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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
Having walked Máméan on Saturday last, I got engrossed in reading Christopher Somerville’s ‘Walking in Ireland’ (buy it if you don’t already have it!) earlier this evening. I then looked up his website to see had he covered this magical walk at any stage from his great series in the Irish Independent. He did of course, back in 2009 and below is the beautiful sketch map of the walk and the highlights of the route:
‘I always felt close to Máméan,’ observed Fr. Micheál McGreal down the crackly phone line from Mayo. ‘My grandparents had their sheep on Binn Mhairg, and I’d spend my summer holidays with them as a child in the ‘30s and ‘40s. So I always loved that place.’
I’d called Fr. McGreal as soon as I’d got home from Connemara after walking over Máméan, the Pass of the Birds. Who wouldn’t be enthused to bursting by this peach of an expedition through the wild and lovely Maumturk Mountains? It was my walking companion on the day, Tom Fitzgerald – a Kerryman by birth, but a Co. Galway resident these 30 years – who told me, as we climbed the stony path to the pass, of the priest and his revival of a famous, perhaps infamous, pilgrimage.
The 12 Bens of Connemara stood high and handsome behind us across the Inagh Valley, Bencorr in front, with Beanna Beola and Benbaun peeping over her shoulders. Ahead the slopes of Binn Mhór and Binn Mhairg cradled the rising path, their quartzite rock now glinting dully as cloud shadows brushed through, now gleaming dazzlingly as sunlight struck across. Up at the pass stood a tiny chapel, an altar and the cave-like recess called St Patrick’s Bed. A statue of the saint brooded over the path, a sheep at his heels. Had the good shepherd Patrick once walked these slopes, blessed the holy well nearby and slept in the cave? Many down the centuries thought and felt that he had, and they forged a pilgrim path to the pass with its breathtaking views over the Inagh and Maam valleys.
Three or four decades ago, as Tom Fitzgerald told the story, the pilgrimage had all but died out, partly owing to the hostility of the clergy towards the pilgrims’ indulgence in poitín, partly to competition from Reek Sunday – the Máméan pilgrimage shared the last Sunday in July with the hugely popular gathering at Croagh Patrick only 30 miles away. Then Fr. McGreal took a hand, as he himself recounts: ‘I had a youth organisation camp up there one day, a terrible wet day. I said Mass under an umbrella, and thought to myself: This could go on from here! So I got formal permission to say another Mass up there. Afterwards the people pushed a whole lot of money over the rock at me – I didn’t want it, but they insisted. So we built an altar with it. I wanted to put a strong Christian message on the place, without interfering with all the pre-Christian wells and stones and the other sacred sites there.’
The other component parts of the site followed over the years: Stations of the Cross, a small chapel, the statue of St Patrick with the sheep, stained glass windows for the chapel, all built or contributed by local people. Wandering round the Stations and the penitential beds of pebbles, dipping at the holy well, savouring the mighty rushing wind and the never-ending Connemara march of pelting showers, sunbursts and rainbows, one catches the power and pull of this high place.
Tom and I upped anchors eventually and went on down the northern side of the pass, with one of Tom’s extra special home-made blackberry and apple pies the promised prize at the end of the walk. It was a magically beautiful descent with the Maam Valley stretched out at our feet, and a farmer and his dogs gathering sheep on the green slopes of Binn Mhairg as young Micheál McGreal helped his grandfather do some seventy years ago.
‘As long as I am a priest,’ says Fr. McGreal, with quiet determination, ‘I’ll say Mass at Máméan once a year. It’s a remarkable experience. Nearly a thousand people can be up there. I like it when they pray in total silence – but you have to be very tolerant of the way people worship their God! When they are all quiet, it’s beautiful, even in the wind, the fog and mist – just beautiful.’
TRAVEL: Road: A 2-car walk. Park one car at Keane’s pub, Maam Bridge (junction of R336 and 345); drive other car R336 to Maam Cross, N59 towards Clifden. Entering Recess, just before bridge, right on country road (OS ref. L 873475; ‘Slí Chonamara, Máméan’ sign) for 2 miles to parking place at foot of Máméan (OS ref. 892495).
WALK DIRECTIONS: Follow yellow ‘walking man’ waymarks for 2½ miles up over Máméan pass and down to road (922519); ahead for 1¼ miles to Cur/An Chorr; right for 2 miles to R336; left to Keane’s pub.
LENGTH: 6 miles: allow 3-4 hours
CONDITIONS: Steady climb and descent on rough mountain path, then country roads
DON’T MISS … ! • views back toward the 12 Bens • Tobar Phádraig at the pass • views to your left, while descending, up Gleann Fhada to Barr Sliabh na Ráithe