a level floor about 50 feet in diameter. On the North end of this green carpet is the withered stump of a white thorn.
On the Luggacurren side of this old tree is a square piece of earth about 4 feet long by 2 feet wide. This is said to be where the saint stood while celebrating Mass in the shelter of the old white thorn.”

— from Dúchas, The Schools Collection

6 Years a Slave….

A pilgrimage to Slemish Mountain

The story of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint, has been handed down to us over the centuries. It’s a great story in which it is hard to separate fact from fiction as there are scant contemporaneous records of his life in existence. I have some sympathy for poor Bishop Palladius who was sent here by Pope Celestine to spread the Gospel – before Patrick, but he gets little credit!

Patrick though wrote what must be a rare autobiography of an Irish Saint, his Confessio or Confession, which is his life story, though it lacks names and places, is an original source. And we can thank our own St Fiac, of Sleaty, (I often cycle past his cross in Sleaty graveyard, near Knockbeg College) who wrote his hymn on the Life of St Patrick:

He was six years in slavery;

Human food he ate it not.

Cothraige he was called,

for as slave he served four families.

Victor said to Milcho’s slave:

“Go thoust over the sea”:

He placed his foot upon the ‘leac’ (stone):

It’s trace remains, it does not wear away.

Life of St Patrick by St Fiac of Sleaty.

It’s pretty clear he was captured and brought to Ireland and the story is he spent 6 years as a slave of Milchú on Slemish Mountain (or Sliabh Mish) tending to flocks of sheep. This was one of those stories we learned in primary school; I was always fascinated by his time in slavery and so this was a place I have long intended visiting, and what better day to do it than on 17th March, the Feast Day of our National Saint. Slemish is located just outside Ballymena in County Antrim, a nice little drive! My route up took me past two very important sites central to the Patrick story – the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane. Had I more time I would have stopped off but it’s 293 kms, door to door, to the foot of Slemish! I’ve been on both these famed hills in the past and the story of the conversion of the High King of ireland is central to the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day I said from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.

And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ And it was not close by, as it happened, two hundred miles away, where I had never been or known any person. And shortly thereafter I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years, and I came, by the power of God who directed my route to advantage (and I was afraid of nothing), until I reached he ship.

Saint Patrick’s words form his Confession.

He was out of there!

I thought there might be a few people walking the route to the top and it was shock to see Police bollards along the narrow local roads to prevent parking. There was a Park and Ride system in place from the village of Broughshane, about 7kms away. The mini buses were ferrying people all day long from 9am to the base of the mountain and they came from all over the north. I met quite a few from Derry and Tyrone including the father of Paul Wilson, who won an All Ireland Club medal all of 21 years ago with Ballinderry as an attacking half back. It was great to see families of Polish and Ukrainians, who made the hard trek up to the cross on the mountain top. And not a sign of a Far right protestor making the pilgrimage…

Hands and Knees Job!

At just 437 metres high, technically this is not a mountain, but it is a tough little nut to crack! The path is very very steep – 29% gradient at one point. Underfoot the ground is extremely wet and slippy and there are lots of protruding sharp rocks to provide added danger. It’s not a place to go in runners – as many did today! I found this to be one of the toughest short rambles I’ve done in a long time and to see little kids scrambling past me was a little hard to take!

Start by taking the steps and after that pick your own path!

I’m not a fan of what St Patricks Day has become. Today was much more enjoyable for me than a lot of the paddy whackery we see typically associated with our celebrations of being Irish. I like the outdoors, solitude, visiting interesting places, heritage and history and today had all of that.

Saint Patrick is not the exclusive preserve of Catholics and Slemish of course is located in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the North. I got a lot of leaflets and pamphlets handed to me on my finishing the climb from different groups of evangelists. I’m not sure if they all work together or are separate distinct groupings.

Family group reach the New Cross on top of Slemish

I mentioned earlier that a Park and Ride system operated out of Broughshane. (I had come through Ballyclare to the start point). After I was directed there by two very helpful PSNI officers I saw a few people with their Orange sashes and bandsmen outfits. I thought it was a bit strange that the Orange order were taking part in the celebrations! It was only when I got home that I read an online article in the Irish News about disruption caused to pilgrims by an Orange March through the village which created huge delays for the pilgrim buses heading to Slemish. Luckily I missed all that. Somethings never change.

Link to Irish News Article:

Orange Order parade in Broughshane causes upset and delays

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