Rothar Routes

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

Posts from the ‘Pilgrimage’ category

My Say on The Barrow Way..

We leave tracks wherever we walk. For thousands of years man has followed rivers inland, forging new paths, seeking shelter, food, searching for places never visited before.

In whose footsteps do we wander when we thread The Barrow Way?

We have few wild places remaining which is why The Barrow Way is so special in today’s fast paced world.

Columbanus travelled this way on his journey to Cleenish Island in Fermanagh where he began his education before his onward journey to Bangor in County Down. It’s ironic that now the we are trying to create Turas Columbanus or the Columban Way, (which will follow the Barrow Way to Monasterevin), we are again talking about developing the Blueway Cycle Path. We need clarity about what we intend to do with the Barrow Track. It cannot be a long distance walking trail and a cycling path. Surely it’s one or the other?

Countless people working on the barge traffic that serviced industry and agriculture were very familiar with this route once the canal network was created. It was a lot busier in the 19th Century than it is today!

Today it is designated a Special Area of Conservation. Or at least it was.

Tracks and Trails..
The longest continuous off-road walking route in Ireland is again under threat….

Proposals are due to come before the Local Authority to revisit the Barrow Blueway decision. The Blueway, specifically the replacement of the grass surface with a hardcore surface to facilitate cycling, put forward by Waterways Ireland a few short years ago was refused by An Bórd Pleanála following an unprecedented level of local objections to the proposal. I sincerely hope the proposal will not reverse the decision to remove the grassy path.

The grassy towpath, soft underfoot, a pleasure to walk on.

Unfortunately it appears that the views of the hundreds of people opposed to the Blueway is not being reflected in the debate and I want to put my thoughts out there before a vote is taken as I fear we face a fait accompli, without due consideration of the reasons the proposal was rejected.

The plan for a cycling path is linked to very laudable plans for a network of linked Greenways. Most of these Greenways utilise disused railway lines where they once existed- The Western Greenway, The Waterford Greenway, The Old Rail Trail, The Limerick Greenway, while there is also one on the Royal Canal and another on the River Suir. I have made it my business to cycle all of them over the past few years with the Limerick one being completed on a cold 31st December last.

There literally isn’t enough room for a shared path, as this short video shows! Imagine multiple cyclists (WWI forecast 50,000 Germans!) approaching from the front or behind anybody walking on this path..

I make the following observations based on my knowledge of our beautiful county, and my experience of cycling and walking:

  • We have a disused railway line running almost parallel to the River Barrow that should be converted as was done in Waterford, Mayo, Limerick, Westmeath and now in Kerry. Why is Carlow the exception? Why are we not not pursuing this option? 
  • There are challenges in sharing walking and cycling paths and I experienced this on the River Suir, which is narrow for long stretches and in my opinion dangerous as a result. I have observed arguments between pedestrians and cyclists over the shared use and I would hazard a guess that it is now used mostly by walkers and not cyclists. My experience on the Barrow Track, where I am probably the cyclist who most uses the Track, is that it is entirely unsuitable for use as a paved cycling route for a few reasons. The main reason is safety. Hard surfaces encourage high speeds on bikes and road bikes will be used on this path as they are on the Waterford Greenway. It currently facilitates thousands of walkers – are you aware it is a National Long Distance Walking Trail? Are you aware that it is the longest continuous off road section of walking trail in the country? Are you aware that in Ireland we have very limited access to off road walking and this proposal is to remove the grass surface and replace it with a hard surface thus removing the longest continuous off road walking route in Ireland?
  • Not all Greenways are equal. There is a myth that by installing a cycle path we are going to have a tourism boom. Will we? How do the promoters know? It isn’t a given. The Old Trail in Westmeath is not near as popular as the Waterford or Western Greenways. In fact it may reduce the usage of the towpath by others – there are already thousands of walkers who use the Barrow, there are thousands of Carlovians who also swim and fish along the river bank. If it is considered dangerous, people will not use it. I too am all for developing the River as a way to attract visitors and support the local economy but I do not see this being the panacea promoters envisage.
  • Imagine this though. A cycle path from Bagenalstown to Glynn running between the beautiful Blackstairs and the River Barrow taking in the tranquil village of Borris. (The Barrow Blueway will by-pass Borris). If we create that path, we will still have the Barrow towpath and now we have a very very strong tourism product in the south of the county.
  • WWI has shown complete contempt for the riverbank and their maintenance practices are completely counterproductive. 
  • This is not a sustainable development. The River Barrow floods extensively and with climate change this is going to be more frequent and of longer duration. The hard surfaces that currently exist are always damaged after flooding and render the track unsuitable for any activity and impassable.
  • A hard cycle path will impact on current users – the River is extremely important to swimmers in the summer time and it will be completely unsafe to have large groups of cyclists sharing it alongside them. It’s impossible in fact. The Barrow is a very popular coarse fishing river and the river bank is very important to fishermen who will not be able to safely use the river if there is a bike path. 
  • It isn’t necessary to install a hard surface to attract visitors. Look at the experience in other countries – Such as Spain and the Camino route. 350,000 people walk the Camino every year and they do not need hard surfaces. 93% of users are walkers and only 6% are cyclists. The ratio is probably similar on the River Barrow. We should value wild places for walking. We are currently restoring old pilgrimage routes in this country – St Declans Ways in Waterford and Tipperary is an example and the most popular sections are the off road sections. Here in Carlow we are developing the Columbanus Way – which will utilise the Barrow Track. Much of this will be on road and so the off road sections must be protected and not destroyed. Why would we destroy the tow path when people want to walk on grass? 
  • What about ‘access for all’?  This is our only wilderness area – it is quite remote between villages and it could be dangerous. We cannot fundamentally destroy that which we intent to promote! It should not be torn up. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion surely we should have a stairlift to the top of Croagh Patrick or Carraountohill! Certainly close to our villages improvements can be made to enable improved access. Even on the Waterford Greenway, most of the activity is centred on the hubs.
  • This is an area of special conservation full of wonderful biodiversity. We are facing a worldwide biodiversity disaster and we are required to protect the area not damaging it. 
  • The Towpath is adequate as it is for anyone who does want to cycle while preserving the grass path for other uses.
  • I am a very active touring cyclist and I have written a book ’Cycling South Leinster’ which contains 30 beautiful routes along the back roads of the region. The Barrow Towpath as it is currently constituted is just perfect and the most popular route in the book.
What value do we as a society put on the quiet places – to visit, to sit and rest, to reflect, to stimulate the senses, to appreciate nature?
Is there anything evokes thoughts of summer more than spreading your towel across the grassy towpath on a fine day and getting in for a refreshing dip in the deep still waters of the River Barrow, then stretching out to catch a few rays on your towel spread on the soft grassy path? That will be a lovely memory in the future because it won’t be possible if a cycle path is created!
Heaven on the Barrow.

