Secret Ireland: The River Barrow
Pol O Conghaile takes in rapids and Venetian views on his latest adventure.
The River Barrow Way
Short sections of canal were stitched along the Barrow in the 18th century to make the river navigable, and today walkers can follow the surviving towpaths and roads along a 114km route that stretches all the way from Lowtown, Co Kildare, to the old monastic site of St Mullins, Co Carlow.
I dip in and out of the Barrow Way -- first at Leighlinbridge, where a pair of swans flies past a stumpy old milestone beneath the stone bridge, and then at St Mullins, where a bright-green lump of a Norman motte offers a bird's-eye view over the gorge and gravestones below.
The towpaths are amazingly peaceful, strewn with the husks of Ireland's industrial heritage -- derelict mills, warehouses, restored locks -- and spotted with riverside towns such as Rathangan and Graiguenamanagh, many of which originated with Norman fording points.
In St Mullins, I stop into the heritage centre (087 997 7090; Monday to Wednesday), recently restored with the help of architecture students from UCD.
"There were about three tractor-loads of crows nests taken out of that," says local community member Anne Doyle, pointing to the old bell tower.
Details: See discoverireland.ie/ theriverbarrow.
The marvellous Mr Kavanagh
Borris House is the ancestral home of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, and boasts a plum view over the Barrow Valley.
Its best story has nothing to do with Leinster's High Kings, however.
That belongs to Arthur Kavanagh. Born in 1831, Kavanagh was an MP who sailed down the Barrow to take his seat in Westminster.
Not only that, he was a superb horseman, Lord Lieutenant of Carlow, a sailor whose adventures took him as far as the Persian Gulf, a bestselling author, a vigorous ladies' man, a dispatch rider for the East India Company, and the father of several children.
All of which is remarkable enough -- until you learn that Arthur was born limbless.
I take a tour of Borris House with a descendent, Morgan Kavanagh.
The house is closed for visits in winter, but tours are running today and tomorrow at 3pm as part of a Christmas Craft Fair.
If you take one, watch out for Arthur's bucket-style saddle on a rocking horse under the stairs.
Details: €5pp. Tel: 059 977 1884; borrishouse.com.
No matter what time of year you set foot inside the Step House Hotel, you'll find a fire lit in the lobby.
Perhaps one reason for this is the fact that the 20-room hotel is an extension of James and Cait Coady's home, itself a former dower house of the old Borris estate.
The couple transformed the place with a €10m refurb in 2007 -- not the most auspicious time to upgrade, but its classic styling, oak and burgundy leather-lined bar, and the reputation of head chef Alan Foley, have ensured that word travels.
I stop by for dinner in Ruben's, set in the vaulted nooks of the old Coady kitchen. It's ambitious fare, the highlight of which is my starter -- a fillet of Kilmore cod topped with a crumbly crust of chorizo and baby watercress leaves (€9).
It's a beautifully worked combination of flavours -- one that has you reaching for the bread to mop up any remaining smears of sauce.
After a main course of free-range saddleback pork (with sides included, €27) comes a crème brÃ»lée (€7) whose glaze is burnt in patches.
A fleeting blip in an otherwise cosy, and cosmopolitan, interlude.
Details: Borris, Co Carlow. Tel: 059 977 3209; stephousehotel.ie.
By hook or by crook
After its 120-mile journey from the Slieve Blooms, the Barrow finally flows into the sea, arm in arm with sister rivers the Nore and the Suir, along the Hook peninsula.
Heritage runs deep here. In 1170, Strongbow vowed to take Waterford 'by Hook or by Crook'.
Pirates reputedly stashed two tonnes of Spanish milled dollars at Dollar Bay in the 1700s, and the devil himself is said to have been unmasked during a card game at the forbidding Loftus Hall.
Hook Head Safaris is a new company doing jeep expeditions (€25/€22) around this brilliantly blustery peninsula, but however you see it, don't miss Hook lighthouse.
Perched like a policeman at Hook Head, the iconic, black-and-white-striped canister has been warning ships off the rocks here for some 800 years.
