Every journey has a story to tell

It was strange the way the mind can wander and the sight of certain things or places set it working overtime. I suppose you have to be in the mood for such things to happen, but then a lot depends on the place you are at the time.

It so happened that on an evening recently we were driving along the road from Tinahely to Shillelagh ( I was not driving) but stated admiring the beautiful countryside we were passing through. On the left were the remains of the nine old woods of the Collattin Estate with the forty shades of green that would bedeck the slopes later in the year. It did not take much imagination to visualise the vast green forests that had covered the countryside at one time.

Then we began passing the open fields where the Collatin Hunt swept over the fences in their pursuit of a fox. That reminded me of a day at the Collatin Point to Point when we stood in the race field and watched the horses start at the old Union, sweep down the hill to the river, through the race field, up to the back of the wood and then wait to see if your fancy was still on his feet as they came into view under the road and into the field for the finish. Those were the days when the great Billy Burges rode the like of Coakley or Ace High and 5/ was a big bet.

As for the village of Shilleagh itself, I well remember going on excursion trains to Bray from the Shillelagh station. Another reminder we had of the railway in Shillelagh was the place where the tracks which ran along beside the road for about a mile used to be before we came into the village and the time the railway was opened for traffic in May 1865, (work commenced on the line from Woodenbridge under an Act of June 22nd 1863) the mail was sent by road to Rathdrum and then forwarded by rail to Dublin.

The lands through which the lines came were purchased by the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford railway co except the lands of the Fitzwilliam. Incidentally, the first engine driver was Richard Hilton, who lived in the cottage facing the railway station entrance. Once in the village we took a right turn, up by the Courthouse (built 1892-93) and on to the Tullow Road.

Again the beauty of the countryside was breathtaking but has it grim reminders of the terrible destruction caused by The Famine of 1845 -47. It was at this time that the Union (where the races started in happier later times) and which had been built in 1841, became so over crowded that an extension was built on, in an effort to cope with the numbers seeking shelter. In spite of all this great numbers died. It was also during this period that huge numbers emigrated to America. Some of those families came from Wicklow part of the parish of Clonegal and on their way to New Ross, the port of embarkation, they paused on the road just above Young’s Bridge and took a look back at the Wicklow hills. This spot became known as the gate of tears, because it was their last look at their native county.

Among the schemes of employment in the Shillelagh area at the time was the making of the road from Kilcavan Gap to meet the Carnew - Collatin Road. This was how it got the name The Union Road. As we reached the road leading to Kilquiggan I remembered that the road beyond Kilquiggan Chapel, that goes through the bog, to meet the Mullinacuffe road was made at the same time.

As we swung left we left the Tullow Road behind us. Had we stayed on that road we could have gone on to another well known place in the history legends and stories, and birthplaces of the father of one of the leading poets and balladeers in the country, the great PJ McCall.

But the road we were on now had its own stories to tell. It was on this road that we could pass by the ruins of Aghowle church, this was a church said to have been built by St. Finnian of Clonard on his return from studies and missionary work in Wales. But let us forget the road and the journey an try to tell who St. Finnian really was. Let us go back in time to before he was born and to a story told by his mother. We are told that when his mother was pregnant with him, she had a vision in which a flame of fire came into her mouth and went back the same way in the form of a bird. The bird then went and sat on the branch of a tree and all the birds and bird flocks of Ireland came to sit on that tree and stayed with it there.

She told her husband of her vision, and he said the child she had conceived was pious and that they would sleep apart until their gifted offspring was born. During that time she only ate mild herbs and light victuals. Again we are told that his parents lived in the district of Myshall, Co. Carlow. When their baby was born they had him baptised by St Abban at the place in Killoughternane where the streams of two fountains met and on account of the Limpid purity of the water, he was baptised by the name of Finnlach, the child of the Limpid Fountain.

As a young boy he was one of the scholars of St Fotcher of Killoughternane. He joined with the Ecclesiastical order to read the psalms. He also founded three churches in this area. They were Ross Cuire (Rossacurra), Druim Faud (Drumphea) and Magh Glas (Kilmaglush). It was later that he travelled to Wales and he sought permission from Muiredeach, Ruler of Hy Kinsellagh to build churches to his territory. This was freely given and he sat about this task. Stories are told of the wind blowing his cloak to a certain spot from a high ridge and he decided that he was meant to build there. He sent one of his followers to cut some wood for to build his church. When the man returned he had an apple in his hand and when Finnian completed his church he established a religious community at the spot and it was named Achadh abhla. ( the field of apple trees). He spent 16 years in Aghowle before moving on to another part of Carlow and eventually founding his greatest monastery in Clonard where he taught the saints and scholars of Ireland.

We are told that in the end his pupil, Bishop Senach, one day realised how frail and worn Finnian looked. His ribs could be counted and Senach saw a worm coming out of his side, this was caused because he was wearing a girdle of iron around his waist for penance. He slept on the bare ground and his daily reflection was a bit of barley bread and a drink of water. On Sundays and holydays he ate a bit of wheaten bread a piece of broiled salmon and a full cup of mead or ale.

As for out journey, we had stopped at Byrnes of the Crab Line (Little Wild Apples) for refreshments and enjoyed the rest of the stories of Aghowle before heading for Egans of Parksbridge and home to Clonegal. I think every road has a story to tell if it could only get some one to listen.

By Willie White
Courtesy of the Carlow Nationalist
April 2005