Rothar Routes

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

Posts from the ‘Routes’ category

Gods & Fighting Men

I was ten years of age when I first read this epic story of the Tuatha De Danann and of the Fianna of Ireland by Lady Gregory. It hooked me on Irish mythology and I still have my copy today. Funny the things you remember from childhood.

It’s been on my mind for some time to tie a trip north for a match with a climb up Slieve Gullion in South Armagh. Last week I managed both – I climbed Slieve Gullion on Sunday morning before heading into nearby Newry to see an epic encounter between the Gods & Fighting Men of Down and Monaghan club football clash in the Ulster Club SFC semi final!

The more I walk and cycle on this Emerald Isle the more I feel a close connection with the history, legends and culture of this great land. The beautiful thing about slow travel is you get to see over every ditch and through every hole in a stone wall. There is something of interest in every field in Ireland! Being curious brings great reward!

High point marker

Topiscope – places you can see on a clear day – it was raining when I was there so the views were limited!

Long before Fionn however was another great warrior – Cúchulainn who was part of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He is forever associated with the mountain as it is here he received his name and where he spent his childhood as Setanta. Conchobhar Mac Neasa, King of Ulster, was invited to a feast at the house of a local metalsmith Cualainn, after whom the mountain is named. The King was so enthralled watching the young Setanta hurling that he invited him into the feast. Before he arrives into the feast He is attacked by the King’s ferocious hound but Setanta killed him by hurling the sliotar down his throat! The King was devastated at the loss of the hound so Setanta took his place and earned the title Cú Chulain, the hound of Cualainn. Not men but Giants!

One of the stories in Book IV of Gods & Fighting Men, Huntings and Enchantments, relates the story of the Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn. Fionn Mac Cumhaill was hunting deer on the plains of Allen (Kildare) with his dogs, Bran and Sceolan , who got lost in the chase. He searched everywhere and ended up looking for them on the side of Slieve Gullion, where he met a beautiful woman keening beside the lake on top of the mountain. She begged him to find her lost ring at the bottom of the lake and being the Super Hero he was, he dived in, swam around it three times and found the ring! No sooner had he given it to her but didn’t she change into a witch and changed Fionn into an old man. Talk about gratitude! Cut a long story short but he finally got a cure in the passage tomb on top of Slieve Gullion, called the Cailleach Beara’s house. The Lake was called Loch Doghra, the Lake of Sorrow. Not sure if that name appears on modern maps though!

It’s only a short walk to the summit but a difficult one in wet conditions. The flag stones are slippy and the path steep. It was raining quite strong when I hiked it but occasionally the mist would clear and the views were spectacular. Had a great chat with a man from Mullaghbawn about our epic battle in the All Ireland Club semi final back in February 1996.

Slieve Gullion Hike

It was time to head to Páirc Esler for the clash of the Titans. Kilcoo v Scotstown. What an epic battle that Cúchulainn himself would have enjoyed. Heroic performances on both sides, capped with three incredible long range Scotstown points to win by the narrowest of margins!

This weekend I managed to pack in another trip to Newry for Steven Poacher’s hugely successful coaching day on Saturday and a trip to Westmeath today, Sunday, to climb the highest point in the Lake county before heading into Cusack Park for another cracking club championship game. Naas and St Lomans played out a great 90 minutes of football in Cusack Park, with Nass running out deserving winners and qualifying to meet Kilmacud Crokes in a repeat of the Final of two years ago. I had an early start this morning as I had to head past Mullingar and north through Castlepollard to reach Mullaghmeen Forest Park and the highest point in County Westmeath at 258 metres. This is the lowest county high point but a fairly tough little summit with an average 10% gradient for the last four hundred metres.

The highest point is located in the largest planted beech forest in Europe – almost 1,000 acres of forestry. A pity it wasn’t a few weeks ago as the colours would have been stunning. Unfortunately it was another day of heavy showers and the top was shrouded in a low lying cloud. There are a range of walking routes through the woods of beech, noble fir, Scots pine and sitka spruce.

