These story boards of the early stages of Turas Columbanus, the latest addition to pilgrimage routes, give a great insight into the life of Columbanus and his journey from Myshall to Bangor and eventually to Bobbio in Italy. Hopefully they will be rolled out soon for the rest of the route to Bangor in County Down for the Irish sections of the route. The route moves to Europe where it crosses through France, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. I cycled a version of the Irish route last year and the map of my version of the route follows after the story boards. Credit to all involved in the research and production of the story boards that highlight the life of one of the great saints of Ireland.
I don’t know if their paths ever crossed, but two of our local Saints, Columbanus and Laserian, (Naomh Eoin and Old Leighlin!) were central figures in the debate over the date of Easter back in the 6th and 7th centuries!
St Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin
St Columbanus, reputedly born on the slopes of the Blackstairs, became one of the great Irish Missionaries in Europe founding many monasteries along with his followers in France, Switzerland and Italy. While located in the area under the auspices of the Frankish Bishops he became embroiled in a major controversy because he and his followers celebrated Easter according to the Celtic Calendar. The Bishops tried to censure him but he refused to cooperate and wrote to Pope Gregory .
There is no record of the Pope replying and Columbanus moved on to eventually settle in Bobbio, Italy.
Bobbio, where Columbanus founded his last monastery. Thrilled to have cycled to here in 2010 and on to Rome along the Via Degli Abati.
St Laserian spent 14 years in Rome where he was educated under Gregory. When he returned to Ireland he took over the monastery at Old Leighlin and became a strong advocate for the Roman method of calculating Easter. A synod was held at Old Leighlin and it agreed to send a delegation to Rome. It still took some time for the change to Roman calendar to be fully adopted.
Isn’t it remarkable how these monks travelled and communicated with far distant lands in the 6th and 7th centuries?
Molaise’s Well and Cross
Front cover of Cardinal O Fiaich’s book
The assertion he may be from Carlow..
Columbanus is known as the first European, as he advocated for a system of federalism and was the first Irishman to have a book written about him some years after his death, by one of his monks, Jonas.
With the evenings closing in, my window for completing this route was narrowing fast. The only way I could see it being completed would be to drive up in the evening, complete 15km sections and cycle back 15kms to the start point. Like eating an elephant, one bite at a time.
It was frustrating but it enabled me to take knock up the kilometres, always edging further along my chosen route.
The flat lands of Kildare and Meath made for easy cycling; no great level of fitness required setting out but with regular stages it doesn’t take long to make big aerobic improvements. I like cycling on my own; I can go at my own pace, stop and explore when I want and easier to hear nature all around!
The road from Clonard to Ballivor took me back over the Royal Canal at Blackshade Bridge – I have no idea where the name came from.
Thankfully the road was quiet as it was narrow with no verge and little margin for error. I took the first left turn which brought me over by Killyon GAA Club which is the halfway point to Ballivor.
Not a place I was familiar with, but it made ties in nicely with the route as the local Church is called after St Columbanus.
It hit the headlines in recent times with the discovery of a preserved Iron Age body in the local bog, now known as Clonycavan Man. He appears to have suffered a violent death and speculation is that it may have been some part of a ritual sacrifice..
The Town hit he headlines in 1940 when Dr. Herman Goertz parachuted in and was eventually captured resulting in his internment in the Curragh Camp. He was an Intelligence Officer with German Military Intelligence, the Abwehr. He was wearing a full German officer’s uniform and a cost stuffed with $20,000, in the middle of the night he swam across the River Boyne and hiked his way across country to Laragh Co. Wicklow to the home of Iseult Stuart. He had remained on the run for 18 months.
The road from Ballivor to Trim was quite a busy one; one turned off it a km out of town onto minor roads and had the scenic road all to myself for the 14 kms to Trim.
Trim is one of the oldest and most historic towns in the country. It is buking the trend of the decline in rural towns and it was great to see all the local shops on the main thoroughfares doing brisk trade.
There’s an old Meath saying “Kells for brogues, Navan for rogues and Trim for hanging!”.
It has many of the old medieval buildings still in existence and they have become major tourist attractions in recent years.
In fact Trim was itself reputedly a major centre for pilgrimage for 400 years from 1397 onwards. A wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, known as the ‘Idol of Trim’ was venerated here in the middle ages until the practice was outlawed by Henry VIII during the Reformation. The Statue was alleged to have worked many miracles and was destroyed, though local legend says it was saved by the town’s people only to be destroyed by chance later on.
There is much to explore in Trim; it is the largest and best preserved Norman castle in the country. Some of Braveheart was filmed here. Across the Boyne is the Yellow Steeple, the remains of the Priory of St Mary. The Abbey was destroyed by one William Cromwell, who went through causing devastation and suffering.
Make sure and visit St Patricks Church for it has some of the finest stain glass windows in Ireland, absolutely stunning display of colours.
