Never been here? You'll never forget it
St Mullin’s, on the bank of the Barrow in Co Carlow, is a cultural stronghold that has allowed the best and worst excesses of the modern world to pass it by. MANCHÁN MAGAN loves it
ST MULLIN’S, on the bank of the River Barrow in Co Carlow, is somewhere you’ve likely never been, but when you do go you’ll never forget it. Five or six tiny winding boreens all arrive at a higgledy bit of oblong medieval commonage on top of a stunted hill, with a steep Norman motte towering over it, and right below you the broad, treacle-coloured Barrow trundles by.
There’s something about the feel and aspect of the place that screams early Christianity, or even pre-Christianity. It’s truly ancient, with even a touch of the other world to it. There’s a straggly graveyard, with hedgehog-spine tombstones sticking out every which way, and the ruins of an early Christian church, a monastery, a round tower and a high cross.
It’s one of those cultural strongholds, those remarkable locations that have allowed the best and worst excesses of the modern world to pass them by. It has maintained its purity, its potency.
Ho hum, you say, just another forgotten Irish monastic village: so what? Perhaps, but remember the Barrow sweeping through: that’s what makes this place so potent. The wide, sweeping, chocolate-digestive-rippled Barrow running between the Blackstairs Mountains and Brandon Hill, as wild in parts as the Orinoco or the Volga.
The village of St Mullin’s rolls down into a wooded valley that has all the remains of 19th-century river industry: watermills, grain stores, towpaths, stables for tow horses and barge facilities. It is a time capsule of Ireland’s history from pre-Christian times to what passed as our attempt at an industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. Not that such historical treasures need concern your children or impinge whatsoever on their enjoyment. The great forest-lined expanse of river and the silky stretch of canal running alongside ensure there is plenty of adventure to be had, particularly in summer, when a large raft is anchored on the water for games of king of the castle.
It is a haven for canoeists, hikers and cyclists, as well as for those languorous sybarites who wish to do nothing but lounge. For them the weir beyond the canal lock provides a natural outdoor jacuzzi: you just stretch out on the rocks, one leg in Carlow, the other in Kilkenny, looking up at kingfishers flashing by and, if you’re lucky, an otter hunting salmon.
Places such as these have been largely forgotten since the demise of waterway commerce. Lacking facilities, they weren’t deemed suited to tourism – nowhere for the compulsory tea and scones, or to rent a kayak or bike or, god forbid, to stay overnight. Such places were accessible only to the adventurous types who brought their families camping at weekends or set off at cockcrow to bring the children on expeditions while your brats watched morning telly and gorged on Sugar Pops.
Thankfully, things are changing. A decade ago one of these adventurous types, Martin O’Brien and his wife, Emer, bought an old Grand Canal Company grain store right on the Barrow and converted its forge, coach house and stables into holiday cottages; then, this year, they transformed the grain store itself into the cosy Mullicháin Cafe, with a vast lounging library in the loft full of sofas, fairytale books and paintings. Emer is a fervent baker, so there’s generally a hazelnut cake or walnut muffins straight out of the oven.
It’s an impressive network of buildings, in a spectacular location, that offers a glimpse of how the river functioned as a conveyor belt of early industrialisation: the horse barges bringing wheat that had come to New Ross by ship from Canada to the Oldums mill next door; and the barges carrying back local grain and other goods that farmers had kept in the storehouse.
Each summer the area explodes into a riot of pink as a direct consequence of this trade: the Indian balsam that came from Canada in grain sacks imported by Odlums bursts into flower.
Although the Old Grainstore Cottages will lend out bicycles and canoes to guests, and even bring them on boat trips up the river if they have time, the one activity that must not be missed is the walk along the towpath to Graiguenamanagh.
It takes about 90 minutes to get there along a stretch of river that feels in parts like the Canadian wilderness, with nothing but a shimmering ribbon of water and the reflections of birch and pine stretching endlessly ahead. The world narrows to the awkward flailing of mallards overhead and herons picking their way like wary hawkers along their riverside stalls. Nothing beyond this particular moment seems to matter. There is a starkness to the air, a rapt intensity that heightens everything, gives it an exaggerated brightness, an increased pixilation that recalibrates one’s own senses.
Often the only signs of life are the barges, brightly painted, round-windowed vessels lined up along the bank like children’s toys in the bath. Their jaunty sun canopies and cosy stovepipes give them an inviting air.
I came across the owner of one barge who was sitting on a SuperValu bag, fishing for perch, and I longed to be invited inside for a meal, feeling sure he could transform the coarsest of fish into a delicacy with wild garlic and thyme. Surly barge owners must be the most fascinating, countercultural folk, with exotic tales from Athy and other far-flung mythologies.
