I didn’t fancy heading out tonight on the bike tonight, bitter gusts and spits of snow but I was glad I did. It wasn’t ;one till the sun was back out and casting its long evening shadows. Had a fantastic cycle.
There’s always something to catch the eye. There’s the wind and sun to gauge, which road has the best hedges to shelter from the wind and is the best route to take. Usually with a wind I like to head out into it and have it at my back on the way home; if I’m really lucky the route might even give me a bit more tail wind than head wind. And when the evening sun is dropping low I try to have it at my back so the motorists can see me clearly.
Road bowling is a popular sport in west Cork and Armagh. You don’t see it down this neck of the woods too often.
Tonight I did!
The game is played along country roads and consists of contestants taking the least amount of throws to over the course. Big money can be wagered on these games!
Not too far away are lovely views of Shrule Castle.
A fantastic short spin and always something new to look at!
There was a time all of Ireland was densely covered in vast forests of native woodland of oak, ash, alder and birch. The rivers were the highways and the means of transport.
Columbanus and his fellow monks would have used these rivers to traverse the country. Many of our monasteries and churches are located close to rivers or lakes – St Mullins, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Jerpoint, Devinish, Gouganebarra and so on.
It felt good to be following the River Barrow knowing that Columbanus almost certainly travelled this way on his journey north. It’s good to follow a pathway; we, humans and animals, always leave a track and to walk or cycle the Barrow Way is one of the few places we can do that freely in Ireland. Spain has its camino paths, its drove roads which were once used for droving livestock on foot between summer and winter pastures but we have little in the way of old Green roads. The Scandanavians have rights to roam called ‘Allemansrätt’, which gives you the right to roam the countryside in Sweden in perfect peace and quiet. Access rights in Ireland have been described as being “the most regressive and restrictive access legislation in Europe”. Most of the routes used to reach our mountains and national monuments pass over private land.
In almost all cases, the walker has no right to be there which is why The Barrow Way is special.
Occasional milestones mark the distance to far off St Mullins and to the next town of Athy.
We have tamed the landscapes, shaped them, carved them, tilled them and changed them. The advent of the canals changed the river, brought trade in the 1800s making the river navigable to barge traffic. Guinness was the major beneficiary but also Irish Sugar used barges to transport sugar beet. I can recall the harbour behind the factory where the barges docked (great place for fishing!). All that remains is the barren sight of the massive Lime Kiln Tower.
The life of a barge man was a tough one and working conditions were abysmal. The arrival of the rail network brought about the death of the barge traffic.
We cannot ignore or deny any longer the detrimental impact we have had on the natural world.
Ironically, in this time of Covid-19, we have got glimpses of how quickly nature might take back control of the world around us – wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, coyote in downtown Chicago, sika deer in Japanese metro tunnels, wild turkeys in Oakland, California, puma in Santiago Chile, rivers running clean, smog lifted from city skylines…..
The Barrow is a sliver of wildness that springs forth in Glenbarrow, in the Slieve Blooms, gathering speed and volume as it flows south through the south east.
It’s a great place for birdsong, for wildflowers, for stillness and calm.
The stretch from Carlow to Athy is easy pleasant cycling, even though it runs parallel to the R417, it is an oasis of peace. It is easy be transported to another world, lost in your own thoughts, and in the beauty around you.
The 13th Lock at Bestfield is reputedly haunted and boatmen would not moor their boats there!
This is a powerful river. Come the winter months and the path is often flooded and inaccessible – it can happen even in the height of summer if the rains are heavy enough as the Barrow drains a huge area through its web of tributaries of smaller rivers and streams.
There is nothing nicer than to spend a little time spotting wildlife along the riverbank. Shy Herons standing guard on the weirs, Cormorants perched on rocks, kingfishers darting past in a blur of bright blue and orange colours – an amazing sight that too few have had the pleasure of witnessing. Egrets are known to winter alongside the River Lerr where it joins the Barrow, on a boggy marsh, difficult to access. Behind the dense woodland on the far bank is hidden Shrule Castle, only visible during winter.
A sight that has become very common in the south east and along The Barrow Way is of one of our large birds of prey, the Buzzard as it glides and soars. It is unmistakeable as it holds its wings out wide and its tail fanned out. Majestic!
The plethora of wild flowers is a great habitat for insects of all shapes and sizes. It’s our secret garden.