It’s a great town to stop over in with lots of accommodation and restaurants.
After two great days cycling off road it was time to hit the asphalt again. Luckily in this country we have an amazing network of local roads that carry little traffic and are quite safe and pleasant to cycle on.
One of the concerns I had about this route before I started was the amount of road cycling involved.
This is still Bog of Allen country and bog roads are liable to be subside, but this road was well surfaced and was very easy cycling as it was all on the level plains of Kildare!
Coill Dubh is a relatively new village established in the 1950s to house workers on the Bord na Móna peat bogs and was reached petty quickly after just 3kms. It’s a name always resonates with me because of the Hurling Club. Funny how some names stick in your head, it was great to pass so many club grounds along this route.
Take a left turn at the t junction on to a road that winds its way for the next couple of kilometres. Good flat roads to the sleepy sráid bhaile of Timahoe which hasn’t seen much excitement since President Richard Nixon visited his ancestral homeland in 1970. His family emigrated from the Quaker settlement here in 1729. There isn’t much to mark the connection though I believe there is a memorial stone on the site of the Quaker burial ground.
Its more famous today as being the home of Kildare GAA sponsors, Brady Ham!
They came up with a great marketing campaign built around a song to the air of ‘Come our Ye Black and Tans’.
“Oh, Brady family ham, well it is your only man. Cured for three whole days and there’s no added water. Sure it’s cooked from one pork joint, unlike others – that’s the point! It tastes just like the ham baked by your mother. Come out you other hams, come and face me ham to ham”
Sure, it was all good craic.
I turned left at their plant onto a minor road but there were no free samples as I passed by!
This was a lovely quiet road that led to Johnstownbridge 10kms away passing by Dunfierth Church Ruins.
Enfield is the neighbouring town over the motorway.
I started the day on the banks of the Grand Canal and now was on the side of the Royal Canal. Enfield’s history goes right back to the time of the High Kings of Ireland and was on one of the five ancient roads that led from the Hill of Tara, where the High Kings were crowned.
Slighe Cualann went SE crossing the Liffey near Dublin and down into Wicklow
Slighe Ascili went West to Loch Owel in Westmeath, dividing the kingdom of Meath in two.
Slighe Midluachra went through Slane, to Eamhain Mach and the north to the Antrim coast
Slighe Mhór joined the Esker Riada near Clonard and on to Galway
Slighe Dala went towards Kilkenny
I was looking forward to getting back off road and joining the Royal Canal for the next leg.
The Royal and Grand Canal are quite different. The Grand was less developed and wilder. The Royal has been developed as a cycling track and it was much easier to cycle but not necessarily better for that! It has much more variety and there were some very pretty places along this section; progress was too easy though and I went way beyond my turning off point as a result!
The Canal skirts the Motorway for the first few kilometres and the constant hum of traffic was off putting but the path was excellent, and it was easy make progress.
The Royal Canal is part of the National Famine Walk route which starts in Strokestown Roscommon and finishes at Spencer Dock in Dublin. It commemorates the 1,490 tenants of Denis Mahon’s estate who were forced to emigrate to Canada from having walked all the way to Dublin. They went from Dublin to Liverpool where the sailed to Quebec on board badly provisioned ships. Almost half of them died on the voyage. Black ’47. We shall never forget.
There are very poignant way markers – sculptures of children’s shoes and if you click on to the website there are ‘shoe stories’ for each of the markers www.nationalfamineway.ie
My journey, in much different circumstances, was taking me in the opposite direction recalling the journey of a much older period, 6th century Ireland when Irish Christianity was spreading out across Europe and I am on the trail of Columbanus of Carlow.
2kms past Fureys is the unusual footbridge Ribbontail Bridge. It is thought the name refers to the movement of the 1800s called Ribbonism. Their supporters were called Ribbon Men and they campaigned against landlordism. Land agitation of course stretched back into the previous century too when there were a number of secret agrarian societies agitating for land reform and tenant rights, usually with romantic names such as The Whiteboys, Peep o’ Day Boys and Defenders.
The canal continues west, and it isn’t long before the path passes over the River Boyne Aqueduct. Is there a more historic river in Ireland than the Boyne? It stretches right back into folklore with the marvellous story of how Fionn Mac Cumhaill gained the knowledge of an Bradán Feasa, or the Salmon of Knowledge.
In short version, when Fionn was a young boy he went to work for the wise old poet Finnegas who lived on the banks of the Boyne. Finnegas knew so much about the birds, animals, and nature than any other man in Ireland and Fionn was there to learn as much as he could from the old man. Finnegas told him about the Salmon of Knowledge. It was as result of eating the nuts of some magical hazel trees that the Salmon had acquired all the knowledge of the world.