What should our Council do?

In my opinion, we should insist of improving the grass surface and require WWI to introduce appropriate maintenance practices that do not damage the track and ensure the surface is safe for users.

We should instead only consider works to improve boating and water based activities and enhancements to our riverside villages.

Instead of developing a hard surface for the entire stretch of the river bank from the River Lerr on the Kildare border to St Mullins in the south, we should be looking to enhance the riverside villages and towns – St Mullins, Tinnahinch, Graiguenamanagh, Goresbridge, Bagenalstown, Leighlinbridge and Carlow Town. Look at the great work that the Council did in Carlow town alongside the River. That should be the standard in all the other towns and villages. There should be promotion of the villages as hubs connected to the great walking route that we currently have. Economic gain can be provided by proper investment in the towns and villages and the promotion of the towpath as it was intended – a national way marked walking trail. There are far more walkers than cyclists in this country!

Ellie and Carl, of Tough Soles, are a beautiful young couple who have walked all the long distance walking trails and they have a wonderful blog detailing every walk they have completed. They have walked over 4,000kms of trails crisscrossing the country!

Here is what they had to say about the Barrow Way:

In our list of National Trails, there are 3 major waterways we walk; the Royal Canal Way, the Grand Canal Way, and the Barrow Way. Having done the first two and found them to be nice, but definitely not what we would call hiking trails, our hopes for the Barrow Way weren’t high. However – I am more than delighted to say that there was nothing for us to worry about. At a little over 120km in length, the Barrow Way featured almost entirely grass banks and perfectly spaced towns. It’s amazing how having purely grass banks to walk along it felt like we were actually walking along a river bank. On the first two canals it felt like we were walking on roads with water beside them, which meant we spent more time focused on how uncomfortable the road walking was than on the canal itself. When walking the Barrow Way on grass, the landscape was vibrant and alive. We saw and heard so much wildlife, enjoyed the powerful, thunderous weirs and the silent sun dappled bends. 

Ellie and Carl
Enjoy this video of The Barrow Way before it changes forevermore…
Did you know the Barrow is prone to flooding – even in the summer months? Hard surfaces are washed away every time we have a flood...

Yesterday’s Irish Independent carried this prediction of destruction, warning about the Biodiversity Loss we are heading for if we do not change course. It could not be more stark. I hope that our decision makers weigh up all these factors when they meet to decide the fate of the Barrow Way. I wish them all the wisdom to choose wisely.

Battle of the Saints!

For the day that’s in it! I first posted this in 2019 but it’s worth a read again.

And as a bonus here is a great article from RTE ; ‘How the Irish helped create Easter Sunday’

I don’t know if their paths ever crossed, but two of our local Saints, Columbanus and Laserian, (Naomh Eoin and Old Leighlin!) were central figures in the debate over the date of Easter back in the 6th and 7th centuries!

