Follow the Old Road: Discover the Ireland of Yesteryear by Jo Kerrigan
Illustrated by Richard Mills, this compendium by Jo Kerrigan takes us on journeys some may never have known existed. It’s a historical travelogue that will inspire explorers, writes
Landscape and place have many layers, and in our everyday existence we tend to live on the layer most visible to us. Follow the Old Road: Discover the Ireland of Yesteryear, written by Jo Kerrigan and illustrated with black-and-white photography by Richard Mills, unpeels those layers and unearths the geography, history, folklore, archaeology, and nature of the ‘old roads’ of Ireland that have been travelled for thousands of years.
Kerrigan invites us to rediscover the very different ways in which people travelled in the past. Journeys are faster today, she says, but the amount we are missing is incalculable. She invites us on a voyage of rediscovery by following the great river roads, the old tracks, the canals, the lost railway lines, and the sea roads.
The book takes us on journeys along three great river roads: The Shannon, the Bann, and the Three Sisters. The Shannon, says Kerrigan, “has seen invaders, pilgrims, colonialists, battle fleets, engineers, industrialists, and finally pleasure-seeking tourists. As such, it is linked to every stage of Ireland’s history and development.”
Stopping off in Athlone at Sean’s Bar, dating from around 900 and officially the oldest pub in Ireland, she provides a snapshot of that history: “As first Normans, then Tudors, Stuarts, Georgians, and Victorians, took over power in the country, and war after war was fought across Europe, this venerable inn remained virtually unchanged, and travellers gratefully quaffed its ale, before making the crossing of the Shannon on their way east or west.”
A traveller following the Three Sisters rivers, Kerrigan enlightens us, might encounter Holy Cross Abbey, which has attracted large numbers of pilgrims for hundreds of years; Devil’s Bit Mountain, where it is said “the devil took a chunk out of the hilltop in a temper, and then spat it out in disgust. The place where it landed became the Rock of Cashel”; or Kilkenny’s Kyteler Inn, the site of the only recorded witch burning in Ireland.
Kerrigan also goes in search of ancient tracks and “faint paths”. As with her treatment of journeys along Ireland’s rivers, she provides detailed descriptions that draw together history, geography, archaeology, folklore, and culture; insightful and evocative text that is accompanied by Mills’ excellent black-and-white shots.
These paths — bog roads, butter roads, war paths, pilgrim paths — criss-cross the country, from the Gearagh in Cork to Torr Head in Antrim. With Kerrigan’s attention to detail, we are drawn back to a time few of us would now recognise. Of butter and roads on which it was transported, she says: “One of the products that has always travelled the ancient routes of Ireland is butter. Produced in every small farmstead that could boast a cow or two, it was a valuable trading substance, taken to market by the frugal housewife, carefully wrapped in cabbage or dock leaves to keep it cool, and tucked into her willow basket along with the duck and hen eggs.”
Kerrigan goes on to tell us how canals were built to overcome the limitations of natural river courses. She delves into not only the economic but social history of the canals. Today, as we walk, cycle, or cruise along the canals, we might remember the different groups of people who used them in the past and for very different reasons. Canals were passenger as well as trade routes. “By 1837, the Grand Canal was carrying 100,000 passengers” and “dinner for first-class passengers cost two shillings a head with the addition of a pint of wine almost doubling that”.
The canals also had a role in emigration during the Great Famine. Kerrigan tells us of how, in 1847, almost 1,500 starving tenants from Strokestown, Co Roscommon, “walked for days along the towpaths of the Royal Canal to Dublin, husbands, wives, babies, barefoot children, and were put on boats to Liverpool, thence to Quebec”.
Kerrigan’s writing is underpinned by me
ticulous research, and she provides us with interesting insights into the glorious era of the railways. With Kerrigan’s book in hand, the traveller would be well rewarded by following the old Limerick to Claremorris railway line and arriving at Ballyglunin station near Tuam where the history of the well-off landowners mingles with the golden age of the Hollywood movie industry.
In the early 1900s, says Kerrigan, “a wealthy merchant who lived at Ballyglunin Park… had a regular order with the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin to send the prepared dishes for his dinner down by train”.
This very railway station was also “used in the 1952 film The Quiet Man, when John Wayne is seen arriving home from American at ‘Castletown’ station, and later when he drags Maureen O’Hara out of a carriage while she is trying to escape”.
Kerrigan urges the reader to pay special attention to three disused railway lines: The Sligo-Leitrim, the West Clare, and the West Cork. She unpeels layers of social history, literature, and song laid down on those tracks. The West Clare brought happiness to many holidaymakers but she notes that it is remembered as the most unreliable train of all time — thanks to songwriter and entertainer Percy French. It was he, inspired by a delayed train journey to Kilkee in 1896, who wrote the popular song, ‘Are Ye Right There, Michael?’
She describes the huge impact of the West Cork railway not only in terms of trade and commerce but in terms of people’s leisure time.
Excursion trains to the seaside on summer weekends and bank holidays were always crowded, too. Courtmacsherry, in particular, experienced a tourism boom because of its rail service. And with the opening of the Schull and Skibbereen Light Railway, some of the most beautiful scenery of West Cork became familiar to thousands who could not have hoped to see such faraway places before the train made it possible.
With Kerrigan’s book, the traveller (armchair or otherwise) has “explored the rivers, wandered the green tracks, traced the canals, followed the forgotten railways”.
And then it is the turn of the sea roads. Again, Kerrigan draws attention to roads that may go under the radar of the casual traveller. Take a journey to Antrim and into the Kingdom of Dál Riada, where you’ll encounter the Children of Lir and Yellow Man and maybe have the courage to cross the vertiginous rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede. You could travel to the other end of the country and learn of smugglers’ secrets: “In Kerry, the O’Connells of Derrynane were reputed to be involved in a good deal of international trade with France and Spain. They paid scant attention to customs regulations, and the young Daniel O’Connell, later to be hailed as ‘the Liberator’, might even have lent a hand on busy nights when brandy, wine and fine fabrics were brought ashore.” Or travel up along the west coast and encounter the fierce Pirate Queen, Granuaile.
In, Kerrigan and Mills have added another fine publication to their previous works. The beautifully designed and presented hardback, with its black-and-white photographs indeed evoking yesteryear, is a wonderful companion for the traveller.
Follow in the footsteps of Kerrigan and Mills, take time along your route to dip into the book, and rediscover for yourself the ‘old roads’ of Ireland.