Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

WRITE AROUND IRELAND

A Tour of Carlow, Wicklow and the Garden of Ireland

(This article was written in 2000AD for a light-hearted travel website).


Dublin - Bray - Powerscourt - Kilpeddar - Kilcoole - (Rathnew / Wicklow) - Roundwood - Glendalough - Ashford - Avoca - Shilelagh - Kiltegan - Baltinglass - Rathvilly - Lisnavagh - Rathgall - Tullow - Myshall - Bagenalstown - Leighlinbridge - Borris - St. Mullins - Carlow - Castledermot - National Stud - Japanese Gardens - The Curragh - Lullymore - Kildare.

Powerscourt Gardens

There's a lot to be said for the fine line that separates complete insanity from sheer brilliance. This seems to be particularly apt to Ireland where for centuries we have produced the most extraordinary madmen responsible for many an unforgettable classic. Jonathan Swift, for instance, spent most of his long life suffering from a mental ailment that affected both his senses of hearing and balance. Was this the inspiration behind the epic tale he wrote of the giant Gulliver landing on the beaches of Lilliput and hanging out with talking horses?

I say all this because if you go for a stroll through the magnificent Powerscourt Gardens outside Enniskerry, it is important that you are aware that the designer, Daniel Robertson, was without doubt mad as a brush. Back in the 1840s, when the gardens were being laid down, Robertson had himself escorted around the estate in a wheelbarrow, swigging on a bottle of sherry, barking out orders as to what shrub should go where and which lawn or lake needed reshaping. Similar behaviour to some of those Great War Generals, only Robertson was dealing with rhododendrons and fountains, while the Generals were dealing with terrified soldiers and underground trenches. Robertson's commission was to create a landscape sufficiently aesthetic to compliment the massive Palladian mansion of Powerscourt House, then the heart of a 14,000 acre estate. It took a few years but at days end, his sherry and wheelbarrow trick worked a treat, no doubt about it. Sadly Powerscourt House was destroyed by fire in the 1970s but has since been restored and converted into an upmak.

For a more serious treatment of Powerscourt see the chapter on the Wingfields of Powerscourt House in Turtle's 2005 book, The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of Co. Wicklow

Glenroe

Powescourt is just one of the many wonders, natural and manmade, in Ireland's fertile eastern landscape. Head south from Powerscourt past the appropriately named Sugar Loaf Mountain on the N11 for the National Garden Exhibition Centre at Kilpedder, a grand display of sixteen different botanical styles you might encounter on your journey. The Centre is not far from Glenroe Open Farm in Kilcoole, always worth a visit. For the record, "Glenroe" is Ireland's answer to "Dallas", "Neighbours" and "Coronation Street". The soap opera is set in a small farming community where the men and women are either in a good or bad humour, depending on the weather. The weekly cliff-hanger sometimes involves one of the cast running into a pub shouting, "Miley's sheep have escaped onto the road again!", followed by a freeze-frame photograph of everyone in the pub looking stunned. For a more serious look at agriculture through the ages, Coolakay Agricultural Museum outside Enniskerry houses an absorbing display of agricultural heritage.

The Wicklow Mountains

From Glenroe, you have two choices and that depends on what you're after. If it's pretty coastal scenery, decent sized towns and an abundance of golf courses, then stay on the coastal road south through Newcastle, Rathnew and Wicklow Town and you can't go wrong. Wicklow Gaol in the latter town offers a vivid insight into the conditions and psychology of the Gaol in previous centuries. Irish Aussies ought to get a good kick out of seeing where their forefathers were held captive before being shipped out to the penal camps of sun-drenched Australia.

If on the other hand you are seeking to roar from mountain tops, play kiss chase in ancient oak forests or pretend you're a tub of Ben & Jerry's by swimming in an ice-cold lake, then head for Roundwood and the Wicklow Mountains. To be honest the best way to see this part of the world is on foot, and the well-marked Wicklow Way, stretching from the outskirts of Dublin south through Glendalough and the Wicklow Mountains to Borris, County Carlow is a stunning journey. For the record, the Wicklow Mountains spent much of the last millennium hiding patriotic young Irishmen in their valleys and caves. These men, led by charismatic chieftains like Art McMurrough and Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne, ran an effective hit and run guerrilla campaign from the mountains, causing immense discomfort to several centuries of English soldiers stationed in the neighbourhood. The O'Dwyer-McAllister Cottage in the Glen of Imaal, scene of an epic OK Corral style shoot out in the Robert Emmet Rising of 1803, will supply you with further information onto these sporadic skirmishes. A number of different companies operate walking tours through the mountains. It's probably best to have a guide or you might end up feeling like one of the cast of "The Blair Witch Project" and have to call the Mountain Rescue Service. Alternatively, you might want to tackle them on a horse from the Devil's Glen Equestrian Centre at Ashford, or, perhaps, dangling from a rope, upside down in a canoe with a compass and a parachute at the National Outdoor Training Centre in Tiglin.

