Rothar Routes

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

Ballycumber Loop

One of my favourite walking destinations is just over the border in Tinahely, County Wicklow. The Tinahely Walkers Initiative have turned the village, of 2020 County Senior Football Finalists, into a bit of a walking Mecca. Full credit is due to those who banged heads together to arrange a series of looped walks in the area. It obviously took a lot of collaboration between landowners, who granted access, the local walking group, Wicklow County Council and the Heritage Council to develop the walks. Its a tremendous addition to the range of activities and locations for outdoor activity in the Garden County. Hopefully we will see similar initiatives in Carlow.

Short video taken along the Ballycumber Loop

There are three loops starting at the end of Mangans Lane: (1) Mangan Loop 9kms; (2) Ballycumber Loop 14kms; Kyle Loop 20kms. In addition there is the Railway Walk which links the village with the beautiful Tomnafinnoge Woods Loop.

Today, on National Walk Day, we chose the middle loop – the Ballycumber Loop. We couldn’t have got a better afternoon for a walk. This route is a stunner, a lot of it is on grass in the early stages, some on forest trails and part of it across the heather and fern filled open mountainside.

Big Sky country
The going is soft in places!
Magical walking surface!
Delighted to sit beside this memorial stone to Luke O Toole, first full time secretary of the GAA. Amazing to think that the area has also produced Hugh O Byrne of Rathdangan who served as GAA President and Jim Bolger of Clonmore who is current Chairman of Leinster Council.
Ballycumber Walking Loop

Devils Bit

I have to thank my father for passing on a love for all things Irish – our games, our culture and our heritage. Travelling along in the car we were entertained with quizes, ’20 questions’, ‘animal, mineral or vegetable’, geography and history!

We scanned the horizon for landmarks – who would see the sea first… ‘what’s that landmark over there’ and one that always caught my attention, as we drove south to Kerry on our summer holidays, was the Devils Bit!

View from the top of the Devils Bit looking south east towards The Blackstairs

Legend had it that the Devil himself (or was it Babs…!) bit a chunk out of the mountain and spat it out to form the Rock of Cashel! We were mesmerised by this stories and the journeys passed quickly.

Tipp’s Uluru!

Its taken a long time but I finally made it to walk up the Devils Bit today and what a day for it, blue skies and amazing scenery in all directions. I would highly recommend it as an easy hill walk and a great way to get an introduction to our hills and mountains.

It was also the location of a famous mass meeting in 1832 against the tithes, paid by Catholics to support the Protestant clergy and over 50,000 people are estimated to have attended to hear Daniel O Connell speak and for a symbolic burying of the tithes.

On the way up to the cross you pass Cardens Folly, a tower built by a local landlord, John Rutter Carden.

Cardens Folly

There is a nice Looped walk which takes about an hour to complete, it’s a steep rise at the start up to the cross and back down through the forest returning by the same path to the car park. I went back up as I wanted to walk to the top of the actual Devils Bit and it was well worth the effort!

We have learned nothing…. only to forget….

I first noticed the shoes at Furey Pub, Moyvalley. They stung me.

As I continued along the Royal Canal Greenway, the shoe markers were a constant reminder that this was no ordinary path; this doubles as the National Famine Way, a route dedicated to marking the desperate journey of 1,490 starving souls who walked, at the height of the famine in May 1847, from Strokestown in Roscommon to Dublin to catch a ship bound for Canada and a new life in a strange land.

Just like those refugees in Lesbos.

Over 1,000,000 Irish people died in the famine and another 1,000,000 emigrated. 1,000,000 emigrated to other countries to start new lives. Many died along the way, may were exploited. Rather like the journeys those families fleeing Syria and other war torn countries. The ones we have turned our backs on….

All those ‘patriots’ wrapping the tricolour around them as they protest against the new Irish would do well to visit Strokestown House and the National Famine Museum. How could we, of all nations, be lacking in empathy for families fleeing torture, persecution, hunger and oppression?

The National Famine Way is a 165km – 100 miles, path from Strokestown to the Custom House Quay in Dublin. Imagine 1,490 people walking, with all their possessions on their backs, from Roscommon, families – sleeping on the side of the canal or in fields at night. This is an historically important trail that forces us to remember the hardships our forefathers experienced and the desperate fight they had to survive hunger and exploitation. We have forgotten our history and are numb to the suffering of other peoples at a time when we, the privileged western nations, should be extending a helping hand to those trying to just survive and look after their families.