Maganey Bridge is the next opportunity to get off the towpath. Counties, Carlow, Laois and Kildare meet here and rather appropriately, The Three Counties pub is just across the road, but unfortunately is now closed. There is however a filling station and grocery shop to stock up on supplies.
Shortly after is Levistown Lock is the longest cut – or canal on the river. These were designed to bypass river rapids and weirs to enable barge transport along the River. There’s a different feel to the Track along the Canal; slow moving and a different type of vegetation thrives in these waters. Duckweed and beautiful yellow water lilies abound. There is a fabulous ruined mill here on the island between the canal and river.
The beautiful words of Patrick Kavanagh’s ’Canal Bank Walk’ come to mind along this section; Kavanagh expresses a desire to escape back to the natural world from his time in the bright lights and his public life.
‘Leafy-with-love banks and green waters of the canal
pouring redemption for me, that I do
The will of God, wallow in the habitual, the banal,
Grow with nature again as before I grew’.
There is a simplicity about the scenes along the canal towpath; a quietness, a stillness, a retreat from the hustle of world of work and modern living. Walking and cycling here is therapy for the soul!
Another of the most important river crossings from medieval times was at Athy, the next Town on our journey north. It’s a Town rich in history. Áth Ae meaning the Ford of Ae got its name from a famous battle in the 2nd century.
At the centre of the Town is the Crom-a-Boo (war cry of the Fitzgeralds) Bridge over the River Barrow and White’s Castle alongside it.
The great football rivalry between Laois and Kildare may be of much older vintage for the O Moores of Laois attacked and burned the Town four times in the 14th Century!
It has a strong association with the Anglo-Normans and was a stronghold of the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare.
There is a great Heritage Centre in Emily Square which contains the Shackleton Museum. The great polar explorer was born in Kilkea and is famed for his expeditions to the South Pole. His journey aboard The Endurance became one of the epic stories of human survival. He died on his fourth expedition on South Georgia island in 1922.
Not as well known perhaps was his forefather Abraham. The Shackleton family established a Quaker village in Ballitore and some very notable people were educated there – Edmund Burke, Cardinal Paul Cullen, Napper Tandy and his great aunt Mary Leadbeater.
There is also a exhibition to celebrate the Gordon Bennett Motor Race on 1903; a famous forerunner of todays’ Formula One Grand Prix races!
Athy has strong associations with the Grand Canal and it developed into a bustling centre of trade in the 1800s only to decline when the canals lost their ability to compete with the rail and road network. Athy marked the end of the Grand Canal’s Barrow Line and the beginning of the Barrow navigation.
After a short break in the Town Square we back track as far as the pretty Horse Shoe Bridge with its four arches. This was used to bring the horse across to the other side to join the Barrow Line.
From Athy the route follows the path of the Barrow Line (Grand Canal) rather than the river and is on a minor road parallel to the Canal as far as lovely Vicarstown. The grass bank on the left of he canal can also be cycled if preferred but the road here is traffic free and a pleasant few kilometres to Baile and Bhiocáire (Vicarstown).
Its a great starting by for cruising the Barrow being the home of the Barrowline cruisers, an award-winning family run barge hire business. The Vicarstown Inn is beside the bridge and can be a handy refuelling stop!
Its back on the grassy path from here. Not long after is the next landmark, Gratton Aqueduct, named after Henry Grattan. The plaque on the bridge is misspelled!
Stay on the right bank for another 6kms; the path isn’t wonderful but its always good to be off road. Switch over then to the other side to stay on grass and it’s just about 4kms into Monasterevin. Because of all the bridges – road, rivers canal and rail it has been dubbed as the ‘Venice of Ireland’!
The name comes from a monastery founded in the 6th century by St. Evin, surely a contemporary of our man Columbanus.
The English poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins is associated with the Town where he lived for several years. His poem, The Windhover is one of the great poems that celebrates nature and its not uncommon to see a kestrel (windhover) along the river or nearby, hovering overhead
I caught this morning’s minion king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon..
Only beginning to appreciate Soundings now – the Leaving Cert Poetry anthology… it’s all making sense now!
It’s a good 41 kms from Carlow to Monasterevin and a not too challenging route as it is flat all the way. Far enough for Day 2! Another very enjoyable cycle.
Now is the opportune time to embark on a virtual journey of my cycle in September and October 2019 along the Turas Columbanus, a new pilgrimage route, from Mount Leinster in Carlow to Bangor in County Down.
It was a little late in the year to start out on and I didn’t manage to finish it; the weather and dark evenings caught up with me but not before I had managed 670kms of fantastic cycling.
