Follow the Old Road review: evocative rambles down Ireland’s many routes
Jo Kerrigan and Richard Mills explore rivers, canals, tracks, railways and sea roads
Part of the Kerry Way, near Sneem, which once formed a section of the Kerry-Cork butter road. Photograph: Richard Mills
Follow the Old Road
The O’Brien Press
“We live in an age where travel within our country is defined by the car we drive, the nearest motorway. All movement is land-based, road-based. It’s hard to imagine, but long ago, people travelled in very different ways,” says Jo Kerrigan urging us to look back and remember and explore them ourselves, “They’re still there, waiting to be found.”
Kerrigan’s Follow the Old Road uncovers tantalising alternate Irelands – kingdoms of Oz to our familiar Kansas. As with her previous two travel books, there is a generous helping of history, archaeology, wildlife and folklore always with more than a hint of mystery. Questions are asked and not all are answered, making the armchair traveller long to get up and see for themselves the real places stunningly rendered in mysterious black-and-white photography by Richard Mills. How did Mills get that strange white cat to pose at the mouth of the Cave of Cats which the ancients believed was the entrance to the otherworld in Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon? This is a book to dream over. Can you weave shirts from nettles? Where did the word spinster come from? Could the Egyptians have sailed up the Shannon, the greatest of Ireland’s earliest river roads?
I’ve always had a bad sense of direction not helped in national school by the sadistic master who liked to stand us in front of a blank map. Pointing out the dreaded Co Roscommon was beyond me and if I only got four slaps, it was a good day. But Kerrigan’s cinematic approach makes me see finally how everything fits together while paradoxically opening up endless versions. There’s something quite magical about this, and Follow the Old Road makes a great companion for her Old Ways, Old Secrets which conjures tales from the ground under our feet, documenting a pagan Ireland which still breathes in her pages.
‘Accept its lure’
The earliest travellers came by water as Ireland’s “great river roads connecting Ireland’s interior to the sea gave easy and relatively safe access. No need to beat through thick forests where enemies or wild animals might lurk, no danger of losing your way.” The Shannon was a super highway known to the earliest traders as it features on Ptolemy’s second century map which itself was compiled from earlier sources. “When a highway like that opens up in front of you, the most natural thing in the world is to accept its lure and set off to find out what lies round the next bend.”
Follow the Old Road is divided into five chapters, each dealing with a different form of “old road”. Having explored the river roads in the first chapter, the second follows the old tracks, six kinds in total, crossing the land, revealing it to be a well-scored palimpsest. History wells up and folklore expands as we are taken on several journeys. There is a detailed guide to the path followed by The Táin and an informative imaginative account of the butter roads worn by countless Munster travellers as they made their way to Cork, the principal food supplier during English rule for the royal navy and crown colonies around the world.
The third chapter follows the canals so important for transporting freight, a popular form of travel before they were ousted by the railways. “Depending on your stamina, your supplies, and your urge to retrace a fascinating history,” it is possible to follow the Royal Canal from Dublin to Shannon harbour today.
“It will take you about five days.but will change the way you look at Ireland and its past forever. And all the way, wild grasses, flowers, and shy animals still hold their own, when they have disappeared in more developed areas. Otters slide down the long grass for a swim, swans glide by, a kestrel hovers overhead, watching for a mouse or water rat.”
The remaining two chapters on the old railways and sea roads are equally detailed and evocative but it is impossible to do justice to the wealth of information. Kerrigan has the rare gift of being able to transfer her own vision to the reader. I won’t be happy now until I’ve seen these roads for myself.
Martina Evans is a poet and novelist. Her books include The Windows of Graceland and Now We Can Talk Openly About Men which is due from Carcanet in May 2018