There were great views of Lough Sheelin on Cavan as I approached he park but the views from the top were blocked by cloud and trees. I took the ‘blue route’ as that takes you up to the summit. Passed by an old Booley hut on the way down; this would have been used a shelter during summer grazing in years of yore and there are relics of famine walls built around old fields. Not to mention a few Turloughs too! (A turlough is a temporary or disappearing lakes!).

Mullaghmeelan Forest Park

Heading home from Mullingar, I took the back road towards Rhode with the intention of paying a visit to the Profundis Stone, which I had often seen signposted but never got to before. I’m glad I did as it is the only one left in Ireland. A Profundis Stone was a resting stone, a local tradition of stopping a funeral procession and reciting the “De Profundis” – Psalm 30. It is shaped like a coffin and here is a graveyard behind a locked gate on the opposite side of the road.

Well that was the last stop on another interesting ramble. I have it in my head to climb the highest point in each county over the next while. I have 12 completed already over the years so I will keep posting as I get around to the rest!

A Walk in the Burren

By the time we finished secondary school Leo McGough aka The Hurling Hobo, @thehurlinghobo, had enrolled us all in the cult of Clare hurling! So I have a soft spot for this beautiful county and I was delighted to take a break last weekend from my Darragh and Eimear’s wedding celebrations for a short walk in the Burren. It is the most unique landscape in Ireland, with its rolling limestone hills, underground rivers and caves, unique flora and fauna. An area steeped in history and heritage sites. It’s tricky walking territory and you need to focus on each step as the limestone is full of crevices and cracks, loose rocks and stone walls. That makes it hard to take in the natural beauty surrounding you, so it’s wise to stop and gaze as often as possible! Not everyone in the past was so taken with the wonders of the Burren:

“It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…. and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”

Cromwellian general, Edmund Ludlow (1617-1692).

An Bhoireann….” a stony place..”. Never was a place so well named for this area of north Clare is world renowned for its unique landscape. Between those rocks and crevices is a unique eco system where alpine and mediterranean plant species are found side by side. It is a botanists paradise!

The Burren landscape was formed millions of years ago and there are clues to its ancient past in the rock surfaces, with fossils such as the coral below in abundance:

The Burren extends from approximately Corofin northwards into Galway, covering an area of about 530 square kilometres. A small part of that is designated a national park and thats where we completed this short walk around beautiful Mullaghmore mountain. The walk extends over a series of rocky terraces with beautiful lakes, some are turloughs (temporary lakes found in limestone areas), the colours of the water were stunning.

We often hear about the farmers in the Alps bringing their cattle to high pastures in the summer. This practice is called transhumance. For thousands of years, Burren farmers have marked the end of summer by herding their cattle onto ‘winterage’ pastures in the limestone uplands where they spend the winter grazing. This ancient reverse ‘transhumance’ tradition is synonymous with the Burren and is key to the survival of the region’s famous flora and fauna.

Farming practices in the Burren

Saturday Cycle

Mute Swan protecting cygnets….. wouldn’t take him on!

A bit of sunshine on a Saturday afternoon and a nice cycle along quiet country roads and on the Barrow Track… never fails to surprise.. The network of local roads in this country is tailor made for cycling. Today brought me out towards Ballylinan, Barrowhouse and home via Maganey and the Barrow Track. I estimate that once I left town I met fewer than 10 cars in 35kms and yet was never more than 15kms from Town..

There is a really well kept monument to the Barrowhouse Ambush, just outside the village, which was erected on the 100th anniversary of the Ambush in May 2021. The site was the location of an ambush by the B Company, 5th battalion of the Carlow Brigade of the Irish Republican Army of a convoy of Royal Irish Constabulary officers. Two local volunteers, William Connor and James Lacey, both young men of just 26 years were the only fatalities on that day.

I love the roads around Killeen, Barrowhouse and across to Kilkea. It’s great cycling terrain, good surfaces, quiet roads and flat! There’s always something to see and there’s the Barrow Track to approach Carlow Town from.