In this time of lockdown, thanks to Covid-19, it’s good for the head to imagine being back on the bike, in beautiful countryside, in sunshine or even in rain!
I completed the route as far as Newry in 14 stages between August and October, the weather and short evenings bringing my journey to a temporary halt until sometime after this Covid-19 pandemic is resolved.
The route commemorates St Columbanus, who was reputedly born around the year 541AD on the Carlow / Wexford border, somewhere close to present day Myshall from where he travelled to Bangor in County Down to become a monk, eventually perhaps the most important European Monk.
He travelled to France where he set up several monasteries while falling out with the local rulers, being banished, returning, following a miraculous shipwreck and then moving on into Austria and down into Italy where he founded the monastery at Bobbio.
The Celtic Peregrinati were renowned for their asceticism and their wanderings; this desire to seek isolation spent in a life of prayer, fasting and learning was a feature of the early Irish Church.
The Roman Empire had collapsed, and European civilisation has entered the Dark Ages; Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire and as an island on the periphery of the Continental landmass, it was perhaps saved the ravages of the Visigoths. Irish monks enabled the classical and religious heritage of Christian Europe to be saved.
Columbanus is credited with being the first advocate for a federal Europe – way back in the 6th century, he is ‘the Patron Saint of a united Europe’.
It was an amazing adventure through the hidden heartlands of the island, parts that are near, yet remote, off the beaten track and the better for that.
There was such variety on the route and, for those not so experienced or so fond of hills, relatively flat.
Because I was doing this over a long period, it meant that on many stages I had to cycle back to the start point reducing my range for that day.
It was exciting to start this pilgrimage in Carlow, from the Nine Stones on Mount Leinster. The origin of the Nine Stones is lost in time, but one legend has it that St Moling met a man with a sack on his back. He asked him if there was bread in the bag (which there was) but the man said it contained stones. St. Moling replied, “if stones, may they be turned into bread and if bread, may they be turned into stones”. The stones have been there ever since!
Another story is that is the burial place of nine chieftains.
No one knows only that they are very much a landmark on the slopes of Mount Leinster to this day.
It’s a great place to start because it is all downhill from there, but a word of caution – it is perilous as there is a strong temptation to take your eyes off the road to take in the panoramic views above Cúl na Sneachta of County Carlow as this narrow unprotected road, with a sheer drop over your left shoulder, descends quickly to the historic village and hurling stronghold of Myshall.
There is a great respect for local culture in the area and the parish website contains detailed accounts of the important sites and historical figures from the area.
A short walk around the village will take in the ruined church of St. Finnian a man we will encounter later in Clonard, County Meath, another very important Carlow monk from the 5th century.
Tobar Bhríde is a lovely holy well, just a stones throw away, while the Adelaide Memorial Church is well worth a visit.
The Adelaide Memorial Church of Christ The Redeemer in Myshall is an architectural masterpiece. Worth a visit on its own. There’s a great love story about its construction which was built to commemorate the daughter and wife of a visiting English man. His daughter had been thrown from a horse while riding and died from the fall.
Moving on from Myshall, the road is very good and flat into Fenagh and onto Newtown. It is reputed the last wolf in Ireland was killed here in Fenagh.
It’s nice to have a bit of a climb out of Newtown for the stages ahead are all on the flat! Coming down the hill, heading towards Leighlinbridge is the 7th century Augha Church, now in ruins, on your left-hand side.
Leighlinbridge was bypassed by the new M7 Motorway. Many thought it would be the death knell of another Irish village. Thankfully that didn’t happen, and the village is thriving. It was always an important crossing point on the River Barrow with the bridge dating back to 1320 – Ireland’s first toll bridge. its importance goes back much further however, as Dinn Righ was reputedly the ancient seat of the Kings of Leinster.
It’s a pretty village best seen in the summer when there is always a fabulous display of hanging baskets and flowers from every vantage point.
There are some very famous sons of Leighlinbridge – scientist and mountaineer John Tyndall, Captain Myles Kehoe who fought and died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. His horse, ‘Commanche’ was the only survivor of that famous battle where the US Cavalry led by Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer was defeated by the Sioux nation led by Crazy Horse.
Australia’s first Cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran was another son of Leighlinbridge while the family of the Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney were also from the area!
It’s a great stopping off point too with great food and accommodation available close to the River Barrow.
It was a great day weather wise and coming down the side of Mount Leinster made for an easy start with good local roads connecting to Leighlinbridge.
