The Táin Trail Cycle
For a few years now I have been talking about cycling the Táin Trail. The idea first arose when I was crossing the country with a Sierra club outing. Ian Schill, the sierra leader, noticed a Táin Trail sign and asked me about it. I told him the story and about the possibility of cycling it, as the trail uses quiet country roads. He was excited by the idea and we agreed to look into the possibility.
I began to look at the various routes suggested by academics. Eventually I arrived at the most likely route. Unfortunately Ian became ill and tragically he died very soon after. The idea persisted with me now more than ever. Every chance I got I read more about the Táin and saw that a group of people were walking the route over a number of weekends during the summer.
I wanted a gpx track log of the route to make sure that I was always on the “correct” trail as defined by recent scholarship. However I could not find anyone who had created such a gpx track log of the trail. I decided to do that myself, before tackling the cycle itself. This year I got around to that and with the help of academic research by Paul Gosling of GMIT, who hails from Dundalk, his and other bits and pieces enabled me to choose the route [using current roads] most likely followed by Maeve and her cattle raiders.
So on Tuesday morning August 22nd, supported by my wife Pauline as back up driver kit carrier and recovery vehicle, I set off from the great mound at Rathcroghan near Tulsk. Three minutes and forty seconds later I got a puncture!!! [Measured by my bike computer]
After the fun of changing the tube, I was off and then the rain started. My later awareness of what happened in Donegal due to this deluge of rain pales my experience; nevertheless mine was quite an experience. The water pooled alongside the road, and in many places covering it. So I could not see any potholes and the potential for pinch punctures increased enormously. I had to steer a mid-road course as much as possible. There was little traffic on these L roads however, and it was flat or downhill to Tulsk. Passing Ogulla well now a Christian pilgrim place I arrived in Tulsk where the Rathcroghan centre is situated. I didn’t stop!
Down the N61 the road to Boyle for a kilometre and turn south west on a minor road. I had left the high ground of Maeve’s domain behind, though there were still many ring forts [Celtic farms steads] dotting the landscape. At Cartron where there is a number of standing stones I turned sharp left and crossed the N5 at Lissaphuca [the Fort of the Fairies] the country to the north of me was dotted with lakes, as was the road I was cycling on. I crossed a river twice as it meandered through low lands. It later joins the Scramoge River. The first and only climb of the day begins at Ashbrook and crosses Slieve Bawn. Steep enough 7 – 9% and in the rain. There was respite on the R371 a long slow four kilometres where trucks lashed you with water as you grimly held your course downhill, dragged back by the suction of the rain soaked road.
I was beginning to think of the Shannon, Maeve we were told crossed here at Termonbarry, I wondered what the river was like in those far off days, there was bog [peat] about undoubtedly, it was there before the Iron Age people. Anyhow the rain was now torrential so I didn’t spend too long thinking about Maeve’s woes with water, I had enough of my own. After Cloondara, the meadow of the two raths, I headed down the N5 the land rising a metre or so here and there. Maeve and her armies must have had fun crossing the Camlin River and its tributaries; she did that a few times. I was now making a big loop to the north before turning south and under the new Longford bypass and over the railway. Pauline suggested I stop at Longford but I was determined to press on I felt I had only done forty or so kilometres. On I went through Longford and down the N4 until the turn for Granard and Ballinalee, disaster – ROAD Closed. I got to check my gpx and found I had 55 kilometres of rain drenched biking completed; reluctantly I agreed to stop for the day.
We were staying east of Lough Sheelin and the next day I would have 35 Kilometres to make up to Finnea, where I had hoped to finish on Tuesday.
The hotel we stayed in was excellent. I had time to check out the bike as the rain eased and dry most of my gear. Wednesday dawned bright and clear and promised a slight tailwind. Back we went as far as we could to Longford, lost a few kilometres. I was told the road crews were from Irish water and were replacing Asbestos pipes. There was no access even for a cyclist. The asbestos pipes had to be replaced and so it goes. That Camlin River was never too far away as I whizzed along the R194. Fewer Ringforts to be see in the country around. Ballinalee has a statue to general Sean Mac Eoin, who with 300 IRA men drove 900 British army troops from the town in November 1920 during the war of independence. Maeve would have been impressed.