Today I had just met Dermot McGrath at Westfield Lock, and we fell into talking about Carlow v Wicklow. I’m tipping Carlow for the revenge in Aughrim tomorrow! Just after I passed Dermot I pulled the bike to a quick halt as I saw this beautiful group of Mute Swans.

Dermot’s dog appeared too and Daddy Swan was on point right away, hissing and making himself big to scare him away.

A lovely loop for anyone looking for a quiet route to cycle.

I’ve been through the desert on a bike with no name… it felt good to be out of the rain!

Al Qudra Cycle Track U.A.E.

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain

“A Horse with No Name’ courtesy of Dewey Bunnell, America

We are just back home from a visit to our youngest, Ronan, and his wonderful fiancee Hannah in Dubai last week. It was our first visit out and it was so much more than we could have wished for! It was a marvellous week and we built in a lot of sightseeing, walking and cycling.

Yes Dubai is a tourist Mecca, with a skyline to outshine Manhattan, but it also mixes the old and the new. Part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), it is one of the most westernised societies in the Middle East – not sure that is a recommendation though! I much preferred their promotion of their own culture, hospitality and their pride in their place in the Arab and Islamic world.

It was marvellous to go out and visit Ronan and Hannah; we take it for granted that they are doing fine but nothing beats family and the importance of those ties was reinforced over our visit. They really looked after us and it is heartening to see their interest in being active and interested in the culture of the country in which they are making their living, while still obviously very much tied to their roots on the glorious Emerald Isle of ours!

The highlights of this trip for me were the walks, the cycles and the sightseeing; you don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy yourself and to broaden your horizons.

It’s hard to believe it is a week since we had an incredible cycling experience in the Al Qudra desert, cycling on the 50kms Al Qudra cycling track. Such a contrast to cycling here at home! The day time temperature was 33 degrees and we planned our cycle for the evening, starting in daylight and finishing under the desert night sky.

With 50kms to cover and no towns or villages on the route, it meant carrying a lot of water. I was parched after a few hundred metres but quickly adapted. The route itself is tarmac, in excellent condition but what a strange environment; sand dunes and a scorching sun overhead, silence… but with eyes peeled looking for Arabian sand antelopes and a longed for sighting to the endangered Arabian Oryx. ‘Inshalla’, we might catch a glimpse – and we did!

The Arabian Oryx is the first ever example of an animal that has been successfully reintroduced into its original habitat after being declared extinct in the wild.
The only one of the four oryx species to occur outside Africa, the Arabian oryx inhabits sandy and stony deserts and is supremely well adapted to this hostile environment.
Its bright white coat reflects the sun’s harsh rays, while splayed hooves allow it to negotiate the sandy terrain more easily. It can survive for extended periods without a direct water source and is capable of travelling vast distances in search of new growth.
Arabian oryx are active mainly around dawn and dusk, and tend to rest in the shade during the heat of the day. They dig with their hooves to create a bed of cooler sand in which to lie.

We saw small herds of the Arabian Sand Antelope but the closest we got to any was unfortunately to a dead one on the side of the track..

Night comes to the desert all at once, as if someone turned off the light.

Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve always been fascinated by the desert; perhaps it was childhood tales of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor and Arabian Nights; stories about the nomads and the camel – the fabled ship of the desert… so it was a great experience to be out there among the shifting sand dunes and the burning sun.

Magic of the shadows. can best be seen in the deserts

Mehmet Murat Ildan

The route was relatively easy when we completed it – there was little wind, the heat was dissipating as evening approached and conditions were perfect.

The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits and ascetics who lived in the Egyptian desert. They were a source of huge inspiration for Irish Saints, in the 5th and 6th centuries, who sought out remote locations to live similar lives – none more remote than the Skelligs, and there are many Irish place names that feature the word Díseart – desert in English. There is one close enough to Carlow – Díseart Diarmada (Castledermot). One of our great saints and a Carlow man, Columbanus set out as a wandering Irish Perigini in Continental Europe. Ronan and I cycled from Canterbury to his tomb in Bobbio, Italy in 2010 on our way to Rome. Funny the connections you can make but they resonate with me.

