If history is the story that later generations agree to tell about the past, the Barrow is indeed a storied waterway. Ireland’s second longest river has, through the centuries, been the primary influence on its watershed area. Allowing easy access to the fertile farmlands of the southeast, this broad, liquid highway has facilitated the arrival of an eclectic mix of saints, plunderers, planters, industrialists and, latterly, leisure seekers to this richly endowed landscape. Now, it has enticed me to Co Carlow for some of Ireland’s finest waterside walking.
Starting from the graceful arches of Ballyteigelea Bridge, I tag the grassy tow-path south, where once teams of horses drew barges laden with grain to upstream breweries. Railways ended the Barrow’s era as a great trade artery, but the river has been cleverly reinvented as a recreational playground.
Occasional strollers apart, I have the riverbank to myself.
Hereabouts, the Barrow is in no haste to meet the Atlantic, and the tranquillity puts me in contemplative mood, reflecting on a controversy which recently erupted about the towpath I am footing.
Proposals from Waterways Ireland to replace the grassy surface with a hard path have met with opposition. Instinctively I am with the grass lobby, but what if a hard surface attracts more walkers and cyclists who then contribute to the survival of rural businesses, as the Mayo Greenway has done?
Passing the sad, skeletal remains of an old boat, I wonder where it once plied before being distracted by the soothing sound of falling water. A series of rapids made the Barrow unnavigable for 18th-century canal barges, so a system of weirs and locks was used to partly canalise the river. These locks now facilitate leisure boats.
Reaching Graiguenamanagh, I divert to nearby Duiske Abbey. Unremarkable on the outside, Ireland’s largest Cistercian church has an austerely ornate interior, great soaring arches and exquisite stained glass. A stone’s throw is Coffee on High, a charming little eatery where I enjoy a rejuvenating latte, warm melt-in-the-mouth brack and abundant local information from the proprietor, Lorraine.
Beyond Graiguenamanagh, the river forms a gorge, with the vertiginous banks bearing steep woodlands that tumble colourfully towards lazy waters. Here an otter breaks cover from the riverbank while swans glide serenely upstream in February stillness. Onwards, then, past the thriving riverboat community at St Mullins Lock as evening mist creates surreal river light.
Abandoning the riverside at Mullichain Café, I swing left and uphill to St Mullins Abbey. With edifices representing almost every period from Irish history, it proves a captivating window on the past. Poking around the site, I discover that this was once a renowned place of pilgrimage, and in the gathering twilight I find it easy to imagine hordes of prayerful medieval penitents travelling here by way of the river.
Then, there are accounts of pilgrims returning in the 21st century, which I take as proof that the past never truly dies, but invariably comes back to catch up with us.