The Nine Stones to Carlow
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.
38kms in total. A nice start.