My cycling routes over the past year have taken me through counties Carlow, Laois, Kildare, Meath, Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Armagh, Down, Offaly, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary! Off the beaten track. The Hidden Heartlands or Ireland’s Ancient East…. I’m never too sure where the boundaries lie between the two!
Cycling along pilgrimage routes tends to follow the path least trodden – at least in today’s world but, in older times, these routes and places were very important to local communities as places of religious importance and of spiritual importance – dating back to pagan times.
It has been richly rewarding for many reasons – great cycling terrain, great physical activity, many interesting heritage sites and stunning scenery.
Just when you think you know the country along comes another gem to delight in.
Yesterday Mary and I were deep in the Golden Vale, cycling in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow, (a place I first cycled in many years ago with great school friend, footballing colleague for club and county, Tom Cullen). It brought back great memories. And created new ones.
One of the most fascinating places I have ever visited, happened yesterday – when we eventually found St Berrihert’s Kyle.
This simple circular stone enclosure contains an amazing collection of cross and decorated stone slabs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not many have, as it isn’t signposted (might be a good thing, as these crosses and slabs would be easy remove). The atmosphere here is very special. It has a presence that is seldom experienced. To get to it we had to cross a couple of boggy fields and over a number of stiles. It is obviously a place of local pilgrimage as there are many holly bushes used as rag trees both in the enclosure and outside.
The site looks to be ancient but in actual fact the enclosure is of relatively recent origin and was constructed, by the OPW in the 1940’s to house the crosses which were present on the site. It certainly captures the significance of the site and retains a sense of a place of great spirituality and significance.
We were both blown away by it. And then we saw the Well.
St Berrihert’s Well is located two fields away, again across boggy ground but there is a dilapidated boardwalk to assist passage across the fields. I’ve never seen a well like it. This is a natural spring, with the water bubbling up from the sandy bottom. It is crystal clear. The well is in a large natural hollow surrounded by a grove of trees and bushes laden down with votive offerings.
Between the well and the Kyle, I wasn’t sure whether we were in early Christian Ireland or on a set from Lord of the Rings! It is simply amazing.
Who was St Berrihert? According to the Dictionary of Irish Saints, he is also known as Beircheart and was of Anglo Saxon origin. He appears to have been associated with Cork, Tipperary and Kerry. There was large patern associated with him here in what was the local parish of Solloghhodbeg but is now the parish of Galbally – Lisvernane as far as I can make out.
Plenty is known about the main pilgrimage routes and sites across Europe and, closer to home, about such places as Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. Pilgrimage to these major shrines and places was usually a once in a life time undertaking which very few of the ordinary people of the country could not contemplate.
But there were many other sites, which were more local in nature that filled a yearning in people for hundreds of years. Inis Cealtra, aka Holy Island is on Lough Derg in County Clare (though once part of County Galway) and it’s a beautiful place to visit.
There is little recording of the act of pilgrimage in Ireland apart from some historical references in the Annals to the death of someone on pilgrimage in Ireland. Seamus Heaney accounted for this best when he talks about ‘peasant pilgrimage’ – the goings on of the ordinary person about their daily lives. Going on pilgrimage and retreats was very much a feature of Irish life that did not get recorded, yet was a very important part of living. When you visit a place like Holy Island, you can feel the importance of the place as you as you set foot on it. Holy Island is one such place.
The island consists of approximately 18 hectares and is accessed by boat from Mountshannon, a pretty little village on the western edge of Lough Derg. There are extensive monastic ruins, including a Round Tower and a number of small Churches – St Caimin’s, St. Colum’s, St Michael’s, St. Mary’s and St. Brigid’s. The monastery was originally founded by St Colum around the year 520 AD.. He is often referred to St. Colm of Terryglass, which is on the other side of the Lake. He was a pupil of St Finian of Clonard – who was originally from Myshall.
The monastery though is mainly associated with St. Caimin who is still revered in east Clare. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, his mother, Cumman had 77 children! One of the stories about Caimin, concerns a meeting he had on the island with his half brothers Guaire Aidhne, and Cummine Fota where they talked about what each wished the Church to be filled with. Guaire hoped for it be filled with gold and silver so that he could be generous to the poor, Cummine hoped for it to be filled with books so that students could learn but Caimin wished for the church to be filled with evert conceivable sickness so that all these diseases could be inflicted on his own body. All three wishes were fulfilled, Guaire got wealth, Cummine learning and Caimin was inflicted with illness!
There are a number of important artefacts on the island among them a Holy Well, also called ‘Lady’s Well’; the Bargaining Stone, where deals were sealed by shaking hands through the hole underneath the stone; some bullaun stones and some important cross decorated stones in the Saints Graveyard.
It’s a shame we don’t have better historical records as many of the monks who lived in these monasteries went on to be major historical figures in Europe and in the history of the Church. One such monk was Donatus. He was educated here and later travelled to Italy where he became Bishop of Fiesole. Margaret Stokes wrote extensively about the Irish Saints in Italy in her book ‘ Six Months in the Appenines: Or a Pilgrimage in Search of the Vestiges of The Irish Saints in Italy’. Donatus travelled with Andrew the brother of St Brigid. All three have links with Italy. I was fortunate to spend a little time in the area a couple of years ago and sought out these links. It was very rewarding!
The Vikings of course visited here too and, led by Tugesius, plundered the monastery before going on to inflict more carnage on Clonmacnoise, further up the river. The island is also associated with Brian Ború, High King of Ireland and the man who got rid of the Vikings for good in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf. And I might add his son Turlough O Brien, King of Munster, buried his wife Gormlaith on Holy Island in 1076!
WB Yeats wrote about pilgrimage on the island in his poem ‘The Pilgrim’:
I fasted for some forty days on bread and buttermilk, For passing round the bottle with girls in rags or silk, In country shawl or Paris cloak, had put my wits astray, And what’s the good of women, for all that they can say Is fol de rol de rolly O.
Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones, I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones, And there I found an old man, and though, I prayed all day And that old man beside me, nothing would he say But fol de rol de rolly O.
All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck, And that should mother seek her son she’d have but little luck Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away; I swear to God I questioned them, and all they had to say Was fol de rol de rolly O. A great black ragged bird appeared when I was in the boat; Some twenty feet from tip to tip had it stretched rightly out, With flopping and with flapping it made a great display, But I never stopped to question, what could the boatman say But fol de rol de rolly O. Now I am in the public-house and lean upon the wall, So come in rags or come in silk, in cloak or country shawl, And come with learned lovers or with what men you may, For I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say Is fol de rol de rolly O.
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!