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!
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.