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.
With a raging pandemic in full flow, the thoughts of Christmas shopping fill me with dread. I seem to have missed the warnings today of imminent food shortages and empty shelves judging by the full car parks in Town this morning.
The entire country seems to have finally discovered all the great walking trails and loops dotted across the country, judging by the worn paths at this time of year and so are often a little too populated for my liking at this time. The great thing about the bike is it increases your range and your options. Today was a day made for the bike; a blue sky, little wind and the air was crystal clear. Cool but an incredible Sunday in December. An Escape from the madness.
Kilkea is almost directly north of Carlow Town and there’s a spiders web of tiny quiet roads that are just perfect for cycling – I can count on one hand the number of cars met over 32kms cycling. I take the road out through Oak Park, behind the Golf Club and turn left at Ballaghmoon Cross. Thats the first 5kms done! It’s a straight road for the next couple of kms followed by two right turns. Take the second right and continue over the Maganey – Castledermot road at Castleroe Crossroads. The surfaces are great, the roads are quiet and there are great expansive views across the lowlands of south Kildare. After another kilometre, take the left fork in the road and enjoy the freewheeling down the hill before turning right onto a beautiful tree lined stretch that finishes with a stunning view of Kilkea Castle at the T-junction. Take a left into pretty Kilkea village and tuen into the grounds of Kilkea Castle.
It’s a stunning twelfth-century castle, home of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare. The castle is again a top-class hotel and golf resort for many years, having fallen victim to the economic downturn post-Celtic Tiger but is now open. It has an enchanting history – associated with ‘The Wizard Earl’ who practised alchemy and was reputed to have magic powers. They say the castle is haunted and that he returns every seven years on a white horse!
Another claim to fame for Kilkea is that it is the birthplace of the Antarctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton, and there’s a really great statue in nearby Athy in his honour and also a fine Shackleton museum in the Athy Heritage Centre.
After a few photos it was time to head back home and I took the back road out of the Castle and crossed over at Sills Cross, up the hill returning as far as the fork in the road where I had taken the left fork on the way out.
Back at Castleroe Cross I swung left in the direction of Castledermot and took the right at the top of the hill. It’s another great road, well surfaced and quite wide. I took a right after 2kms approx onto a minor road which brought me back to Ballaghmoon Bridge from where I returned along the route I took out of town.
Total distance: 33kms. Time (including stops) 1hr 54mins. Moving time 1hr 38 mins. Highly recommend this route!
New Years Day and cabin fever at its highest! A day for fresh air and exploring the landscape of County Carlow. Maps intrique me. Old places, long forgotten, apart from some obscure marking on OS maps; like a treasure map, clues to our past.
The brilliant East West Map of the Blackstairs and the Barrow Valley feature a ‘Star Shaped Fort’ at Coolyhune. It has long haunted me. Perched on top of the small hill with great views of Counties Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford, the site is overgrown and is adjacent to a house on private land. During the summer months when trees are in foliage it is virtually impenetrable but there is some possibilities of seeing the layout in mid winter. But still hard to visualise the fort at ground level.
I was delighted today to get permission to access the site and I got some good footage of the site with the star shape clearly visible. These are the only aerial photographs that I am aware of that exist of the Fort.
The following description is derived from the published ‘Archaeological Inventory of County Carlow’ (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1993):
Pentagonal fort with bastions enclosing summit of hill. Walls of drystone construction (ext. max. H 2.2m, int. H 0.6-2m; top Wth c. 1.2m, base Wth c. 1.5-1.8m), with slight external batter. Construction suggests fairly recent origin, possibly connected with events of 1798. (dims. of interior (excluding bastions) 60m x 60.5m; L of bastion 18m; max. Wth of bastion 20m; Wth of opening to bastions 17.6m). Rebuilding in some areas; entrance gap at S probably not original.