Glendalough

The town of Glendalough has, unfortunately, become one of Ireland's most crowded tourist attractions in recent years, playing host to an endless onslaught of jam-packed coaches that tumble down the highway from Dublin to see what all the fuss is about. This is, of course, one of the inevitable downsides of Ireland's recent tourism boom - a beautiful location, known to a relative few, gets a good reputation and rapidly becomes a horrible mish-mash of car parks, burger joints, disabled toilets, interpretative centres and leprechaun-sized kebabs for sale. That said, there is still good cause for fuss about Glendalough, and the setting of St. Kevin's Monastery on the banks of the Avonmore River, must bring a shiver of joy to even the most philistine of heathens.

Avoca & the Vale of Clara

Follow the R755 south from Glendalough through Glenmalure and the forested Vale of Clara to the craft village of Avoca, setting for BBC's "Ballykissangel", where the twin attractions of Avoca Handweavers and Fitzgerald's Craft Shop should cater to the needs of most travelling shopaholics. Five miles west of Rathdrum, the 16th century farmhouse of Greenan Farm supports one of the largest collections of rural exhibits in Ireland, as well as an open farm and a half acre maze. For car-weary parents fed up with children persistently pulling each others ears and demanding to know "how many more miles is it?", a blindfolded shove into the maze often works wonders. Another tried and trusted means of obtaining silence on the back seat is to dangle the multiple attractions of Ireland's largest adventure playground, the nearby Clara Lara Funpark, before their bright and impish eyes.

Tinahely & Shillelagh

From Avoca one can either press on south into County Wexford, or turn inland for Tinahaely and Shilelagh. Lovely names them, Tin - A - Heel - E. Shill - lay - lah. As a child, I was convinced Sodom and Gomorrah were in South Wicklow, you know, follow the road east of Shillelagh, skip over the Slaney and there's Gomorrah. Used to be a great spot for a pint until the Almighty got in a strop with the locals and fire-balled the whole place. At any rate, Shillelagh - just off the Wicklow Way - remains a very attractive setting, and there's no finer way of taking it all in than on board a 4WD all terrain quad bike with the town's Wicklow Hills Quad Trekking. Alternatively, head north on the R747 through Hacketstown for Kiltegan, the estate town of William Wade's magnificent Rapunzel-turreted Gothic mansion of Humewood Castle where, on certain days, the prototype cast of next year's Jilly Cooper novel are to be found, bronzed and irresistible, cantering about on the polo fields and restringing their tennis rackets.

For a more serious treatment of Humewood see chapter on the Hume-Dicks in Turtle's 2005 book, The Landed Gentry & Aristocracy of Co. Wicklow.

Rathvilly & Lisnavagh

From Kiltegan, keep north on the R747 for Baltinglass Heritage Town, where a well preserved 11th century abbey sits calmly on the banks of the River Slaney. Take the N81 south for Rathvilly, three times winner of Ireland's National Tidy Town Competition. The nearby Lisnavagh Gardens, another of Daniel Robertson's delightful wheelbarrow and sherry legacies from the 1850s, offers a spectacular wedding venue amid Irish Yew Walks, ten acres of pleasure grounds and an ambience guaranteed to soothe even the most jaded of nerves.

Rathwood

Garden Centres have become all the rage in modern Ireland with home-owners and business groups now realising that a healthy garden can add considerable value to a property. This can surely be no bad thing and the sooner that people start erecting dense foliage around their roadside bungalows the better. The garden centre at Rathwood near Tullow has the advantage of being a stone's throw from Rathgall Ringfort, an excellent example of an 8th century Asterix the Gaul type village. At the moment, the sole inhabitants of this tranquil pastureland are a flock of sheep who casually munch on a clump of grass and then, suddenly, continue to munch on a clump of grass. One wonders how long it will be before these woolly numbskulls are reincarnated as vending machines and bus-stops. Perhaps they will be spared when Rathgall Knitwear opens its doors. Another garden centre to take note of is the splendid Arboretum Garden Centre near Leighlinbridge.

Murder in Myshall?

