Durrow Walks.

Co Laois – The Leafy Loop in Lockdown

Looking for a long circular hike we discovered the Leafy Loop in Durrow, Co Laois. It sounded lovely. 23 km of waymarked trail through plantations of beech, ancient native mixed woodlands, conifer forest, hazel coppice, riparian spinneys alongside steams, over lush fields and along wsterside paths by the Nore, Erkina and Gully rivers.

One of the longest looped walks in the country and in a part of Ireland we hadn’t visited since calling into the Durrow scarecrow festival a couple of years ago. We loaded the camper and printed off the maps and then…

Counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare re-entered a 2week lockdown that night because of rising Covid numbers. Our planned walks were on either side of the Laois and Kilkenny border and we had a decision to make. We could do our Kilkenny Walks no bother. But the Loop went into Laois.

Right or wrong we decided, on balance, that if we stayed outside on the trails, kept well away from anybody else and didn’t stop anywhere else in the county we would be doing no harm but still felt slightly uneasy and guilty for going.

Once out in the woods and up on the hills however, taking a step from an open county to one in lockdown , the arbitrary nature of the winding border made a mockery of the imposed restrictions. We understand the need to restrict people’s contact with the virus and we behaved safely but illicitly.

The walk was normally described as starting in Durrow village but in an effort at social responsibility we avoided the possibility of human contact and started in the Coillte operated Dunmore Demesne woods on the outskirts of town.

The trail immediately lived up to its “Leafy Loop” moniker and continued to do so. Durrow means ” Plain of the Oak” and this area was reputed to have woods so dense in the 18th century that the outlaw Jeremiah Grant and his gang of ne’er do wells were able to hide out with ease. It wasn’t until the early post independence days that mass felling took place making the current tree cover a precious thing.

Following the River Gully for awhile we crossed over a stone bridge past the remains of the outbuildings to the old Dunmore House- rendered roofless in the early 20th century to avoid paying rates and soon becoming a ruin that was knocked leaving only the basement and some steps down to the river Nore.

We encountered a pulley system across the river serving some unknown purpose and later a metal bridge brought us downstream to a stone bridge carrying the main road over the river.

A very pleasant stretch beside the river bought us to another footbridge, this time across the Erkina and out onto open fields where the path followed the meanders of the Nore past the impressive bulk of another grand mansion- Knockatrina House mid way through extensive ( and expensive) reconstruction.

A beautifully bucolic landscape in the ” fat of the land”, so different from the rushy impoverished country where the multitudes wrestled a living around our way in the West. Emerging from the fields and reentering woods we crossed the main road again at the site of the Durrow brickworks, an enterprise that produced fine red bricks from shale dug from the hill we climbed from 1890 to 1922.

The steep climb took us to The Ballagh, our high point at about 250 m from where we got occasional views through the trees over the lush farmland of Laois.

The fields were big, the sheds were big and the dairy herds were big. Down through a hazel coppice , across another road and past the lodge into Bishops Wood where the man of the cloth was executed in penal times beside a tree still growing here.

Bishop’s Wood is one of about a dozen “Life Sites” around Ireland where care is being taken to restore native woodland by removal of invasive species and reintroduction of a variety of original plant life. But strangely this was where we got very confused and thought we were lost as what was marked on our maps and google earth as forest had become mono grassland.

The sizeable chunk of field in the photo had , until recently, been forest. We watched a long long line of cows progressing across the prairie from the milking sheds in the distance before turning back into the woods and the charm of the lush path beside the Erkina.

Liable to annual flooding this is part of the largest alluvial woodland in the country and is remnant of a huge wetland known as the Laois Curragh. It was bursting with green growth of meadowsweet, flag iris, Angelica, bugle, sedges rush and water mint and buzzing with insect life. From here you could continue riverside to Durrow but we took the footbridge over to our last stretch of Bishop’s Wood, freshly strimmed.

A couple of km of road saw us back in Dunmore Wood to complete the Leafy Loop, a delight in the summer and, I imagine, even better in the spring when a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic adorn the forest floor. A few minutes drive later we were in Co Kilkenny, no longer illicit, on our way to Jenkinstown Woods for the night, parked up in the walled garden below the threshing mill. Mission accomplished.

Next day we tackled the Gathabawn Loop, a 12 km hike up and around Cullahill Mountain, small enough at 250 m but towering above the surrounding plains and providing far reaching views over 360 degrees. This walk would have us back and forth across the county borders in an uncontrollable way.

We checked out the terrain from a viewpoint carpark overlooking the mountain and waited for the cloud to lift before driving down to Gathabawn village to start the walk opposite Mackeys bar.

Passing by the pleasant Millenium Garden we climbed beyond the old Coolcashin graveyard and the invisible remains of a Norman settlement to reach the charming in name and nature, Ballygooney Lane, which took us up towards the windmills and forestry of Binnianea.

Emerging from the trees we crossed open farmland to reach the equally charming Shirley’s Lane. Was the abandoned farmhouse Shirley’s old home?

Now out of the mono species grassland and on to the wilder pastures we could see why it had been given special area of conservation status. Plant rich limestone country with many different grasses and herbs and protected because of the population of Green-winged,Frog, Bee, Early purple and Twayblade orchids. We sat atop a rath for lunch and admired the views.

Weaving our way through a short section of new plantation we walked along the back of Cullahill Mountain to discover a well placed bench where we rested again to soak up the vista to the north ( Slieve Blooms), West ( Silvermines), east ( Blackstairs, Mt Leinster, Devils Bit) to add to the southerly views earlier ( Comeraghs, Galtees).

Down below us sat the remains of Cullahill Castle the seat of the MacGiollaPadraig or Fitzpatrick clan long rulers of the area until the castle was sacked by Cromwellian forces. It is apparently adorned by a Sheila- na -gig high on a surviving wall. A 17km linear walk, the MacGiollaPadraig Way, has been created from Durrow to Gathabawn and we had shared much of its route.

Crossing the fields deep in drying hay we passed the sad remains of a famine village reminding us that the rich and prosperous landscape laid out before us had not always been so bountiful for the people. Passing by the rath or fairy fort again we made our way along the Gooseneck road to rejoin Ballygooney Lane and back to the Millenium Park and a more recent Fairy world.