I kept cycling, next stop Granard, a slow drag into the town, time to observe that there was a deserted settlement and some Ringforts about as well as the Norman Motte that the town is famous for. One thing I noticed was a masonic meeting house on the way into town, the Square and Compass prominent on the wall above the door as well as on the gate. The Irish Masons date their founding to 1725 and the Earl of Rosse. Granard is a reasonable size town, I did not tarry there. On I went to Finnea, where I had hoped to stop on the previous day. I had crossed into Cavan in Ulster, nice touch that, I wonder if Maeve realised that. Cúchulann would not have been impressed. Anyway Finnea is a bit nondescript, perhaps that is a bit unfair it is ideally placed on the Westmeath side of the river Inny, which flows from lough Sheelin to Lough Kinale and on south forming the border with Longford and Westmeath in this northern corner of Leinster. There is only a kilometre between the lakes. I was a happy cyclist I had travelled 23 kilometres in 1hour and 10 minutes. If I could manage an average of 17Kms I could get to Ardee perhaps making up for my loss the previous day and I felt good. Remember I told myself, drink plenty of water as you go along.
Now I was in a territory that was new to me. This is because there are few enough byroads that Pauline and I have not travelled as we go on our inevitable tours in search of ancient monuments and local lore. For now the mystery of where I would be led next by my gpx log was exciting. And so I headed south east toward Mullaghmeen, the route took me below that summit in a valley with the Hill of Moat to the south west. There were lots of signs for crosses, churches and holy wells.
Maeve’s sentinels were probably on the hilltops alert to the possibility of her Ulster enemies. I passed through Ballymanus, not a lot to see, but very pleasant countryside hereabouts. The Hill of Mael was off to the south west. I turned sharp left up hill, well not a big hill but everything is big from a bicycle seat. Appropriately there was a place called Hilltown hereabouts, I was about to cross a county border again, this time into Meath. Royal Meath Maeve might have known it as though I doubt it, for where were the borders back in those days.
The road took me by some large quarry works where I met a mum and her daughter and son out for a gentle cycle, we had a chat and guess what, and she recognised my Islandeady Cycling top, “How’s Enda these days,” she wanted to know. Now that’s a clever woman, I thought, she could well be a Maeve. I left Springhall cross roads behind and passed an old ruined church as well as a ruined stone castle atop a motte. I wondered who might have lived there long after Maeve had passed this way. There was also a bleach lough back there as well, so linen must have been an industry here at one time. Another bleach lough to the south of Drumone convinced me. I was heading now towards Knocklough cross roads, by Creeve lough and into flat country before the next hills.
Clonabreany is a very interesting place. Just before you reach the Graveyard with its interesting collection of stones, as well as interred people, there is a motte to the south of the road, more evidence of the Norman presence here. The graveyard may have been placed on an earlier pre-Christian site as there are stones with cup and ring markings probably of the Bronze Age. There are also some nice early Christian cross slabs and a saint Kevin’s well across the road. There was a lot to look at if you are not rushing along as I was on this occasion. The Plunketts were the first occupiers, Norman no doubt; they probably erected the motte when they first arrived in 1190. Then the Cromwellian Drummer boy Henry Wade was given the land by Cromwell himself. Just after that you pass through Ardglassan village former estate workers houses erected in the 1830’s. They are neat and well positioned and present a world long gone.
Turn sharp north east at Ardglassan Crossroads and climb 40 metres in 500 metres, I found this tough. You are now in Crossakeel. This reminded me of the very first Mara Cycle in 1984; I cycled here to Crossakeel and back as a training run from Donabate where we lived in those days. Pauline did the Mara Cycle the next yea we couldn’t go together because of our young family.
Though you are further away from the Loughcrew here than earlier on the trip this is the best view, unless you go visit the site. It is well worth the visit some of the finest stone art you will see anywhere in Europe. This is a burial site dating to over 5000 years before the present. Long before Maeve and her armies passed this way, Loughcrew was an important place. There is also a prehistoric mound here in Crossakeel. Perhaps the most interesting piece of knowledge I gleaned here [after the Loughcrew megaliths] was the fact that a man called Jim Connell was born locally, he wrote the famous labour song The Red Flag, still sung at British labour conferences as well as at other labour meetings. Once asked about his education he said, “I was educated under a hedge for a few weeks.” He lived most of his life in London.
I was now headed for Kells county Meath, passing standing stones, a moated site and a holy well. My support, Pauline provided me with a coffee while we had the only shower of the day. Kells needs no introduction, a most important early Christian site; there is also a hillfort on the height known as the Commons of Lloyd, as you enter the town. There is much to see in Kells, a round tower, there are roughly 65 of them country wide and they are unique to Ireland. This round tower dates from the 10th century like many of the associated high crosses. The monastery had a rejuvenation from the Monks of Iona; many believe that they brought The Book of Kells with them to the monastery. It is now a national treasure in Trinity College Dublin. A little over a kilometre out the R163 is Headford Bridge across the Black Water River. We are now in the vicinity of Teltown [Tailtiu]. It is named for the Irish mythological goddess Tailtiu. In medieval times games were held here. John O’Donovan, a nineteenth century Gaelic scholar, refers to them as the Irish Olympics.
