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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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Follow Me Up to Carlow


Millford - Courtesy Irish Tourist Board

by Suzanne Barrett

The History
Carlow, Ireland's second smallest county, nestles in green pastureland in the southeastern part of the country. Vibrant colors dot the verdant fields, and everywhere is the resonance of its Celtic past. The history of this three-hundred-forty-six-square- mile jewel of a county may not be as easy to find on a search of the 'Net as some of its more well-known and colorful neighbors, nevertheless, Carlow's history is every bit as interesting. Norman invaders arriving in Wexford soon migrated into Carlow where they built their first castles. By the end of the fourteenth century, more than one hundred fifty castles had been constructed. None remain intact, however, ruins are scattered throughout the county. Dark Age church ruins dot the landscape, but the most spectacular sight is Ireland's largest dolmen. Browne's Hill Dolmen stands near the River Barrow about two miles east of Carlow Town. Its capstone weighs an estimated one hundred tons. Dolmens such as these were used as communal burial grounds during the early Neolithic period (2900 - 3300 B.C.)

Carlow became a stronghold for the Anglo-Normans, probably because of its proximity to the English Pale. However, because of its location, it was also an area of turbulence in the wars which followed. Carlow Town was walled in 1361, and from that time until 1650, its history was one of sieges and burnings as each side struggled for possession. During the Rebellion of 1798, Carlow was again the scene of a bloody battle in which 640 insurgents were killed. Two-thirds of these were buried in gravel pits on the Graiguecullen side of the town.

In later years, Carlow provided many sons and daughters as immigrants to the rest of the English-speaking world. Interestingly, most were not Roman Catholic but well-to-do Protestants looking for prosperity in the cities of the United States, England, and Australia. Carlow has been referred to as the county of the near famous. Men such as Samuel Haughton, inventor of the mathematical "Haughton Drop", which ensured the executed a swift death; Frederick Wolseley, inventor of the first British automobile, the Wolseley Three-Wheeler; John Tyndall, a nineteenth-century scientist and mountain climber; and Peter Fenelon Collier, who founded Collier's Magazine.

Carlow's eastern region, through which the River Slaney flows, is an extension of the Wicklow granite area; and this rock forms a portion of the Blackstairs Mountains along the Wexford border to the southeast. To the west lies the fertile limestone of the Barrow Valley. To the northwest are the uplands shared by Counties Carlow, Laois, and Kilkenny. Carlow is one of the few Leinster counties which does not form part of Ireland's large Central Plain. Mt. Leinster is Carlow's highest mountain at 796 meters, but it commands superb views of lush pasture land.

Two of Carlow's rivers, the Slaney in the eastern part of the county, and the Barrow in the west, have chosen to hollow out gorges in sizeable hills in their southerly flow to the sea rather than follow an easier course. The Slaney rises on the western side of Lughnaquilla and should flow into the Barrow, instead it turns southeast to plough across the mountains in the gap of Bunclody, while the Barrow cuts a gorge below Graiguenamanagh. Glacial drift is responsible for some of these odd routings. As the drift piled into moraines or bogs and blocked valleys, the rivers were forced to change course. The Slaney is one of these.

The Barrow begins its zigzag course in the hills of the Slieve Bloom mountains which border County Offaly and County Laois. Shortly it drops down to the midland plain then makes a right-angled bend to flow southeast toward Mountmellick, then east. At Monastrevan it turns south-southeast and passes over the floor of a large ice age lake then on to Athy and Carlow. This middle region makes a fertile swath about 40 kilometers long and was home to Ireland's early hunter-fisherman. When the river's exit channel was drained by the Office of Public Works to reduce flooding in the area, they came across a large hoard of bronze weapons. Here fine crops of barley and sugar beets are raised.

Strongbow followed the Barrow in his northward march from Waterford to Dublin in 1170. The Normans quickly recognized the potential of this rich arable land and set up earthen forts and farmsteads. Their stronghold was the great stone castle at Carlow, built around 1205. The subsequent town held a strategic position at the border of the English Pale. Today Carlow is a market town of about 12,000, its people employed in sugar beet refining, flour milling, and malting.


Photo: Copyright © Corel. All rights reserved.
Text: Copyright © Suzanne Barrett. All rights reserved.

