The Road Less Raced – An Irishman’s Diary about ballads, barbershops, and Teresa Brayton

The Old Bog Road 10k is, I believe, an athletics event waiting to happen. It would start in Kilcock, Co Kildare, then proceed westward towards Enfield before turning north onto the aforementioned thoroughfare, the most celebrated stretch of soft tarmac in the history of Irish ballad-making.

From there, I suppose, it would just turn around again – the OBR is a dead-end according to maps – and go back to where it started.

But until such an event comes to pass, the next best thing is the annual St Coca’s 5k race, which I took part in last weekend.

That too starts and finishes in Kilcock. And although it doesn't go anywhere near The Old Bog Road, it does centre on a Brayton Avenue, which is surely named for the woman who wrote the famous song.


We’ll return to her shortly.

First the other female to whom the race pays incidental tribute. For it had somehow escaped me until now that, among Ireland’s countless ancient saints, there was one called Coca. Okay, she was probably Cuach in the original Irish. But as anglicised, she sounds more like a fashion designer or an exotic dancer than a nun.

A nun she was, however, and a well-connected one, being a sister to St Kevin of Glendalough.

And not only did she establish a church that gave its name to a town (Cill Choca), she is also now commemorated by an athletic club and, through it, by the annual 5,000-metre race that hundreds of us ran last Friday, a form of penance she could hardly have imagined back in the 6th century.

Speaking of penance, I noticed while visiting Kilcock that the surrounding parishes include one called Painstown.

Our race-route didn’t take us through it, as it happens – it just felt that way, especially in the last mile.

So despite my earlier suggestion, I was glad the 10k hadn’t been invented yet.

The Old Bog Road doesn't run through Painstown either, apparently.

But there is plenty of torment in the eponymous song, including even a mention of “blisters” (of hands rather than feet).

Mostly it’s about mental anguish, as the writer combines three classic themes of Irish balladry – exile, lost love, and a dead mother – into one tear-jerking epic.

Teresa Brayton (née Boylan) was born in 1868, near the road she immortalised. She also died there, in 1943. But in between, she spent much of her life in New York. And although she's remembered now, if at all, for that single song, she was very prominent in Irish-American life once, known primarily as a poet and writer.

Before and after 1916, she was one of the voices of nationalism, with Roger Casement being another of her best-known subjects.

Still, a posthumous appreciation in The Irish Times also described some of her lyrics as "racy" – not in the 5k sense – so she must have had a comic side too.

Despite its flat roads and accents, north Kildare has reached some great heights of lyricism over the years, thanks to the likes of Brayton and, more recently, of Christy Moore and Luka Bloom, from just down the road in Prosperous.

But somewhat more desperately, I noticed on Friday that Kilcock’s claims to fame also include having the “world’s tallest barber’s pole”.

At least that’s what the sign says alongside a red-and-white striped mast that ascends to about the same height as the adjacent two-storey houses, maybe 8 metres.

Now even allowing that the competition might not be a crowded field, I wondered if such a modest structure could really be the world’s tallest.

And alas, it seems not to be.

As far as I can establish, the Eiffel Tower of barbershop poles is in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and rises to an oxygen-thinning “73 feet”, or about triple the height of the Kildare one.

That may not be the only gauntlet the Oregonians are throwing down to Kilcock.

The same Portland suburb, I gather, hosts an annual event called “Ballad Town USA”.  In fact, that’s why the pole is there – the contest is dedicated to the category of singing known as the barbershop quartet.

But I’m not sure this is something Kilcock would want to emulate.

Whatever about the town building a bigger pole, the ballads of North Kildare would hardly lend themselves to the barbershop format. I'm imagining The Old Bog Road performed a capella in jaunty harmony by men in fancy dress.

And to be honest, that’s not a road I’d want to go down.