St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin

St Columbanus, reputedly born on the slopes of the Blackstairs, became one of the great Irish Missionaries in Europe founding many monasteries along with his followers in France, Switzerland and Italy. While located in the area under the auspices of the Frankish Bishops he became embroiled in a major controversy because he and his followers celebrated Easter according to the Celtic Calendar. The Bishops tried to censure him but he refused to cooperate and wrote to Pope Gregory .

There is no record of the Pope replying and Columbanus moved on to eventually settle in Bobbio, Italy.

Bobbio, where Columbanus founded his last monastery. Thrilled to have cycled to here in 2010 and on to Rome along the Via Degli Abati.

St Laserian spent 14 years in Rome where he was educated under Gregory. When he returned to Ireland he took over the monastery at Old Leighlin and became a strong advocate for the Roman method of calculating Easter. A synod was held at Old Leighlin and it agreed to send a delegation to Rome. It still took some time for the change to Roman calendar to be fully adopted.

Isn’t it remarkable how these monks travelled and communicated with far distant lands in the 6th and 7th centuries?

Molaise’s Well and Cross

Front cover of Cardinal O Fiaich’s book

The assertion he may be from Carlow..

Columbanus is known as the first European, as he advocated for a system of federalism and was the first Irishman to have a book written about him some years after his death, by one of his monks, Jonas.

2020 Hike & Bike

The strangest of years in living memory saw us rediscover our own country in 2020. Fear, worry, stress, anxiety were all our bedfellows as we wondered where the invisible enemy would strike next. Travel was restricted, social contacts likewise and to get away from it all we sought out the quiet places.

We escaped into nature. It’s amazing how much the most popular trails have deteriorated during lockdown as people took to the outdoors for exercise, fresh air and their sanity. Luckily we have lots of green spaces on this beautiful island of ours.

As soon as lockdown was lifted I found myself heading away almost every evening to somewhere new.

I’ve covered over 1500 kilometres since March on my bike. All of it on quiet country roads or off road along the Barrow Way, the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and a myriad of cycle trails. Counties cycled in this year were Carlow, Laois, Kildare, Wexford, Kilkenny, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Meath, Galway, Roscommon, Clare, Tipperary, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Armagh and Down, 18 counties in total! All beautiful and all equipped with that network of rural roads that are safe and a joy to cycle on. I’ve donned hiking boots to visit Máméan in Connemara, the Devils Bit, Slievenamon, the Blackstairs, Ballycumber and Askamore to name but a few.

I’ve made a short video above of some of the sights we saw in our travels. Many thanks for following my blog during 2020 and I hope it brought you some enjoyment.

Happy New Year to all!

Famine

The Hunger – Over 1,000,000 dead of starvation and disease, 1,250,000 emigrated…

Over the course of the summer, I had the good fortune to be able to spend some time cycling along the banks of The Royal Canal.

The path doubles as the National Famine Walk – a walking route that commemorates ‘the poignant ill-fated story of assisted emigration in Ireland during the Famine in 1847 when 1,490 poor and hungry were forced to walk the 165km from the Strokestown Park Estate, County Roscommon to Custom House Quay in Dublin. They travelled onward to Liverpool and almost a third of them perished crossing the Atlantic in “coffin ships” bound for Canada’.

I had been on the Canal before and had spotted a most unusual way marker:

National Famine Way Marker

A pair of children shoes. It shook me to my core. As I progressed northwards I saw more of these markers and my journey morphed from a cycle along the Canal to a pilgrimage to Strokestown to visit the National Famine Museum. It is well worth a visit and all the better if you complete the Way.

The two episodes of the documentary ‘The Hunger’ have brought the incredible affect of the Famine into the living rooms of the country and set out in no uncertain terms the scale of death, destruction and devastation inflicted on a peasant people.

The wonder is how we as a nation have rebounded so well from such deep trauma to our psyche. The Irish people have shown their resilience and their abilities – abilities that were denied by our rulers and we should be proud of the nation we have built.

But we should not forget the cruelty inflicted on a suffering people. And I don’t mean remember it in terms of rabid nationalism, I mean in terms of our humanity to other peoples who, incredibly in this day and age are suffering the same fate; arriving on our shores only to often be met with indifference and sadly sometimes worse – downright hostility by people who have forgotten our past and are exploiting our present difficulties.

A picture paints a thousand words. Here are a few images from my cycle along the National Famine Way, a mural in Strokestown of a school project about the Famine and from the exhibits in the National Famine Museum.

Never forget.

Map of the National Famine Way
National Famine Way marker near Enfield
A famine pot in Abbeyshrule
List of persons to get MEAT on Christmas Day
Famine Pot in National Famine Museum
Ration tokens during the Famine
Eviction Crowbar used to dismantle roofs of cabins
School Project Strokestown
School Project Strokestown
School Project Strokestown
School Project Strokestown
National Famine Way Marker near The Downs, Co. Westmeath
Strokestown Park, Roscommon

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
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