Offaly: Ballyboy walk is dripping with history

BALLYBOY LOOP, CO OFFALY

WE PARK at the west end of the village near St Mary’s church, in ruins, along with a graveyard of impressive stones and fine yews. Opposite it is a picnic table and a brass plaque on the adjacent wall affirming the illustrious history of the village. In the past, Ballyboy was of great significance, this largely due to its location on an ancient route between the Slieve Bloom Mountains and the Bog of Allen, on the high ground above a shallow crossing of the Silver River. Ballyboy: Baile Atha Buidhe: the Town of the Yellow Ford.

The passage of travellers and, later, armies, engendered a settlement that became a thriving town. Its chronology, enshrined in brass, is well worth the reading. The river we will cross, and the route we will walk, saw history passing, the panoply of armies and the wretched tumbrels carrying Famine victims to the burial ground.

St Bridgid established a monastery in AD500; St Mary’s church was built on the site. A Norman, Mylar Fitzhenry took lands in the area in 1172; a Norman motte is still extant. Hugh O’Neill and Red Hugh O’Donnell with their armies passed through here on the way to join the Spanish at Kinsale in 1601. Cromwell was here in 1641, fighting the O’Molloys and laying a trail of destruction. In 1690, garrisoned by Williamites, it was unsuccessfully attacked by part of Sarsfield’s army.

William of Orange stayed in a village hostelry that year. The village minted its own coins in post-Jacobite times. In the 18th century, bakers, nailers, tanners and millers were established here; it had a hat factory and a hotel. Half the population were lost in the Famine.

But enough of history —we set off... Our route takes us through the village, past Dan and Molly’s Pub, thatched and displaying the family coat of arms. The Famine Plot, where the dead were interred, is opposite. We pass the school (the site of the Hatters’ Factory) and, before the stone bridge, we see the motte in a field on our left. At the Silver River, a waymark indicates a waterside path and picnic area. We continue past the ruin of Jackson’s Mill, one of the many along the river.

Walking along the country road, southward we see the Slieve Bloom foothills and behind us the tower of St Mary’s, high in the view. We ignore roads to the left. Sheep graze the pastures beyond the hedges. Houses are largely one-storey; perhaps the Celtic Tiger didn’t bite too fiercely hereabouts.

After about 3.5km, we take a right turning beside a bungalow on the left. Winding up a hill, we pass between ring forts inside the ditches right and left, each with the usual complement of humps, scattered rocks, holly trees and sceacs. Starting down, we enjoy panoramic views of the land rising ahead, the fields and copses in the middle distance and the mountains beyond.

At a Yield sign, we turn right, downhill, with a period farmhouse on our right. Pylon-like masts on the Slieve Blooms catch the sun. We re-cross the Silver River at a romantic little bridge with, again, a ruined mill. A short distance beyond, we join the waymarked Offaly Way. Now, as we walk west, the tower of St. Mary’s comes into view and after 2km. we are back at the start.


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