It has been described as the most beautiful riverside walks in these islands but plans to introduce a Blueway along the River Barrow in Kildare and Carlow have become contentious. Broadcaster, journalist, Carlow-native and keen walker, Olivia O'Leary, argues why the current walk should be left as it is. 

In the eighties, I spent about two years commuting to London. Often, I’d meet an old friend coming the other way. It was Fintan Ryan from my home town of Borris, an airline pilot and engineer. He was coming back from England just for the day so he could walk along the River Barrow. That, he said, was what kept him sane. I’m the same.

Olivia O'Leary
Olivia O'Leary

Step out on the grassy way which is the Barrow towpath and you have stepped into another world.You can walk along the river for miles without hearing a car or a lorry.  You can’t even hear the sound of your own footsteps.  You’ll hear the birds; the rush of the weirs; the wind in the trees.   And little by little you’ll let go of your worries because the river has cast its spell.

There are fewer and fewer places in the world today which are quiet; where you can sit and watch a heron guarding his weir; or the swifts zig-zagging like a mad trapeze act over and back across the river ;or see  a white owl flying low along the trees as the night falls. There are otters above Ballytiglea Bridge and down at Ballinagrane Lock, where we swim in the summer.  Once,my sister and I looked sideways to notice another dark brown head swimming  beside us.  We ignored the otter and the otter ignored us until it suddenly dived below the water.  As laid down in ‘The Wind in the Willows’,river etiquette demands that one does not comment on the sudden appearance or disappearance of one’s friends.

The towpath along the Barrow Navigation and the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal runs for 114 kilometres from Lowtown in Co. Kildare to St. Mullins, in Co. Carlow.   Originally built so that horses could tow barges , the path is now a grassy carpet which runs the length of the waterway. That gentle surface is heaven for walkers.  Older people like me find that we can go ten to fifteen kilometres -and even further- without any sense of fatigue.  The grassy sod maintains a pace that accommodates walkers, and joggers, and cyclists and anglers.  No one goes so fast that they intimidate anybody else and there is a friendliness and a camaraderie along the towpath which is a large part of its charm.

That is why so many people who live along the river are opposed to Waterways Ireland’s proposals to replace the grassy sward with a hard surface.   This is to accommodate bicycles.  But those of us in the Save the Barrow Line group argue that bicycles use the towpath as it is and that a hard surface changes the peaceful nature of this wild path.  It is less welcoming to the wild creatures and the wild flowers.  It encourages speed which is not ideal on a riverside path.  After floods-and the river floods most years-the grassy path will recover naturally  in time- but a hard surface may end up potholed.   We are all in favour of more walkers and canoeists and cyclists and anglers but the grassy towpath is the green frame for the river, part of its soft beauty.   Why destroy the very beauty we want visitors to see?

We are lucky in Carlow that we have the towpath running right down through the county; through Carlow town and down to Milford with its beautiful weir.  On to historic Leighlinbridge which marks the edge of the Pale, and which has the oldest bridge on the river dating back to the fourteenth century.  On through Bagenalstown,and Goresbridge. 

But it is at Ballytiglea Bridge, just above Borris, that my favourite part of the river comes.  Park here and walk downriver with deep woods on either side. On your left, you are walking past Borris House demesne.  Borris House is the home of the McMurrough Kavanaghs whose ancestor Art McMurrough Kavanagh was High King of Leinster and took on the armies of Richard 11 in the fourteenth century.  You come soon to the boat house from which his descendant,Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh of Borris House, used to take off downriver to sail to London in his own boat, the’ Eva’, which he anchored below the House of Commons.  Born without arms or legs, he was a wonderful horseman,and had colourful adventures all over the world before  he became MP for the local area.He lived on his boat, which had been specially adapted for him, while attending parliament. 

 Then, after Bunnahown and the Mountain river, the river runs into open country and sunny Ballinagrane.  The river is marked off in weirs and locks and the cut stone of the locks tells you that the granite mountain, Mt. Leinster, isn’t far away.   

The woods follow on your left all the way from Clashganny to the double lock at Ballykeenan to Graignamanagh with its wonderfully restored 13th Cistercian Abbey of Duiske.  You can still see the fleur de lys tiles of the original Abbey revealed below the present floor.  The Romanesque processional doorway in the sacristy is one of the very finest examples of its kind.

The walk to St. Mullins has been called by environmentalist and filmmaker, Dick Warner, ‘the most beautiful riverside walk in these islands’.   Passing Tinnehinch Castle, you plunge into a deep river valley with deciduous woods on either side reflected in the water- beautiful in spring and summer and glorious in the autumn.  As you pass Carrigleade, you are leaving Brandon Hill behind you and soon you’re at the Dutch  style lockhouse in St. Mullins.  It’s another mile down the hard surface track to the village of St. Mullins but well worth the walk for great coffee and snacks in Martin O’Brien’s Muilleachan Cafe  which is usually open from March to the end of October.  There’s a wealth of history here so take a look at the Norman motte and bailey and the ruins of at least three ancient churches in the graveyard as well as the remains of a round tower.

This walk is all on the level so it’s easy for people of all ages and you can’t get lost! Wear comfortable shoes-your walking boots are best.   Bring your swimming things - the best places are  Clashganny , and Graig where there are lifeguards in high summer. The whole walk from Ballytiglea to St. Mullins will take you four to five hours, but you can break it up. It will take you an hour and a half to Clashganny where you can be picked up in the car park.  From Clashganny to Graig is an  hour and a bit.  From Graig to St. Mullins is an hour and a half.  You can get local taxis back to your car.  Bicycles can be hired from the Waterside Guesthouse in Graig.; canoe trips organised with Charlie Horan’s company, ‘Go with the Flow’.

This place speaks to you, body and soul.  It brings you nearer to nature, nearer to yourself. You’ll come back here.  I can guarantee you that.  You’ll come back again and again.

We asked Waterways Ireland for a response to the issues raised by Olivia O'Leary and other campaiogners about the development of the Blueway and this was its reponse:

"The Barrow Blueway is an initiative to develop a 112km long multi-activity trail for local people and visitors to enjoy along the route of the Barrow Navigation.

Walking, cycling and canoeing activities have been shown to be highly sustainable as people engage in low group numbers, all year round and require services and facilities similar to those readily available in the towns and villages along the Barrow Valley.

Arising from rural development and tourism research studies the Blueway is one of a number of strategic initiatives being developed to support sustainable rural tourism, employment and waterway recreation along the Barrow Navigation corridor. Working collaboratively to achieve this are Waterways Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, Kildare County Council, Kilkenny County Council, Carlow County Council, Laois County Council, Kildare LEADER Partnership, Kilkenny LEADER Partnership, Carlow County Development Partnership and Laois Partnership Company."