Now it was time to get off road onto The Barrow Way, one of the best off-road cycling routes in the country.
The Barrow Way extends from Athy to St. Mullins and is a national way marked hiking trail.
The late Dick Warner, one of our foremost environmentalists, described it as “the most beautiful riverside walks in these islands”. I tend to agree.
This is a grass surface all the way to Carlow Town. No traffic to worry about, only to be cautious and not take your eye off the path and end up in the river! The sky was bright blue above with wafts of cotton wool floating across, the birds were in full song and everything was right with the world!
The land here is good; some of the top farming land in the country, lush and bountiful. There are a hundred shades of green. Blackbirds, herons, robins, egrets, buzzards, finches and even the odd kingfisher blazing by. Otters are a common sight between here and Carlow. Indeed I have also met foxes and even pine marten on the riverbank. It’s a narrow corridor of wildness in an area of intense farming practices.
It’s a part of the hidden Ireland; the Barrow is considered some of the finest boating in the country but pales in significance the Shannon and the Erne Waterways. That has its advantages and it is unspoilt, unpretentious and exceedingly quiet.
A place to think while engaging in slow travel, for the grassy cover slows the pace of even the most enthusiastic cyclist.
Milford lies about halfway between Leighlinbridge and Carlow Town and is very picturesque, often used as a backdrop for local wedding photographs. A good place for wild swimming too. Electricity was first generated here by the owners, the Alexander family (still here in the locality) in 1891 and Carlow Town became the first inland town in Ireland or Britain to receive electric power!
I was very much on home turf here and it wasn’t long until Carlow Castle came into view and the end of my first stage of the Turas Columbanus.
The first ever St Patrick’s Day Parade was took place in 1601 in ……. St Augustine, Florida!!
It’s become a global phenomena and is now of course celebrated worldwide with world famous landmarks even being lit up green to celebrate St Patrick and Ireland. An amazing impact for a small island off the west coast of Europe.
Sadly COVID-19 has prevented parades taking place in Ireland or abroad.
St Patrick has an association with Carlow and Rathvilly. Ireland’s patron saint baptised the King of Leinster, Crimthann and his family at the well which is located, naturally, in the townland of Patrickswell, Rathvilly.
To mark St Patrick’s Day 2020 here are some photos of some of our lesser known heritage sites around the county:
There are a number of interesting sites very close by which include ancient crosses and ogham stones:
Tucked away in the south east corner of our tiny county is the historic village of Clonegal and its incredible Huntington Castle. A gem.
Huntington Castle is the ancient seat of the Esmonde family. The Esmonde’s moved over to Ireland in 1192 and were involved in other castles such as Duncannon Fort in Waterford and Johnstown Castle in Wexford (both also feature on my cycle routes in Cycling South Leinster) before building Huntington and settling down in Clonegal. The family name has changed twice due to inheritance down the female line and the present family name is Durdin Robertson, who are direct descendants of the Esmondes.
I was surprised to learn that one of their notable ancestors was Lady Esmonde (Alish O’Flaherty) – the grandaughter of Grace O’Malley the famous Pirate Queen of Connaught.
Barbera St. Ledger (Not Bríd), Edward King, Herbert Robertson MP, Nora Parsons, Manning Robertson, and latterly Olivia Robertson are others to name but a few. A Tour of the Castle introduces the visitor to their back stories and to ghosts, witches and Egyptian Goddesses!
The Castle is presently lived in by three generations of the Durdin Robertson family, and the current owners Alexander and Clare Durdin Robertson are very much hands on with the business and can frequently be found giving tours, working in the gardens or making tea in the tearooms.
Rose Shiels, wife of Stephen – a great servant of Kildavin and Carlow football in his day, introduced me to Alexander and I spent a fascinating afternoon plodding round the gardens.
The Gardens were mainly laid out in the 1680’s by the Esmondes. They feature impressive formal plantings and layouts including the Italian style ‘Parterre’ or formal gardens, as well the French lime Avenue (planted in 1680) The world famous yew walk is a significant feature which is thought to date to over 500 years old and should not be missed.
Later plantings resulted in Huntington gaining a number of Champion trees including more than ten National Champions.
The gardens also feature early water features such as stew ponds and an ornamental lake as well as plenty to see in the greenhouse and lots of unusual and exotic plants and shrubs.
The Lake at Huntington Castle
Vintage Tractor Run at Huntington Castle
The Lake at Huntington Castle
17th Century Parterre Gardens at Huntington Castle