We are desensitised to our surroundings and to our environment. Urban landscapes. Asphalt roads. Concrete paths. Hard, unforgiving surfaces. Connecting with somewhere or somebody but not connecting with the land we inhabit. Unlike paths of our forefathers.
Since homo sapiens left Africa we have been crisscrossing continents and leaving tracks behind us. When we began herding livestock we created trails to and from pastures – sure isn’t that where the word ‘bóthar’ came from!
Many of our roads were originally animal tracks – no wonder Irish roads have traditionally been windy and twisty and unsuitable for modern traffic!
Pilgrim roads. Famine roads – built in the 1840s by starving peasants to receive a small return to alleviate hunger; the road to nowhere.
I’ve always been fascinated by Green Roads that cross the country – and can only now be seen on waste ground or mountain sides.
There are at least three roads showing on ordnance survey maps along the Carlow flank of the Blackstairs. These are the ‘Wexford Road’, ‘The Tower Road’ and the ‘Gowlin Road’. All three meet up at some stage.
There were traditionally feast days where families of either side of the Blackstairs would meet on top of the Cooliagh Gap at The Meeting Point on the last Sunday in July.
Presumably the ‘Wexford Road’ was a short cut over the mountain to County Wexford, while the Gowlin Road finished in the town land of Goolin. The Tower Road was so named after the Tower House, now in ruins.
Further south the around Dranagh, the stone wall landscape is reminiscent of the west of Ireland.
A good day exploring the land of the 2019 Leinster Club hurling finalists, St Mullins and the 2013 Leinster Champions Mount Leinster Rangers!
Thanks to Pádraig Dooley of Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society for telling me about this fantastic Youtube clip of the now defunct railway line from Bagenalstown to Pallas East! Its a great piece of Carlow history.
The brouhaha has died down about the proposed development of the Barrow Blueway by Waterways Ireland since An Bórd Pleanála refused permission to change the use of the Barrow Track to a cycle route. But is that the end of it?
Surely fresh thinking is now required. Where do we go from here?
The concept itself had great merit; rural ireland is crying out for sustainable development and eco tourism offers some hope to isolated communities that are trying to stay alive and reinvent themselves in a country that is becoming as urbanised and centralised as most developed countries around the globe.
I don’t believe any of the people opposed to the development of the Blueway were anti development but they had the foresight to realise the plan was fatally flawed.
It didn’t mean that they were opposed to developing the national Greenway infrastructure in Carlow, rather that they wished for deeper consultation and the selection of the most appropriate route. The establishment of the Greenway network has been hailed as a major success, developing new places of interest for visitors and increasing employment in tourist related activities along the routes. What was overlooked when it came to developing a Carlow Greenway was the basis on which routes were selected in other counties. Disused railways featured heavily across the network.
Ironically we in Carlow have a disused railway running almost parallel to the River Barrow through some of our most beautiful scenic areas – and it would visit our villages of Drummond, St Mullins, Glynn, Borris and Bagenalstown along its 30kms of pristine natural beauty.
The difficulty of course is that the lands have gone into private ownership and accessing it presents a challenge. it’s no different to the challenge in Waterford and Mayo. With leadership, vision, consultation, dialogue and goodwill there is no obvious reason why we in County Carlow cannot achieve the same outcome.
It would be a major tourist infrastructure for the County and would need the support of statutory bodies to be developed. if we can dream it, we can make it happen. It’s about selling an idea, it’s about promoting our locality, its’ about developing an eco tourism product that will benefit all the stakeholders along the route and one that will not damage the natural environment as the proposed Blueway would have done.
Here is a link to what I have marked as the Bagenalstown to Pallas East Railway based on satellite imagery of South Carlow. Could the route become part of the national Greenway infrastructure?
One of the most beautiful off road cycle – hiking routes in Ireland!
Last night was just an amazing evening to spend a few hours on the Barrow Track. I’ve added the drone footage above and a few photos to this post I previously wrote some years ago about this stretch of the river.