Flora and Fauna
Like much of the midland plain, Carlow's vibrant tapestry of rich, arable land lends itself to crops more than flowers, however, the flora and fauna of Carlow is a remarkable display of the common and uncommon. Lime-loving plants such as cowslip and water parsnip abound, as do purple harebells, ox-eye daisies, and poppies. Hedgerows are home to many plant and animal forms. As well, they balance the delicate ecosystem. Oak, hazel, hawthorn, beech, common ash, silver birch, and grey poplar are common in the fields and pasture lands of Carlow.

The county is home to two of Ireland's outstanding gardens. Altemont, just south of Tullow, has been called Ireland's most romantic garden. Along with the house, which dates back to the sixteenth century are 100 acres of gardens. Features are both formal and informal with lawns and clipped yews sloping down to a lake surrounded by rare trees and shrubs. A fascinating walk through the Arboretum, Bog Garden and Ice Age Glen with its canopy of ancient oaks leads to the River Slaney. An abundance of birds, butterflies and squirrels are to be found throughout the gardens. Lisnavagh is ten acres of pleasure grounds set near Rathvilly in Carlow. Closed to the public until May, special tours can be arranged by calling in advance. The gardens feature many original trees, rock gardens and border plantings. The house, a Victorian Gothic mansion, was designed by Daniel Robertson in the 1850s. In addition, there are self-catered cottages available for rent.

Carlow Town lies 83km (52 mi) south of Dublin. The Gothic-styled Cathedral of the Assumption is one of the town's prominent sights. Built in 1883, it is noted for fine stained glass windows and a magnificently sculptured marble monument on the tomb of its builder, Bishop James Doyle (1786-1834), a champion of Catholic emancipation. The monument was carved by Irish sculptor John Hogan. Near the town bridge are the runs of the thirteenth-century Carlow Castle which withstood a siege by Cromwell in 1650, only to be destroyed in 1814 when Dr. Phillip Middleton attempted to renovate the building to house an asylum. There is a county museum in Carlow's town hall which includes a reconstructed blacksmith's forge and a preindustrial kitchen.

Three kilometers away, on the road to Tullow, is Carlow's most famous exhibit, the Browne's Hill Dolmen. The monument dates back to 2000 B.C. and has a capstone weighing over 100 tons, the largest in Ireland. Once thought to be Druidic altars, dolmens are now known to be megalithic tombs dating from the Stone Age.

Ten kilometers (6 mi.) south of Carlow Town is Leighlinbridge, the first bridge over the River Barrow, and the site of the ruins of Black Castle, one of the earliest fortresses constructed in Ireland.

Bagenalstown (Muine Bheag) is situated on the River Barrow and contains interesting old mill buildings, a canal lock and drawbridge. It is one of the spots on the river where there are rapids and where a long weir was built so barges could safely navigate.

Other sights include the gardens mentioned on the previous page, Altamont and Lisnavagh. In addition, there are a trio of driving tours not to be missed. The Mt. Leinster Tour requires a full day to complete and covers Borris - Mount Leinster - Bunclody - Clonegal - Kildavin - Myshall - Fenagh - Bagenalstown and back to Borris. From the nine stones vista, one can see all the way to Wales on a clear day. Near Kildavin on the R724 is Ballykeenan Pet & Aviary Farm where a great day out for all the family is promised. Wide variety of fowl, animals and unusual birds with a petting zoo is available and not to be missed. A true delight for young and old alike. Continuing along the R724 to Myshall is the Adelaide Memorial Church, a replica of the cathedral at Salisbury.

Another recommendation is the Megalithic Tour where one can step back in history to the Stone Age. Altamont Gardens and Duckett's Grove, the ruins of Carlow’s finest gothic mansion, built by the architect Thomas Cobden, are accessible on this tour. A portal dolmen near Hacketstown may be seen, as well as a stone fort (Rathgall).

Finally, there's an Ecclesiastical Tour which consists of sights such as the Black Castle, St. Lazarian's Cathedral at Old Leighlin, a medieval monastery at Killeshin with a fantastic Romanesque doorway. On Sundays in summertime there is free traditional dancing and music at nearby Rossmore.

For the Carlow visitor, there are also walking tours - Carlow Town, The South Leinster Way, The Wicklow Way, the source of a previous feature, and The Barrow Way. Carlow makes an excellent base for seeing the south Midlands sights.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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Browne's Hill Dolmen

Browne's Hill Dolmen - Courtesy Irish Tourist Board

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