The stories are horrific and have so many modern parallels. Almost half of the 1,490 died of disease during the voyage to Canada due to their poor physical condition and the unsanitary environment on board the ships. We only need consider the images of washed up babies on the shores of Europe to know that the world is still cruel and unjust. Because we allow it. We are surely better than this.

Beautifiul sketch map for the route from the National Famine Way website

When I set out on the cycle along the Royal Canal, it was purely to enjoy the pleasure of a long distance off road route and it was a really great trip through the heart of the hidden Ireland, away from the main tourist areas but equally appealing.

I was particularly taken with an off route excursion to the Corlea Trackway, near Keenagh in Longford. This a a heritage site promoting the discovery of a prehistoric wooden road that traversed the bogland of the area. It was created using oak planks 4 metres wide and laid on top of the bog.

Eventually it sunk into the bog where it was perfectly preserved and a section of it is on display in the heritage centre. It really is worth a look at.

It dates back to the year 148BC and is one of the most important finds of its kind in Europe.

One of the things that is out attractive about these routes through the midlands is that they are off the beaten track, people are friendly and authentic, nothing is staged and there is a genuine warm welcome for visitors. Every parish has its attractions and its links with our ancient path. Being on the bike is the best way to see the things that otherwise would be by passed if driving!

Celebrating the endangered Curlew in bog oak at Abbeyshrule
Main Street, Strokestown!
Strokestown House
Cloondara, County Longford

St Berrihert’s Kyle

My cycling routes over the past year have taken me through counties Carlow, Laois, Kildare, Meath, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Armagh, Down, Offaly, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary! Off the beaten track. The Hidden Heartlands or Ireland’s Ancient East…. I’m never too sure where the boundaries lie between the two!

Cycling along pilgrimage routes tends to follow the path least trodden – at least in today’s world but, in older times, these routes and places were very important to local communities as places of religious importance and of spiritual importance – dating back to pagan times.

It has been richly rewarding for many reasons – great cycling terrain, great physical activity, many interesting heritage sites and stunning scenery.

Just when you think you know the country along comes another gem to delight in.

Yesterday Mary and I were deep in the Golden Vale, cycling in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow, (a place I first cycled in many years ago with great school friend, footballing colleague for club and county, Tom Cullen). It brought back great memories. And created new ones.

One of the most fascinating places I have ever visited, happened yesterday – when we eventually found St Berrihert’s Kyle.

St Berrihert’s Kyle

This simple circular stone enclosure contains an amazing collection of cross and decorated stone slabs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not many have, as it isn’t signposted (might be a good thing, as these crosses and slabs would be easy remove). The atmosphere here is very special. It has a presence that is seldom experienced. To get to it we had to cross a couple of boggy fields and over a number of stiles. It is obviously a place of local pilgrimage as there are many holly bushes used as rag trees both in the enclosure and outside.

St Berrihert’s Kyle

The site looks to be ancient but in actual fact the enclosure is of relatively recent origin and was constructed, by the OPW in the 1940’s to house the crosses which were present on the site. It certainly captures the significance of the site and retains a sense of a place of great spirituality and significance.

We were both blown away by it. And then we saw the Well.

St Berrihert’s Well is located two fields away, again across boggy ground but there is a dilapidated boardwalk to assist passage across the fields. I’ve never seen a well like it. This is a natural spring, with the water bubbling up from the sandy bottom. It is crystal clear. The well is in a large natural hollow surrounded by a grove of trees and bushes laden down with votive offerings.

The spring water bubbling to the surface. Magical!

Between the well and the Kyle, I wasn’t sure whether we were in early Christian Ireland or on a set from Lord of the Rings! It is simply amazing.

St Berrihert’s Well

Who was St Berrihert? According to the Dictionary of Irish Saints, he is also known as Beircheart and was of Anglo Saxon origin. He appears to have been associated with Cork, Tipperary and Kerry. There was large patern associated with him here in what was the local parish of Solloghhodbeg but is now the parish of Galbally – Lisvernane as far as I can make out.

St Berrihert’s Kyle
More Abbey, near Galbally

Inis Cealtra – Holy Island

Holy Island Round Tower and St Colum’s Church

Plenty is known about the main pilgrimage routes and sites across Europe and, closer to home, about such places as Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. Pilgrimage to these major shrines and places was usually a once in a life time undertaking which very few of the ordinary people of the country could not contemplate.

