Walking the Suir

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.

A TRIP TO TIPP: St Declans and the Tipperary Heritage Ways

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For awhile i’ve been hankering after another Irish pilgrimage route and this one in particular.

St Declans Way runs for 96km between Cashel in county Tipperary and Ardmore on the Waterford coast. It had been resurrected a good few years ago in the nineties, but had started to fade back into the landscape again until recently, when the current resurgence in interest in Caminos took hold. There’s now an Irish Pilgrim Passport that you can get stamped along various routes that qualifies you for an Irish compostella or certificate but having already done most of the Ways i won’t be applying for one.

Made up by stringing a collection of ancient highways together on the route supposedly taken by St Declan, who was preaching Christianity to the heathens of Ireland before St Patrick’s arrival, from his 5th century monastery in Ardmore to the seat of the Kings of Munster at Cashel.

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I didn’t have the 5 days needed complete the entire walk so devised a circular hike starting in Cahir and going north up St Declans Way to Cashel. After a night there i would circle back down on the Tipperary Heritage Way along the Suir river and skirting over the end of the Galty mountain range to Cahir a trip of approximately 60km.

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The river was with me from the start when i set off under a clear blue November sky through the market town, passed the churchyard sensory garden

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on the route of the Rian Bo Padraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow. Folklaw has it that the path, still visible in sections as a depression in the turf flanked by grassy banks, was created by St Patricks Cow pursuing the cattle thief who stole her calf. As she thundered furiously through the landscape her horns raked the lines of the trail into the earth.

Unfortunately the poetic license of the origin myth is not matched by the prosaic modern reality and i saw no sign of the age old track as i made my way along 25km of unrelenting tarmac. However, once i’d got over the motorway that had signalled its presence with a long aural introduction of hums and roars

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i was off down very quiet back roads through the rich farmland of South Tipperary .The fields were big and open and the farmers seemed to be growing grain rather than the rushes we’re used to around us.

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On it’s way to Ardmore the Way climbs over the Knockmealdown mountains through Bottleneck pass at 540m, but i had my back to that range as i headed north, with the Comeragh mountains to my right and the Galtees to the east on my left.

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The names of the townlands i was passing through were a mixture of the Anglicised, like Mortlestown, Chamberlainstown,Farbankindry and the Irish, like Carrigeen, Carron, Knocksantlour. As i neared Cashel later there was a sequence of places called Lot’s, which seemed to be named after the owners the land had been sold or given to. From south to north i traversed Lalor’s Lot, Bigg’s Lot, Owen’s Lot, Waller’s Lot and Ashwell’s Lot. The houses were mostly pretty grand with big gates and sweeping drives with none of the clusters of close quarter cottages seen in the west.

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Most of the houses had security gates firmly closed to the outside world but perhaps the most down market property on the route had the road going straight through their yard.

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One feature of the landscape stood out for me and that was the size and health of the trees that grew in the deep rich soil.

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The area must have a good reputation amongst arboriculturists as this was where the Annaveigh wholesale tree nursery set up in 2004 and now exports to Holland and Germany which is pretty impressive as was the 70 acres of well pruned and tended trees i walked past on my way toward Cashel.

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My journey up the Rian Bo Padraig had not been rich in sacred sites or monuments of the past but near the end i passed, in quick succession, memorials ancient and modern.

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I was grateful to arrive at Cashel after what had been an early start after a very late night and a long day on a hard road surface. I was too late to visit the castle atop the Rock that the devil had spat at St Patrick so retired to my hostel for a rest by the fire in the lounge.

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Heading out into the sunrise the following morning the sky was bright, the air was crystal clear and a sharp frost sparkled on the grass. It’s coming to that time of year again as autumn turns to winter. It’s been a beautiful season here in Ireland with lots of dry weather and a fine display of red, gold and orange on the trees. The unusually dry weather was enabling me to return to Caher on the Tipperary Heritage way which followed the banks of the river Suir for the first 10- 12km and was officially closed to walkers along the stretch to Golden from October to March due to the common winter floods. I knew from the water levels in the turloughs and rivers around us that there was no risk from that at the moment so set off confidently westwards down the 4km of road to the river.tipp-heritage1

On the outskirts of the town, adrift in a field of cattle, was Hore Abbey, founded in 1266 by the Benedictine order but expelled by the Archbishop of Cashel 6 years later after dreaming that the monks were about to kill him. He didn’t make himself popular with the folk of Cashel as he gave over land and property belonging to the town, and the Abbey, to the Cistercians of Mellifont. Even more grevious was to tax the 38 local brewers 2 flagons out of every batch of ale.