On reaching Graiguenamanagh one could go for coffee and wraps at Coffee on High, but much better is to head to Mick Doyle’s grocery and bar, one of the last remaining civilised emporia where one can buy one’s Bovril and bacon (not to mention sheep dip and poultry feed) while enjoying a perfect pint, sitting up at the shop counter with the light slanting in through the front window.
Afterwards, head up the road to Cushendale Woollen Mills, run by a direct descendent of the original Cushen family of Flemish weavers, who arrived in the 17th century and established a woollen mill near the spot where the Cistercians had built theirs in the 13th century.
Today Philip Cushen runs one of only two remaining woollen mills in Ireland, using looms and mules that are more than a century old. His range of lambswool, mohair and cotton chenille textiles, scarves, wraps and stoles are lusciously dyed in tones that Cushen gauges himself each year, and cost a fraction of Dublin prices. As a result of our recent disregard of traditional Irish arts and crafts, he now exports most of what he makes to the US and Scandinavia, but it appears that he keeps some of his finest product for this tiny treasure-trove shop.
If you’re really too exhausted to walk back along the river, you can always give the people at the Old Grain Stores a ring, and if they’re around they’ll come and collect you. It’s things like this that make holidaying in Ireland so worthwhile. Where else can you rent a cottage for €350 a week and have the loan of bicycles and canoes and even be chauffeured back and forth to the train station?
It’s what comes from turning off the beaten track. Everyone I met in St Mullin’s seemed delighted that a tourist would choose to come here. It’s not that they don’t appreciate what they have themselves – quite the opposite, in fact; there is enormous pride of place, as shown by the pristine state of the village and St Moling’s ruins.
The village and surrounding valley have that indefinable quality that was sacrificed long ago in Glendalough and Clonmacnoise to the demands of mass tourism. There are no coach parks, postcard racks, ice-cream sellers. Though St Moling died in 696, he is still a palpable presence in the area, and the party held for his 1,300th anniversary, in 1996, is still the talk of the village, as is the seeming disregard with which Trinity College treats his manuscript, the Book of Moling, in comparison to its Kells cash cow. This is a raw wound that is best left unmentioned.
St Moling has a roll in everything here, including the annual twaite shad angling championships held each May. The twaite shad, a rare and mysterious fish, was first sent up the Barrow by Brendan the Navigator, who was playing a trick on St Moling. To get a good overall sense of the area’s history you ought to visit the heritage centre run in the old church by the effervescent Anne Doyle: it’s a classic example of local pride in place: a jumble of old irons, Bovril tins, scythes and folk tales about St Moling.
Doyle will tell you about Michael Flatley’s granny, who taught Irish dancing in the area, and her 103-year-old neighbour, who was still chatting up the local boys in the weeks before she died. You’ll learn the exact number of people left beheaded after each Viking raid, in the ninth and 10th centuries, the heroic role the village played in the 1798 Rebellion, the details of the life of Art MacMurrough-Kavanagh – the last king of Leinster, who’s buried right outside – and, of course, more about St Moling than you’ll ever need to know.
Possibly the most germane fact worth taking from St Moling is that, just like Rasputin, the Mayans and the Hopis, he prophesied doomsday. According to his calculations, it’s due in the year that August 29th falls on a Tuesday and Easter Sunday on April 25th. Decimation will hit Ireland from the southwest: “A furious dragon will bury all before it. As a black dark troop will they burst into flames, they will die like verbal sounds.”
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Where to stay, eat and goOld Grainstore cottages. St Mullin’s, Co Carlow, 051-424440, 087-2584663, www.oldgrainstore cottages.ie.
Where to stay
Mulvarra House B&B. St Mullin’s, Co Carlow, 051-424936, www.mulvarra.com. Guest house with body-treatment facilities.
Brandon View B&B. Ballyling Lower, Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, 059-9724625, www.brandonviewbandb.com.
Where to eat
Mullicháin Cafe. Old Grainstore, St Mullin’s, Co Carlow, 051-424440, www.oldgrainstorecottages.ie. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm (later in summer).
WaterSide Restaurant. Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, 059-9724246, www.waterside guesthouse.com.
Portovino. 15 Craywell Road, John Street, New Ross, Co Wexford, 051-448848, www.portovino.ie.
Where to go
Go with the Flow River Adventures. 087-2529700, www.gowiththeflow.ie.
Country Quads. Borris, Co Carlow, 059-9724624, www.countryquads.com. Quad biking and clay-pigeon shooting.
Carrigleade Golf Course. Carrigleade, St Mullin’s, Co Carlow, 059-9724370.
Where to shop
Cushendale Woollen Mills. Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, 059-9724118, www.cushendale.ie. Beautiful home textiles and clothes in a unique palette of colours made here in one of the last two remaining woollen mills in Ireland. Very affordable.