But there were many other sites, which were more local in nature that filled a yearning in people for hundreds of years. Inis Cealtra, aka Holy Island is on Lough Derg in County Clare (though once part of County Galway) and it’s a beautiful place to visit.

St Brigids Church

There is little recording of the act of pilgrimage in Ireland apart from some historical references in the Annals to the death of someone on pilgrimage in Ireland. Seamus Heaney accounted for this best when he talks about ‘peasant pilgrimage’ – the goings on of the ordinary person about their daily lives. Going on pilgrimage and retreats was very much a feature of Irish life that did not get recorded, yet was a very important part of living. When you visit a place like Holy Island, you can feel the importance of the place as you as you set foot on it. Holy Island is one such place.

Access to Holy Island is by boat and no better man that Gerard Madden to ferry you across

The island consists of approximately 18 hectares and is accessed by boat from Mountshannon, a pretty little village on the western edge of Lough Derg. There are extensive monastic ruins, including a Round Tower and a number of small Churches – St Caimin’s, St. Colum’s, St Michael’s, St. Mary’s and St. Brigid’s. The monastery was originally founded by St Colum around the year 520 AD.. He is often referred to St. Colm of Terryglass, which is on the other side of the Lake. He was a pupil of St Finian of Clonard – who was originally from Myshall.

The monastery though is mainly associated with St. Caimin who is still revered in east Clare. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, his mother, Cumman had 77 children! One of the stories about Caimin, concerns a meeting he had on the island with his half brothers Guaire Aidhne, and Cummine Fota where they talked about what each wished the Church to be filled with. Guaire hoped for it be filled with gold and silver so that he could be generous to the poor, Cummine hoped for it to be filled with books so that students could learn but Caimin wished for the church to be filled with evert conceivable sickness so that all these diseases could be inflicted on his own body. All three wishes were fulfilled, Guaire got wealth, Cummine learning and Caimin was inflicted with illness!

Holy Island

There are a number of important artefacts on the island among them a Holy Well, also called ‘Lady’s Well’; the Bargaining Stone, where deals were sealed by shaking hands through the hole underneath the stone; some bullaun stones and some important cross decorated stones in the Saints Graveyard.

‘The Confessional’, one of the unique buildings on the Island – was it a hermits cell?
Holy Island Video

It’s a shame we don’t have better historical records as many of the monks who lived in these monasteries went on to be major historical figures in Europe and in the history of the Church. One such monk was Donatus. He was educated here and later travelled to Italy where he became Bishop of Fiesole. Margaret Stokes wrote extensively about the Irish Saints in Italy in her book ‘ Six Months in the Appenines: Or a Pilgrimage in Search of the Vestiges of The Irish Saints in Italy’. Donatus travelled with Andrew the brother of St Brigid. All three have links with Italy. I was fortunate to spend a little time in the area a couple of years ago and sought out these links. It was very rewarding!

Tomb of St. Donatus in Cathedral of Fiesole
St. Brigid’s Cave under the Church in the village of Santa Brigida, north of Fiesole.
St. Brigid’s Church, Holy Island

The Vikings of course visited here too and, led by Tugesius, plundered the monastery before going on to inflict more carnage on Clonmacnoise, further up the river. The island is also associated with Brian Ború, High King of Ireland and the man who got rid of the Vikings for good in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf. And I might add his son Turlough O Brien, King of Munster, buried his wife Gormlaith on Holy Island in 1076!

WB Yeats wrote about pilgrimage on the island in his poem ‘The Pilgrim’:

I fasted for some forty days on bread and buttermilk,
For passing round the bottle with girls in rags or silk,

In country shawl or Paris cloak, had put my wits astray,
And what’s the good of women, for all that they can say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man, and though, I prayed all day
And that old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck,
And that should mother seek her son she’d have but little luck
Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away;
I swear to God I questioned them, and all they had to say
Was fol de rol de rolly O.
A great black ragged bird appeared when I was in the boat;
Some twenty feet from tip to tip had it stretched rightly out,
With flopping and with flapping it made a great display,
But I never stopped to question, what could the boatman say
But fol de rol de rolly O.
Now I am in the public-house and lean upon the wall,
So come in rags or come in silk, in cloak or country shawl,
And come with learned lovers or with what men you may,
For I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say
Is fol de rol de rolly O.

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