From Tullow, follow the road south to Clonegal, where the Wicklow Way walking trail meets the South Leinster Way at the foot of the Blackstairs Mountains Turn west here along the R724 for Myshall and the fun Ballykeenan Pet Farm and Aviary, an 18th century working manor farm full, amongst others, of emus, guinea pigs, baby mice, quacking ducks, red deer, rare birds and odd-looking black sheep that eat clumps of grass. Perhaps you want to take a break from the hassles of travel for a few days and kick back in the Ionad Follain Meditation & Self Awareness Centre. In the centre of Myshall lies the very beautiful Adelaide Memorial Church, a replica of Salisbury Cathedral built 90 years ago to the memory of a young English girl who was thrown from her horse and killed while out riding nearby. The girl had been engaged to a dashing member of the local gentry at the time and her sudden death prompted widespread rumours that the girth on her saddle had been tampered with by another young lady in the vicinity - a lady whom, 6 months after the tragedy, was wedded to the grieving fiancé.

By the Barrow's Banks

Keep on the R724 through pretty 18th century Bagenalstown for the main Dublin - Kilkenny Road (N10). This brings you onto the 65 kilometre Barrow Towpath Walk, a magical journey that follows the path used by horses drawing barges up the Barrow River in times gone by. The walk brings you south through Borris and Graiguenamanagh to St. Mullins, or north past Leighlinbridge (with its ancient 13th century bridge) to Lowtown in County Kildare. There's nothing like a good stroll to put the mind at rest and the Barrow Walk is amongst the best there is. If walking seems too slow, try Celtic Cycling at the Lorum Old Rectory in Bagenalstown for a choice of cycling tours which, again, will bring you to places like Borris, St. Mullins, Thomastown and Paulstown. The latter is home to the 18th century Shankill Castle, once home to a junior branch of the Butler family.

The McMurrough Kavanaghs of Borris

The attractive Barrow-side villages of Borris and St. Mullins are inextricably linked with the McMurrough Kavanghs clans. Formerly the kings of Leinster, their most famous prodigy was probably Dermot McMurrough. For countless centuries, Dermot has been blamed for "the English Invasion" of Ireland when, in the 13th century, he invited the Norman Earl, Strongbow, across the Irish Sea to assist him in a war with a neighbouring king. This moment in time is where nationalist expression like "800 years of English tyranny and oppression" take their kick off. As it happens, Strongbow was a charismatic Welsh man eager to make a stack of cash out of Hibernia's internal squabbling. His victorious army was composed of similarly motivated Welsh, French, English, Scottish and Irish mercenaries, keen to loot and plunder this rich Medieval Holy Land. That's the way the world operates, you see. It's all down to what makes every single individual tick, and when the tick is the prospect of great wealth, everyone joins in, irrespective of nationality, religion or language. I'm open to arguments but I'd hold that Ireland was not seriously invaded until Cromwell's arrival in the 1650s. And if anyone could pack 800 years of tyranny and oppression into a cold and frosty morning, it was Ollie Cromwell.

Another grand tale of the McMurrough Clan is that of Art Kavangh, known to his descendents as "Arthur No Arms No Legs", an extraordinary fellow, born in the 1840s without arms or legs, the fourth of four boys, deemed the "runt of the litter" and doomed to die young. The decades went by, Art's elder brothers perished in miscellaneous tragedies and this limbless wonder became the family heir. Not a bother to Art who promptly learnt how to fish on the Barrow, ride horses in the Blackstairs, game shoot in the Far East and tour the Arabian Gulf. He also served as MP for Carlow for the best part of two decades, married a woman he loved and had a half-dozen healthy children. More power to his elbows, as they say in Borris.

Follow Me Up to Carlow

Carlow Town, an hour and a half south of Dublin, suffered a major setback to tourism when a mad scientist accidentally blew up most of its ancient Norman castle in the late 19th century. At the same time, the town has the major advantage of being sited on the banks of the stately River Barrow, a veritable haven for fishermen. It also has the Brownes Hill Dolmen, a mighty mushroom shaped structure topped by Europe's biggest capstone, a whopping 100 tonne block of granite. Built by our hairy-footed ancestors some 5500 years ago, dolmens have been baffling archaeologists ever since. Ancient burial tombs seems the safest answer, but exactly what do you have to merit your clan heaving a 100 tonne rock 15 foot up into the sky and laying you to rest beneath it? Nobody knows. I'm working on a theory that dolmens were slapped up by the last of the dinosaurs just to confuse us.

Boosted by it's RTC student population, Carlow has lately given birth to a booming club scene with literally thousands of young folk from all over Ireland descending upon the town at weekends to guzzle Vodka Red Bulls and gyrate the night away. Naturally, the 14,000-strong population of Carlow has mixed reactions to these weekend get-togethers but, at day's end, the nightlife has been something of a pacemaker to Carlow's slow-ticking heart. Indeed, prior to the advent of the nightclub scene, I'm told the only time you'd get a decent crowd into one building was at 8:00am in the sugar beet factory. (And that was sadly closed down in 2004).