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Looking back from the Abbey the bulk of the castle stood out against the lightening sky.

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Going against the flow of cars ferrying workers and school kids into another day in the hurly-burly of modern life, i felt very privileged to be heading towards a dead end in the road and a peaceful riverside path devoid of the activities of humankind. An illusion of course, as all around me had been created and managed by man. And well managed. I was admiring of the efforts of the landowners along the trail to facilitate the walkers.

The rising sun had still not generated enough heat to thaw the frost that made art of the vegetation and held the moisture off my boots as i laid a new trail through the whiteness.

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I could see why the path was often impassable in winter when a footbridge over a stream revealed the height level of seasonal flood waters.

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There was, as the name of the Way implied, a lot of heritage alongside the river presumably as it was a means of transport in the days before the road network was established. On the opposite bank lay the ruins of Ballynahinch Castle patrolled by a lone swan.

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The gently flowing and winding river is one of the Three Sisters along with the Barrow and Nore, all of which come together to leave the country at Waterford. Rising from the slopes of Devil’s Bit Mountain it takes 185km to reach the sea making it Ireland’s third longest river. There was little evidence of it’s might on this tranquil stretch.

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On my print out maps from the Irishtrails website the Way leaves the riverside on a couple of sections but whatever difficulties there were with landowners has been resolved and now you can stay beside the Suir all the way to the road bridge at Suirville, about 6km south of Golden. At times the path is on the riverbank fenced off from the adjoining farmland and at others you are in fields with cattle that could be muddy in wetter weather.

The day warmed up as i followed the meandering flow, the stillness only broken by startled birdlife splashing a retreat and the gurgling rush of water over weirs.

I’m not sure if the weirs were constructed to slow the flow and alleviate flooding or what but anglers appreciate fishing for Brown Trout and Salmon in these waters and there are plans to attract more people on leisurely pursuits with the creation of a cycle and walking Greenway from Carrick on Suir to Clonmel and a canoeing Blueway from Carrick to Cahir.

Before long i was in Golden, with its 15th century castle sitting on a mid stream island.

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During the 1641 rebellion the castle gave shelter to 120 men , women and children and 10 years later was taken by Cromwell himself. A more impressive structure lay another few km further down stream where what was once the largest abbey in Ireland stands in ruins.

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Athassel Abbey. Dating from 1200 this majestic pile, of which only a fraction appears in the photo, used to have a sizeable settlement around it of which nothing now remains.

A little further on another medieval towerhouse ,Suir Castle, appeared above the trees.

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And then a well kept track had been cut through a copse on a section that had previously been out of bounds and a riverside water meadow with grazing horses sporting hair accessories before i sadly came to the bridge that led me away from the Suir.

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As can be seen from the map above there was a long stretch of road ahead and after less than a km i’d decided to escape what i could of it. The 25km of tarmac the day before had left it’s mark on my feet and with a fair climb to do over the last 8km or so up through Ballydrohid Wood i thought i’d chance my arm- or my hitching thumb.

I must have made the right decision as fate was with me and a car appeared and stopped.    A charming and chatty lady swept me down the road saving me over an hour of wear and tear in minutes, letting me out to cross the main N24 and head for the hills.

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I had my first ascent of the walk as i rose up through beech woods and conifer plantation onto the easternmost shoulder of the Galty mountains. I’d spent a couple of days eyeing up this range when i hiked the Ballyhoura Way and there is something about Galtymore, the highest peak and one of Irelands few that reaches over 1000m, that attracts me. I did climb it decades ago when i tackled all of the county’s “Munroe’s”,but it calls again.

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The views from the edge of the forest unveiled the rich patchwork of fields of the Golden Vale, the heartland of Ireland’s productive agriculture industry.

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A network of forest tracks switchbacked up the folds in the hills leading me deeper into wilder country with patches of bare rock and scrubland, a welcome contrast to the manicured and managed farmland i’d been travelling through over the last couple of days.

But this was Ireland where an area of bogland and conifer forest in Mayo is declared a “Wilderness” so my impression of walking in the wild is relative to the general lack of anything approaching it. The levelled gravel track led me through the serried ranks of the conifer crop and then, thankfully and unusually, a more attractive stand of Scots Pine.

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Cahir appeared in flashes between the trees, nestled down below me at the base of the hill. As the forest track morphed into a farm track and then a road overlooking ,(and overhearing), the busy M8 i noticed the sky, clear and blue all day, turning a little dark. So i was grateful that after going over the motorway and under the N24 i had only a km of suburban street to go to reach my car and complete my Tour de Tipperary.

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