Suir Blueway

RIVERWALK : The Suir Greenway

After our last micro adventure on and around the waters of the midlands we decided to do a linear riverside hike in the south east down the Suir valley.

The Suir, one of the Three Sisters (along with the Barrow and the Nore) that come together to flow into the sea at Waterford harbour, rises in the Devils Bit mountains and flows for 185 km through the lush landscape of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford and for millennia has been a major commercial and transportation route providing access to towns and ports in Ireland, Britain and to the continent.

The Anglo Norman Butler dynasty had ruled over this corner of Ireland for 800 years creating castles, tower houses, quays and huge wealth and along with various Quaker families had made Clonmel an important commercial centre with milling, tanning, textile, brewing and distilling industries making it the largest inland town in Ireland.

The greenway runs along the tow path route from Clonmel to Carrick on Suir a distance of over 21km. We took 3 trains to get to the historic town, staying overnight in the fabulous Birdhill House and setting off bright and early to the starting point 4km down stream.

The riverside location has been embraced with new cycle and walkways through parkland and lots of sponsored tree planting. There is a longer “Blueway”, a kayaking route from Cahir to Carrick, and we passed a canoe slalom course running 300 m from Lady Blessingtons Weir with groynes, islands, poles, ledges and lines that is reputed to be the most exciting in Ireland , though the heron didn’t seem impressed.

Back and forth across Convent, Old and Gashouse Bridges we finally set off in the sunshine passed flood defences and the hotel on the opposite bank.

The path was busy with walkers and cyclists for a long distance out of Clonmel with quite a few access points along the way. We were treated to some quirky man made artworks and plenty of natural splendours.

In 1537 a right of way 7 ft wide was established along the riverbank to allow for the towing and loading of boats. The boat towing was done by men and ropes who had to negotiate rocks, gravel banks and other obstacles until in 1755 a petition for funds to create a tow path allowed the use of horses and reduced the costs by two thirds. The 60ft boats, called Yawls, would carry between 12 and 20 tons and be pulled by between 4 and 12 horses. The journey upstream from Carrick to Clonmel would take about 5 1/2 hrs. The horses would return by road in about 2 1/2 hr whilst the yawls would float back on the current. The trade dwindled after the railway came in the 1800’s and finally finished in the 1960’s.

The apple orchards of Bulmers were a pleasant feature of a stretch of the greenway where sheep grazed beneath the trees in a fine example of silvopasture. Established in 1935 by local man William Magner it’s become a global brand and here 17 different varieties of cider apple are grown to create the Bulmers blend all pollinated naturally by bees. The local authorities had also adopted the Pollinator Plan and No Mow May in an effort to increase the food source of bees and all the other pollinators. The path was rich in wild and planted flowers that we appreciated as much as the insects.

The river is world renown as a brown trout and salmon fishery, lying over limestone and having the best characteristics of a chalk stream. The fish get big having very few pike predators and no coarse fish competition and a record breaking salmon weighed in at 57lb. The fishing ” beats” are run by private and public clubs and syndicates and there are about a dozen little huts adorning the banks along the greenway.

The good folk of Kilsheelan, half way along the route, where we have enjoyed the greenway previously, have upped their game again with more planting of trees and wildflower meadows around the village and a riverside garden. We stopped for coffee and a snack and remembered our encounter with an otter last time we walked here.

The waters of the river flowed swiftly at times running over rapids which must make it exciting for canoeists although we were surprised not to have seen any on the Blueway since the slalom at the start. There were also 15 weirs on the route made to power mills, maintaining water levels, trapping eels and fishing. The light played on the surface to create constantly changing patterns.

The land around us looked top quality without the rushes of the west as we passed through bucolic scenes of productive countryside with the rising bulk of the mystical Slievenamon or Sliabh na mBan, the Mountain of the Women, in the background. We’ll have to come back for that to explore its 5000yr old tombs, portals to the Otherworld.

The vast agricultural exports and easy transportation had generated a wealth and power reflected in the impressive tower houses from the Middle Ages and mansions that line the river including castle Gurteen de la Poer from 1865 near Kilsheelan by the same Archetect and builder as Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. For over 20 years it’s been owed by controversial Austrian artist Gottfried Heinwein and been the venue for all sorts of celebrity gatherings including the marriage of even more controversial Marilyn Manson to Dita Von Teese.

The skilled and dedicated fly fishermen we passed in their waders were working the “slow pools and slick water”, ” shallow and deep glides, interrupted occasionally by shallow riffles”, but you probably guessed that. The names of the fly they would have been using, and possibly made, are equally poetic. Alders, reed smuts and midges, pale wateries, blue winged olives, black gnat, yellow stoneflies and various sedges. Access to the pools etc was by way of numerous metal ladders and care had to be taken when wading in a strong current.

Although there is a strict catch and release policy in place the value of wild salmon ensures that poachers will break the law and this can lead to nasty confrontations. In July 2020 gun shots were fired at Inland Fisheries officers who had come across poachers near Carrick on Suir who then fled. Their boat, net and 9 salmon were seized. Those fish were just a few miles from their final spawning destination after swimming all the way from Greenland or the Faroe islands.

Other, more damaging, environmental crimes may have been perpetrated here too by a far more powerful entity. Seeing a large factory partly hidden by trees approaching and a “Private MSD Fishery” sign I asked a fisherman we were passing what the place was. Turns out to be the Merck, Sharp and Dohme pharmaceutical plant at the centre of a long running sorry saga. The international pharma giant, 2nd largest in the world, arrived to the 188 acre sit in Ballydine in 1976. Within 2 years local farmer John Hanrahan had accused the company of air pollution that had caused a range of problems from still and deformed births to barren animals, cancer, unexplained sudden deaths of pets, rusting metal, poisoning of grazing and by 1986 the death of over 200 cows. In one of the longest civil cases ever heard in Ireland the High court eventually found for the company and he was ordered to pay over €1 million in costs. But he appealed to the Supreme Court in 1987 and won his 12 year battle bringing about a major change of attitude by government and the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency. A supposed victory by the small man over a Goliath but the Hanrahan family were never able to recover and have had to give up the farm after over 700 years. The episode bitterly divided the community with other neighbours reporting strange behaviour,illness and death among both stock and family and others afraid to speak out whilst the majority, unaffected, were happy with the employment offered by the giant.

A month ago in, May 2021, it was reported that MSD have applied to expand the plant with a new €140 million facility bringing in 300 construction workers for 18 months and adding to the 2,700 workers already at Ballydine. Hard to argue with that.

Soon after we came upon a sacred spring and a lot of memorials. Serendipity.

On the last leg into Carrick and into tidal waters we saw a lot of the narrow wooden traditional craft known as cots, sadly many half sunk. Another sunken vessel here was the cause of the worst Irish inland waterways tragedy ever in 1799. A large barge carrying soldiers, men women and children broke its mooring above the town bridge and was swept broadside into it shattering the boat and casting the passengers into the river. Over 100 died including 60 children.

Our last few Km, to the station for the return series of trains, passed the restored glories of the Butler Tudor manor, built to impress a visiting Elizabeth 1st with whom Black Tom Butler was reputedly having a ” liaison”. Now owned by the OPW, and unfortunately closed inside by Covid, we had a wander around before crossing the park to the little used station.