And it was prophesied that the one who would eat the Salmon would gain the knowledge for themselves. Finnegas eventually caught an Bradán Feasa and got Fionn to cook it while he went to gather firewood but warned him not to taste it. When he returned the salmon was cooked but while turning it Fionn had burnt his thumb and put it in his mouth to cool it. As a result, he inherited all the knowledge in the world!
That’s always the first image that comes to my mind whenever the Boyne is mentioned!
Local history makes these pilgrim routes so much more interesting and every turn in the road is filled with promise.
I continued onwards as far as the Hill of Down Bridge over the Canal from where I re-joined the road towards Clonard. Unfortunately, I was daydreaming at the time and the cycling was so easy I continued along the canal bank as far as Mary Lynch’s pub at Coralstown – adding 46 kms to my day! I didn’t mind at all as this was a lovely section of the canal.
Eventually I made my way back to the village of Clonard. I didn’t appreciate the connection between Clonard and Columbanus until I arrived there to discover that St Finnian was also associated with the village of Myshall as was Columbanus.
Finnian founded his monastic school here in Clonard in 520AD which has at one stage 3,000 students! A reasonable sized university! He educated some of the most significant Irish monks – the 12 Irish Apostles were taught by him here – among their number was Colmcille, Ciarán of Clonmacnois, Seir Kieran, Brendan and Columba.
There are only ruins remaining now on the outskirts of the village where there is a trough for cures and a well close by.
A beautiful stone baptismal font was removed to the Church in Town which features clear biblical scenes on the side panels. There are also some terrific stained-glass windows celebrating the life of Finnian.
I initially thought Clonard was a strange detour from the pilgrim route, but I was delighted to visit and learn of the association with Columbanus and the importance of St Finnian.
The Barrow Way out of Monasterevin skirts the edge of the mighty Bog of Allen which covers an area of almost 1,000 square kilometres, taking in parts of Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Meath and Westmeath.
Peat production is coming to a complete halt across Ireland as Bord na Móna reinvents itself. A number of raised bogs have been successfully restored (such as Clara Bog, Abbeyleix Bog, Pollardstown Fen) and have become important areas of biodiversity, attracting a lot of support from the public and have become tourist attractions in their own right. Not something that would typically come to mind as such – we tend to think about mountain scenery, lakes and rivers, valleys and rich farmland first but there is a wildness and earthiness to the bog landscape with its different palate of colours browns, tar black waters, copper, golden browns, purple heathers, white bog cotton, green mosses and lichens.
Its strangely remote along this section of the route as the Canal crosses over the sparsely populated bog lands of Kildare. I loved it. The weather was good and importantly I had a tail wind!
Leaving Monasterevin I took the left hand bank for the first three kms before crossing over at McCartney Bridge (1784) to the opposite bank. There was heavy covering of grass which slowed progress, but I was in no hurry along this isolated towpath and I was enjoying the peacefulness of it all.
There are a few mile markers still to be spotted along the way, but the names are feint at this stage but Monasterevin can be made out with a bit of effort.
Its quite open ground for the 10kms to Rathangan but there is a welcome break from the wind at a wooded section just over halfway.
It isn’t too long before Spencer Bridge comes into view on the approach to the town. Spencer Bridge is named after a local landowner James Spencer who was killed by pikemen in the Battle of Rathangan in 1798. He was reputedly a distant ancestor of Lady Diana.
The Canal provides a really pleasant entry to Rathangan with a lovely linear park alongside.
There are plenty of places for refreshments in the town before getting stuck into the next 15kms.
The surface is quite good most of the way to Roberstown and it is very similar to the first part of the route; open skies, remote and very quiet.
Ballyteigue Castle comes into view in another 10kms. It’s a very pretty part of the Canal here with the 20th and 21st Locks very close together and the surrounding area well maintained. The Castle is a typical fortifies Irish Lords House from the 16th century and Lord Thomas Fitzgerald or as he was better known, Silken Thomas, took refuge here after the Battle of Allen in 1535. He earned the nickname, Silken Thomas, because of his richness in clothes and the silken banners carried by his standard bearers. He had been tricked into believing his father had been beheaded in the Tower of London and on hearing it rebelled against King Henry VII. No sooner had he rebelled when word came that it was untrue, but the die was cast, and he was executed alongside his five uncles at Tyburn.
The next bridge is called Skew Bridge, for it is skewed and the Barrow splits in two here into the New Barrow Line and the Old Barrow Line.
I followed the Old Barrow Line passing the Milltown Feeder along the way. The Feeder is the main source of water for the Grand Canal and this line goes as far as Pollardstown Fen, now an area of special conservation. It is recognised as an internationally important fen ecosystem with many unique plants and a great bird sanctuary. It is fed by several springs in the area. I visited it on another cycle and it is well worth a visit at another time.
The Barrow Line meets the Grand Canal at Lowtown just outside the pretty village of Roberstown.
Today’s route was only 25 kms but it was hard enough work as the grass bank was quite high and I was glad to call it a day!