Hanging Gardens Of Graiguenamanagh
Hanging Gardens Of Graiguenamanagh
River Barrow and Brandon Hill
Pave it or Save it?
It’s only 30 kms from Goresbridge to Graiguenamangh, return journey, along the banks of the Barrow but it takes a lot longer than expected as there is so much to see!
The river wanders between steep wooded hillsides of ancient oak, ash, scots pine and conifer on its path to the sea.
It seems to have its own micro climate. Lush and green.
And it’s only by walking it or cycling it that one can truly appreciate why there is such controversy about paving this most wonderful natural walkng / cycling route.
My favourite section to cycle, the grassy towpath is smooth underneath apart from the odd disturbance where the roots of trees protrude and progress would be swift if it were not for the constant stopping and starting to marvel at the stunning scenery or to ponder the many historical sites along the way. The hurlers of Mt Leinster Rangers favour this section too for their pre season fitness training!
There are 6 locks on this section of the river – Lower Ballyellin, Ballytiglea, Borris, Ballingrane, Clashganny and Ballykeenan. In times past the lock keepers lived alongside in the adjoining cottages; some are now used as pretty holiday homes. If there are locks there are weirs and the trip southwards is often accompanied to the sound of water cascading over them, the only sound to be heard.
The river is dotted with some massive rocks in this section which are more visible than usual thanks to the dry summer we have had. Elusive herons favour them as isolated perches to rest upon.
Ballytiglea Bridge has five arches and is the access point from Borris to the Track. It is one of the most used access points and you are almost certain to bump in to local fishermen, walkers or swimmers once you pass under the arch. Yesterday I met one lady, who I often meet, that favours a spot about 500 meters south of the bridge for a daily swim.
Borris house is close by but its view is obscured by the dense cover of oak and ash trees on the estate. The ancestral home of the McMurrough Kavanagh clan was established in Brehon times and is still occupied by the Kavanagh family. It is one of the few Irish estates that can trace its history back to the royal families of ancient Ireland. The house and Borris village are worthy of a visit in their own right.
A humped back bridge spans the Mountain River which borders the estate is one of my favourite stopping points; it’s a quiet spot and entertainment today was provided by playful otters and lightning fast kingfishers who are just a blur of blue as they fly past at incredible speed just above the water line.
The last day down here I took a photo or a boat wreck and jokingly referred to Jack Sparrow. Today I sheltered during a rain shower under a canopy of trees closer to Ballingrane Lock where an unfortunate sparrow must have mistaken the reflection in the water as being the sky and crashed in and shuddered to a halt. The poor thing flapped furiously but hadn’t the strength to emerge and quickly drowned and floated away.
Island at Ballykeenan Lock
For the second successive trip I came across people camping on the river bank, this time beside the ruin of the lock cottage. A lovely secluded place to pitch tent. The iconic photograph of the Barrow is taken from above Clashganny Lock and shows the lock, lock house and the weir from above the tree line of the steeply banked sides of the river. Its one of the few spots on any river where a lifeguard is employed doing the summer months such is its popularity with swimmers. It’s a great spot for canoeing too and Charlie Horan’ of Go With The Flow, has really helped promote use of the river and an appreciation of its history and beauty to holidaymakers and day trippers alike.
Have to say i was chuffed to pass two ladies and one of them to call after me ‘ are you the fella wrote the book?! I had to stop and chat and I was delighted with the reaction to ‘Cycling South Leinster, Great Road Routes’.
Shortly after Clash is the only double lock on the Barrow navigation, Ballykeenan. Behind the island at Ballykeenan Lock is a unique historical link with the rivers past. The monks of Duiske Abbey prized the salmon and eel fisheries of the Barrow and they created eel fisheries on the river in the 13th century. They are still visible 800 years later. Worth seeing!
Its a short spin down to Graigue from here and the surface is good and the scenery spectacular.
Eel Fishery Ballykeenan
Graigue is another great village along the river to visit and explore. But I had to retrace my way to Goresbridge and photograph a few more interesting places!