If, as it occasionally does, the rain is lashing down outside and you're done with dolmens and Red Bull, then chance your arm on one of the indoor bowling lanes at Carlow Superbowl. The Iveagh Rooms next door boast 16 full-sized snooker tables and was venue for the Under 21 World Snooker Championships in 1997. There are plenty of challenging golf courses in this part of the world - Mount Juliet near Thomastown, Rathsallagh in Dunlavin and the beautiful 18-hole championship course of the Carlow Golf Club on the banks of the Barrow are amongst the best in Ireland.

County Kildare - Horse Country

County Kildare is synonymous with horses, being a land of fertile soils, lush grasslands and steely-eyed racehorse trainers. Most of the Arab Sheikh's have stud farms here, and a season never goes by without some sprightly stallion or mare from Kildare causing Irish punters to howl anxiously during the final furlongs of a big race meeting. One such hero horse was Arkle, three times winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, whose massive skeleton is just one of the many sights on display at the Irish National Stud.

The Stud is located next to some spectacular landscaped gardens. The ornamental Japanese Gardens, depicting the Life of Man in 20 stages from birth to old age and eternity, were laid out by the Japanese gardener Eida and his son Minora between 1906 - 1910, on behalf of Lord Wavertree, landowner and horse-breeder. The newly opened St. Fiachra's Garden has been drawing equal praise while, a few miles south, by Nurney, the K Gardens recently won an award for the best National Rose Gardens.

Freedom!

"Aye, they may take our lives but they can never take our freedom!" roared William Wallace, to-ing and fro-ing on his trusty steed before the grubby faced Highlanders, urging them to give it their all and help rid Scotland of the forces of Edward Longshanks forever. You probably won't get very far around Ireland before someone tells you that most of the Oscar-winning "Braveheart" was not actually filmed in Scotland but on the 5000 acres of lush meadowlands that constitute the Curragh Racecourse, a few miles north of the Irish National Stud. The then Minister of Culture for Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, managed to lure director Mel Gibson across the water with a number of juicy tax incentives as well as offering the services of the Irish Cavalry Regiment, stationed at the Curragh Barracks, for the epic battle scenes. A long-haired Czech I know who volunteered to ride bareback during one of the charges was edited from the movie when some observant studio-lass in Hollywood noticed he was wearing spectacles.

Lullymore

A good detour to make at this point would be to head north from R401 from Kildare to the Lullymore Island of Discovery. Although Peatland World's suggestion that visitors come and see a realistic exhibition on the men and women who once lived in the central Irish boglands might sound like an invitation to watch "Night of the Living Dead", the venue nonetheless provides an outstanding insight into the minds and industry of this most Irish of landscapes.

St. Bridget of Kildare

Kildare Heritage Town, once a stronghold for the mighty Fitzgerald clan, is home to the magnificent 13th century St. Brigid's Cathedral. Brigid (pronounced Bridget and known as St. Bride in Scotland) was born about 450AD near Dundalk in County Louth to a slave woman. Her father, Mongan, was a chieftain who liked to beat up neighbouring clans and rob all their slaves, animals and goods. As a child, Brigid differed significantly with her father's way of life and once, while Mongan was away beating up neighbouring clans, she freed all his slaves and gave all his animals and goods to the poor. Mongan was greatly displeased by this and sold her to the King of Leinster but the King was a Good Man who liked Brigid so he set her free again. A determined young lady, Brigid took the veil at the age of 13 and was consecrated Bishop - the first and so far only Christian woman to be so ordained. She then built a nunnery at Cill Dara (the Church of the Oak), now Kildare, and spent the remainder of her life devoted to emphasising the honoured state of motherhood. To be fair, with her mother a slave and Mongan the way he was, Brigid was never likely to sing happy odes about the exalted state of fatherhood. The Cathedral, located on the site of Brigid's original nunnery, encompasses the tallest climbable High Tower in Ireland, providing the visitor with spectacular panoramic views over the Bog of Allen to the north and the Curragh Plains and Wicklow Mountains to the east.

There are many ways to travel the east of Ireland - in a car, bus or train, by foot, bicycle, horse, quad-bike, hang-glider or barge. If you're really pushed, it seems you can even do it in a wheelbarrow. Nothing you have read about in this chapter is more than two and a half hours drive from Dublin Airport. Every place mentioned is on the way to somewhere else, be it south to Wexford, Kilkenny or Cork or west to Clare, Galway and the kingdom of Kerry. My advice is: go see for yourself.

T. Bunbury

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