Further on at Wilkinstown, the trail crosses the disused railway. This was the Navan to Kingscourt line; it is proposed to make a greenway along this old freight track. There are few Ringforts on this section though we meet names like Ladyrath as we head toward Rathkenny, a rath being another name for a ringfort of early Iron Age farm dwelling or fortification. Perhaps Maeve had friends here she wished to call on. The Táin trail skirts some low hills keeping to the west of them and providing easy cycling. County Louth looms ahead and at Screedoge Bridge we cross into it. Drumlin country lies to the north west. As you cycle along you become more and more aware of these fords and river crossing places. They may not be exactly where Maeve and her cattle raiding army crossed but these rivers did have to be crossed and in those far of days who can say precisely how they flowed or where the easy fords were. Besides CúChulainn was sniping at Maeve’s forces harrying and killing great numbers and fading away before Maeve could pin him down.
Ardee was looming fast approaching and the great single combat battle of the Táin would be fought here between CúChulainn, the ulster champion and his friend Ferdia, Queen Maeve’s champion. Ardee is situated in the southern part of the ancient territory known as the Plain of Muirheimhne. It is a busy town the M1 motorway from Dublin to Belfast is just 8 kilometres to the east of the town. I stopped by the bridge and the magnificent bronze statue of CúChulainn and Ferdia. CúChulainn fought Ferdia here for four days before Ferdia was slain by his friend CúChulainn. This is at the heart of the Táin story, and gave me much to think about as I cycled on. There is much to be said for Ardee. It was a walled town, had two castles and a great raised bog to the west of the town, enough said.
I was now heading north towards Tallanstown, this time it would be the river Glyde I would cross. I had exceeded my hoped for distance and was approaching 100 kilometres for the day; the weather had been good, one shower only, and no wind to speak of. I decided to continue past the nights’ accommodation and finish at Louth village. This would mean I was back on track to finish by midday next day in Omeath.
Tallanstown is a gem of a place, tidy with much history concerning the local Louth Hall estate, associated with Oliver Plunkett a catholic martyr, he is alleged to have hidden in the nearby castle.
We stayed at Louth Hall B/B a lovely place to stay and were made most welcome.
The weather had been most kind on the Wednesday and was to continue so on the Thursday. This day was a little like to last day of the Tour de France, easy rolling along. I continued on the R171 to knockbridge where I turned left and crossed to the R178. A quiet little road led under the M1 motorway to the N53 and into Dundalk. This was to bring the trail to the castle that overlooks the Castletown River, after all Dundalk translates as the fort or castle of Dalgan. The area abounds with prehistoric remains notably The Proleek Dolmen and the Norman influences of de Verdun and de Courcy, as well as the Celtic tribes who called the area Muirheimhne. History determined it as the limit of the Pale, and in more recent times the border town with Northern Ireland.
I was now well on the way to Faughart, skirting the hill with its church and motte, leaving them for another day, though Pauline had the opportunity to visit. I was just over a kilometre from the border with Northern Ireland and would turn south into Ravensdale following the R174 at the foot of Black Mountain. I continued along this road, the Proleek Dolmen now below me some kilometre south. It is well worth a visit set on the edge of a modern golf club and hotel complex, it is a quiet place to contemplate our Neolithic ancestors. At Jenkinstown crossroads, I began the last climb of the trip and I might add the most difficult. This area is saturated with mythology, every stone tells a tale, please read the Táin to reveal the full extent. Of course places like Spellickanee and the Long Woman’s grave, just to mention two have wonderful folklore to tell.
It was downhill after that, hitting high speeds and almost a car door besides. The woman driver got quite a shock when I shouted “lookout” as I passed.
Then, there it was, Omeath, Carlingford Lough beyond and the end of the trip.
And did I learn anything of Queen Maeve and The Táin and her armies as I made the journey. Yes and no. I experienced The Táin, a mystical, private validation. With every mile her presence firmed itself in my consciousness; the winding roads, the river crossings, the distant hills, the brooding forests, all collaborated to make me believe that yes once upon a time great armies had passed this way. That CúChulainn had withstood Maeve’s hosts till such time as his fellow Ulster men revived from their sleeping sickness, ready to confront the invader but alas too late.
I learned too that this country is more than the promoted tourist sites; that around every corner there are wonders to behold, old ruins, ancient graveyards, pleasant villages, and a landscape that changes its purpose with every mile of road.
I look forward to accompanying Maeve on her return journey as soon as possible, to once again cross the Shannon and follow her journey through Rathcroghan and on to Knocknarea.