Carlow's collisions of religion and myth
Following the trail of a saint throws up some surprises: a replica of Salisbury Cathedral, a rock indented by a witch’s knees and a window by Harry Clarke’s father, writes Gemma Tipton
WATCHING THE sun dapple stone through the spiky fronts of yew trees, we start to muse on how we would like to be buried. These aren’t morbid thoughts – it’s more a restful sense of eternity, brought on by standing in an ancient graveyard, trying to make out the names and dates etched in age-weathered granite and marble. The Germans probably have just the right word, made up of a great many syllables, for this type of feeling. Birds sing, and there is the sound of the odd car, a long way off in the distance. I decide on something quite simple, maybe slate, not too big, and I like the word “died”, rather than the more recently favoured “passed away”. We turn our attention to the church.
Dunleckny Church itself has fared less well than the graves it watches over: the roof has long gone, ivy covers the walls, and inside is full of long grasses, briars and nettles. I’d say the Germans have a long word too for the feeling inspired by nature’s tenacity in the face of the decay of man’s labours.
Dunleckny isn’t the first church we have visited today – we’re in Co Carlow, and we’re on the trail of St Laserian. This takes in nine churches, three holy wells and sundry other sights.
Religious tourism is a new project in Co Carlow, mingling spiritual history with ancient myth, and it’s rather fascinating. There are three Trails of the Saints: St Patrick’s, St Laserian’s and St Moling’s; and in deference to the fact that it was he who “settled the Easter question” – he got the Church to agree to the peculiar calculations that move the dates of Easter around each year – we have opted for St Laserian.
We began our day after a good sleep and a hearty breakfast at the Lord Bagenal hotel, with a visit to St Laserian’s Cathedral. Carlow’s oldest working building, it is an architectural historian’s dream, or possibly nightmare. It is full of intriguing features, such as buttresses added in the middle of windows, odd alcoves, additions and subtractions in stone and a four-arched sedilia (apparently terribly rare). A plaque in a wall reads: “Behind this slab are deposited two human bones found in an adjoining recess” – a grim statement of fact that is at odds with the fey inscription on the pulpit stating that the incumbent Dean “fell asleep” in 1921. I don’t imagine they mean it had anything to do with the length of his sermon.
Up the lane from the cathedral is the holy well. Here, in a collision of religion and myth, a rag tree shades the well, its branches tied with bits of clothing, mementoes and talismans to appease the spirits who dwell under hawthorn trees. Further along the trail, at Myshall, a Witch’s Stone in the church yard, has two indentations, which were, according to legend, made by the knees of a witch when she fell from the Blackstairs Mountains.
THE TRAILS ARE self-guided, and if you do them thoroughly, each would take you an entire day. But after Agha church (connected to St Fintan – the trails don’t stick to just one saint), a ruined Romanesque structure in the middle of a sheep-grazed field, I decide we’re better off picking and choosing and going somewhere nice for lunch. We opt for Mary Jordan’s Forge at Kilbride Cross, Ballon, justly famed for its home baking and, fortified with delicious things, we head back on the road to tackle more monuments.
At Newtown, the Gothic-revival church has stained glass windows by Harry Clarke’s father, Joshua, which are beautiful but free of the magical fantasy that make his son’s work so spectacular; and plasterwork by Italian refugee artisans that wouldn’t be out of place in a Great House.
In the churchyard are a pair of spy stones, where little holes let watchers look out for grave robbers coming to steal and sell corpses in the night.
My favourite, though, is the Adelaide Memorial Church at Myshall, built by John Duguid for his daughter Constance, who died in a riding accident while visiting the area. It’s a miniature replica of Salisbury Cathedral and it is poignantly lovely. We round off our day by “trail hopping” on to St Moling’s, where the church is sited at the start of the Barrow Way (113km of walkable tow paths along the river). The Mullicháin Café is on the waterfront, while up the hill at the ruined church, you can easily imagine that little has changed in the landscape for a thousand years.
Full of interesting facts and snippets of information, the Trails of the Saints booklet (available by post from Carlow Tourism, or to download at carlowtourism.com) gives detailed directions – which are important, as not everywhere is well signposted – and also addresses and phone numbers in the cases where you have to pick up a key. Not everywhere is fully accessible, and you may, like me, decide to edit your tour a little.
On the other hand, a day spent wandering round these sites and shrines may also inspire the kind of complicated thoughts about time, belief and eternity that I challenge any language, even German, to have adequate words to describe.