The desert does not mean the absence of men but the presence of God.

Carlo Carretto

There is something magnetic about the pull of the desert; it’s primal, it’s harsh, it’s a place to empty your head. Certainly the vastness, the barreness, the solitude has an attraction especially in today’s busy non stop world. A welcome break from the traffic of Dubai!

There are a small few shelters to get a break from the constant sun – but bring your own water as there is none!

‘Tis a long road that has no turning….

It was amazing how quickly the sun dropped from the sky; we were racing to the shelter to take a photo of the sunset but it happened so fast we had no chance!

Definitely one of the highlights of the trip; others being visits to the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque, the Emirates Palace and Qatar Al Watan. But that’s for another post!

Local Loops are Lovely!

Not all bike journeys have to be epic! I had a lovely short cycle this evening along the Barrow to Maganey and returning via Sleaty. There is always something new to see to bring either a smile or a scowl to my face!

Leaving town I past a few lads, the worse for wear, falling around the Town Hall car park; I was to meet them later in Bridewell Lane, one of them crawled on the bonnet of a car, shouting for the Guards, blocking the lane and preventing cars driving through..mad stuff.

Not long after I met this man on the Barrow track, where I often bump into him and his pet Jackdaw who he brings for a walk!

One of the great advantages of the grassy banks of the River Barrow is its capacity to cater for all sorts of users. Hikers, fishermen, swimmers, cyclists and canoeists. I met a large group of canoeists who had pitched their tents at Bestfield Lock gates, something that would be impossible if this was converted to a hard surface to create a bike path. I often meet groups, usually on Bank Holiday weekends, who come down from Athy or Monasterevin on their way to St Mullins at the tip of County Carlow. These boys were well set up with all the gear!

The Barrow Track will always be special to me; it’s a beautiful green corridor full of nature and biodiversity that we are obligated to protect. We must ensure that no further damage is done to one of our greatest natural resources because when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I spotted a cormorant and an egret today, birds that you won’t see too often in these parts but the Barrow is their home and needs protecting.

I cycled out to Maganey bridge and crossed over into Laois; three counties on this little loop, Carlow, Kildare and Laois! I wheeled left towards Knockbeg and it was a glorious evening on this quiet local road, one of my favourites.

With the sun setting in the west, the light at Sleaty was golden and perfect to take a photo of the famed St. Fiac’s Cross at Sleaty Church ruins.

Below is a lovely tale from the Schools Collection on the Dúchas website. It was recorded in Fairymount School, Crettyard in 1938:

“In the seventh century there lived in Sleaty or Sletty a saint whose name was St Fiach. The ruins of his church are still to be seen on the road leading from Ballickmoyler to Knock-beg. It is surrounded by a grave-yard circular in shape in the middle of a big field and is called Rathillenane. Tradition his it that every lent the Saint went to the doon of clopook and spent seven weeks in fasting and prayers. He took seven loaves with him and on those he lived during lent.
The doon is a circular pile of limestone rising sheer from a broad plain to a height of 150 feet. At its base is a cave or tunnel cut through solid rock beneath the hill in the direction of Stradbally. On the other side is a smaller tunnel facing for Luggacurren. Through this tunnel St Fiach (usd) used to go to three times every night to pray in the ruins of Clopook. The tunnel is half a mile long ending in a vault beneath the church. The writer travelled about 300 yards through this under ground passage, some years ago. On the top of the doon is a level floor about 50 feet in diameter. On the North end of this green carpet is the withered stump of a white thorn.
On the Luggacurren side of this old tree is a square piece of earth about 4 feet long by 2 feet wide. This is said to be where the saint stood while celebrating Mass in the shelter of the old white thorn.”

— from Dúchas, The Schools Collection

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