Visitors can climb right up to the old keepers' quarters.
Details: See hookheadsafaris.com; hookheritage.ie.
The overnight suggestion
Another chapter in the Barrow's history is bookmarked at New Ross, where the replica famine ship Dunbrody sits permanently on the city's quays.
Thousands of emigrants boarded here for a gruelling transatlantic crossing, including Patrick Kennedy, JFK's great-grandfather.
After passing the ship, I overnight at the Brandon House Hotel. A wedding is in full flight, but the staff still have time to be friendly; the GM tweets to ask whether dinner should be kept, I'm given a room far from the madding crowd, and a busy manager walks me through the Solas Croí Eco Spa -- a bizarre multi-storey sphere that looks (and lights up) like a planetarium.
Brandon House originally dates from Victorian times, with various additions built on over the years, and I think it's best described as a four-star workhorse today.
The spa, a decent pool and a comfy library bar are selling points, but my room feels tired, several corridors and stairwells throw up scuffs and garish lighting, and its art collection ranges from the brilliant to the bewildering.
Details: B&B from approximately €79 per room. Tel: 051 421703; brandonhousehotel.ie.
From small beginnings
Finding the source of a river is a tricky business. When exactly does a puddle become a pool? When does a trickle become a torrent?
Where does the Barrow emerge on Barna Mountain, before setting off on its 120-mile journey from Slieve Blooms to Hook Head?
"The stream simply oozed from a thousand places in the spongy ground and trickled in hidden rills between thick clumps of rushes until finally it ran down a sloping yellow sandstone slab, tumbled into a deep pool and sang its first song," as TF O'Sullivan writes in 'Goodly Barrow'.
According to legend, Ireland's second-longest river has its source in an enchanted spring, but the closest I get is the Glenbarrow Waterfall. An easy walking loop here follows the young river upstream, arriving at a tree-shaded breakout where the waterfall spills over several sandstone steps.
I hop across the boulders, taking a picture in the crisp winter light.
Details: Glenbarrow, Rosenallis, Co Laois. See slievebloom.ie.
The canoe expedition
"They're not as bad as they seem when you're looking down into their teeth," Charlie Horan says.
He's edging our canoe out over the lip of a weir at Goresbridge. Coursing into the rapids, a foamy sheet of white water dumps itself on to my lap. If I wasn't awake, I am now.
Charlie runs Go with the Flow, a company staging river expeditions down the Barrow.
He used to own a pub in Roscrea, but traded a life behind the counter for the great outdoors.
The trips use Canadian (open) canoes, and range from a couple of hours to several days in length.
After shooting our first weir, we paddle south towards Borris, spying a stately heron, a zipping kingfisher and two leaping salmon en route.
The river alternates between open fields and tight channels, where autumnal oaks lean over the water as if trying to touch us.
We're never far from roads or stone-arched bridges, but still I feel like a frontiersman, coursing along on the swollen, coffee-coloured flow.
Passing through the Borris House estate, we pull in under a little arch for a stroll through the woods, before carrying on to shoot our final weir, eight or nine miles downriver from the starting point -- a four-foot drop at Clashaganny.
Details: €35pp for a half-day. Tel: 087 252 9700; gowiththeflow.ie.
The Venetian view
Most drivers bypass Monasterevin on the M7, but I'm still surprised to find the town isn't even listed in my 'Lonely Planet'.
Its leafy streets and stony façades yield plenty of secrets.
Did you know the famous tenor John Count McCormack lived at Moore Abbey?
That Gerard Manley Hopkins declared Monasterevin "one of the props and struts of my existence"?
That the town is lined with Georgian architecture, or that it hosts a Venice of Ireland festival every summer?
Following several walkers over a drawbridge dating from 1826, I end up on a canal-bearing aqueduct over the Barrow.
Nearby, commuter trains rattle along a viaduct, and an old stone bridge undulates in the distance.
More should be made of this place.
Details: facebook.com/ veniceofireland.