Rothar Routes

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

Posts from the ‘Routes’ category

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

Máméan Part 11

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.’

WAY TO GO

MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 37, 38, 44; downloadable map/instructions at http://www.discoverireland.ie/walking.

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

GRADE: Moderate

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

REFRESHMENTS: Picnic at the pass

ACCOMMODATION: Rosleague Manor, Letterfrack (095-41101; http://www.rosleague.com) – very comfortable, stunningly located.

GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: Slí an Iarthair, the Western Way in Connemara by Joss Lynam, Justin May, Tim Robinson (Folding Landscapes)

HOLY DAYS AT MÁMÉAN: St Patrick’s Day (1.30 pm, Mass); Good Friday (3.00 pm, Stations of the Cross); 1st Sunday of August (3.00 pm, Mass)

INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: http://www.discoverireland.ie/walking; http://www.coillteoutdoors.ie

INFORMATION:
Tourist Office: Oughterard (091-552-808; http://www.discoverireland.ie/west)

csomerville@independent.ie

Cillin Phádraig

Máméan Pilgrim Path

4th Station. An Mac agus an Mháthair

Pilgrimages are never meant to be easy! Pilgrim sites are often located in remote and difficult places to access. Yesterday I visited the stunningly beautiful Máméan situated in a mountain pass in the Maamturk Mountains. Máméan (Pass of the Birds) is one of the those really ancient sites that stretch back into the mists of time. It certainly feels like that when you reach the Chapel.

The act of pilgrimage is back in vogue or certainly the major walking routes such as the Camino routes in Spain and the Via Francigena are; the reasons are many but for modern pilgrims religious reasons are less likely than those of self discovery, spiritual reasons and a sense of adventure.

Here in Ireland Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg and Knock Shrine are three long established and extremely popular pilgrimages. But there are many other lesser known places of pilgrimage which as Louise Nugent points out in her book, ‘Journeys of Faith’ a local pilgrimage reinforces the bonds of the local community and acts as a cohesive force.

Statue of St Patrick with Maam Valley in back ground

Today is Reek Sunday, when thousands normally flock to Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain but due to Covid Reek Sunday has been cancelled. This site is also associated with Saint Patrick. There is a well close by the Chapel named after our patron saint. Patrick is reputed to have come up the Pass from Joyce country, down in Maam Valley, and to have blessed the lands of Connemara and converting it to Christianity.

The path across the mountain is much older and it can be tricky to traverse! It’s possible to experience four seasons weather up here in the space of a few minutes and there is plenty of water under foot.

Slippery under foot as water cascades downhill

The pilgrimage to Máméan fell into disrepute in the 19th century due due drunkeness and fighting, no doubt fuelled by the plentiful supply of locally made poitín! Many of these pattern days were closed down by the church during the 18th and 19th century but his allowed the purely religious aspect of the pilgrimage to survive and prosper (Peter Harbison, ‘Pilgrimage in Ireland’). Máméan was revived thanks to the great work of a local priest who family had sheep on the mountain, Fr Micheál Mac Gréil, and there are now three pilgrim dates on the local calendar – St Patrick’s Day, Good Friday and the first Sunday in August.

Statue of Saint Patrick created by Cliodhna Cussen in 1986

The site also features a mass rock which was used during the time of the Penal Laws, when it was forbidden to say mass in Ireland. There are also stones of the cross spread across the site.

Cillin Phádraig
Lot of water on slippery rocks on the way down. Caution required!

Whether you have an interest in pilgrimage or not, this is a pilgrim path worth visiting. The views are stunning in all directions and the route is part of the long distance walking route, The Western Way.

The Path
The path up from Maam Valley
On the way down, a hill runner passes me!
Starting point of pilgrim path to Máméan

Pat Kearney’s Big Stone

‘A pilgrimage within a pilgrimage’

While approaching the end of my 680 kms cycling pilgrimage along the proposed Turas Columbanus I took time to make a mini pilgrimage to Goward Dolmen in the Parish of Clonduff, County Down.

The reason being my aunt Madge is married to Pete Kearney and they have lived in Mittagong New South Wales for many years. The Kearneys originally hailed from Goward, but there are no Kearneys living in the old parish now.

While cycling out of Hilltown in the rain recently I asked an elderly lady if she knew of Pat Kearney’s Stone and she gave me good directions. But she wasn’t aware of any Kearneys from the area. As I turned onto the laneway I could see that the furze bushes had been cut and the lane was littered with thorn branches. Between the rain and the thorns I decided not to venture the mile or so off route and planned to visit on my next leg of the journey.

On Tuesday I completed Turas Columbanus to Bangor and on my return via Hilltown, I drove to Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.

Pat Kearney's Big Stone
Pat Kearney’s Big Stone

Pete’s father, also Peter, carried out detailed research some years ago, along with his wife and established where their ancestors were from and he came across a photo of his great grandfather sitting on a ledge beside the big stone.

Petes’ brother Michael sitting alongside the Stone, recreating the photo of his Great Grandfather from 1850

The first member of the family to visit the Stone was Pete’s son, and our first cousin, Jason, who was sent on a mission by his Grandad to visit the Stone and take photos. Pete and members of his family subsequently visited the area some years back and completed walks from Kilbroney to the Stone thus honouring their ancestors and their home place. Pete just provided me with the following detail about the Kearney family of Goward and Pat Kearney’s Big Stone.

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