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

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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!

Forget 5K & Remember C = π r2 & how I am coping in a time of Covid!

The Spréach sculpture by Niamh Sinnott erected when the new Bennekerry NS was built

On a day when thousands are marching in London for the right to kill their Grannies, it was a tonic to get out on the bike today and take in the wonder of Autumn. People find the Covid guidelines stressful and restrictive, especially the 5k limit. But if you think of it differently it can actually help you to enjoy your local area so much more. When we were in school (many years ago..) we learned that the circumference of a circle is measured as π (3.14) multiplied by two times the radius. And so instead of the limit being 5km it is more like 31kms!!

Today we cycled 40kms – all inside the 5k limit, and it was magnificent. At a time of pandemic there is a real threat to our mental well being and we can be stressed out by worry, fear, restrictions and lack of contact with others. Its important we look after ourselves and the good news is there are simple measures we can take to not only cope with Covid but to thrive in a time of Covid.

Gretchen Reynolds had a great article in the Irish Times last week and it dealt with the benefits of walking compared to the benefits of walking with your eyes open to the wonders of nature and our heritage. Studies have been conducted on this which prove that ‘awe walks’ are really good for our mental health. Highly recommend you read this article!

Browneshill Dolmen

So much to take in today! Our route took us out past the Browneshill Dolmen, which has the largest capstone of any megalithic tomb in Europe, Urglin Church, around by Oak Park, across to Graiguecullen and the Cruachán, over to Lanigans Lock on the River Barrow, back into Town, visiting Carlow Castle before heading out the Blackbog Road to Tinryland, Staplestown, Kernanstown, Bennekerry and home by the Browneshill Road. 40kms along mostly quiet local roads, virtually traffic free with lots to stop and photograph. The stops are as important to me as the cycle and there is so much to see, if we only open our eyes and take time to admire the beauty and remember our past!

Urglin Church
We popped into Oak Park Forest Trail to see the autumn leaves
Oak Park Gate
One of the Autumn sights of Carlow that I look forward to each year.
Lanigan’s Lock
Gatekeepers House at Lanigan’s Lock
Cycling The Barrow Way, despite the best efforts of WWI is always worth the effort
Rain shower at the weir at Mickey Webster’s Lock
I said I better take this photo of the Castle before it tumbles completely…
Mile marker on the railway line. 58 miles to Dublin from the level crossing at Blackbog
Staplestown Church, kinda Halloweenish…
The River Burren

After a good cycle I like nothing better than a hot bath and a good book! I avoid reading too much about Covid etc and prefer to read something positive, interesting, funny and hopefully that involves epic journeys by bike or any other means for that matter! I’d highly recommend Bill Bryson and the one I am reading at the moment is ‘Neither Here nor There’, an ode to an American Anglophile travelling in Europe. It’s hilarious!

Here’s a funny piece of him travelling in Paris with a friend of his…. you probably need to read the full chapter to really get it… but I was hugging laughing!! Laughter truly is the best medicine.

I’ve gone on a bit, but the gist of my post today is to recommend exploring your neighbourhood, 5k gives you much more latitude than you might think, keep your eyes open as you go on your walks or cycles. There’s a lot to be said for fresh air, exercise and stimulation, followed by a hot bath and a good book! I hope this might help anyone struggling with Covid worries at this time and If anyone wants to join myself and Mary at any stage, please get in touch!

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

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

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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