A Cycle round the Celtic Fringe … Part 63
Mountrath is an attractive little town. It has been a centre for textiles, mining, smelting and flax growing. It played its role in the War of the Three Kingdoms (Note all ye English history students that this is the wider title of what we only refer to as The English Civil War. The teaching of history in English schools has long failed to look beyond the national borders until 1914. There are often very good reasons why the English don’t rush to discover too much about their activities on the soil of other lands. English history in Ireland is not something to swell the patriotic Brit with too much pride. Our record in Scotland isn’t a deal better. My point here is that the bit we study was only a part of the whole history. I’ll be coming back to it.) The town has a history of different religions being practiced. Protestants were once the wealthier, landowning section of the population. The poorer protestants were attracted to Methodism as they were in the north of England, and the town was also a centre for the Quaker movement. Strangely, the Catholic majority didn’t get a proper church in the town until the early years of the nineteenth century.
Raising the money for the Catholic Church was not an easy task but the world travelling Brother John managed to return from journeying to the United States, Australia and New Zealand with over £4000. It was enough to erect a very fine church. Irish families in the new world have always sent money back home.
Some few miles from the church is St Fintan’s Well. You won’t miss the well. It was filled in over a century ago by a protestant land owner who was tired of people coming to the water for devotional reasons. From the centre of the well grew a tree and the magical waters appeared in the centre of the tree. The water of the well rose straight up the trunk and people would climb up the ten feet to make a wish and leave an offering. Naturally stories of good luck grew up around the tree and a tradition began of hammering pennies into the trunk. That is where the good luck ran out. So many pennies were hammered in hat the tree died. It is still there though. Still full of water and holding more pennies than the Irish mint.
Nearby the well was a monastery. It is believed that St Fintan himself returns to the ruins on Christmas Eve to celebrate mass. No one has ever seen this but many have claimed to hear it.
The well has another story of a woman drawing water with a kettle. Without realising it she had caught a trout in the container. When she put the kettle on the fire, the water and the kettle remained stone cold. Pushing in a fork to see what was wrong she blinded the trout in one eye. On seeing what she had done she returned to the well and freed the fish. To this day, the trout in the spring all have one eye. No, I don’t believe it either.
I leave this part of County Laoise. I soon realise just how fast I had been travelling with my companions of earlier. I’m pretty tired, my legs are hurting and I’m ready to grab some late lunch.
The fields have changed. All of a sudden they appear even greener. More crops are grown around here than further north on my route. Farming wise it reminds me of Worcestershire without the hills. The white buildings of the area together with the brightness of the day make me think of France. It is very beautiful and I’m very happily pedalling along these central flatlands.
Abbeyleix (pronounced Abbey Leeks) is pretty. It seems to me to have a single hand on the drawing board and it seems a strange mixture of English, Irish, French and German in architecture. A wide main street gives it a wonderful sense of space. The occasional car this early afternoon gives it a sense of being some time in the 1950s. The bunch of local girls with headphones, mobiles and bright colours are very twenty first century.
In the library a kind young man was very happy for me to sit and write for a while. It was one of the best places for writing I had found on the tour. The building was as quiet as it could be. Beautiful wooden desks were polished with beeswax and shone and gave off a smell of age and care and extreme cleanliness. After filling a handful of pages with my thoughts of the morning I am directed to the tourist office where I meet someone who could easily be the cousin of my friend John from the tourist office at Shannonbridge.
I ask how far it is to Kilkenny and Rosslare. I get answers that seem to be dealing with my questions without actually resolving any of the puzzles in my head. I’m engaged though. This fellow may not have seen another traveller all day and is not in the mood to give up the opportunity of a good chin wag. he wants to know all about me. It seems to be in the nature of Laoise people to take an interest in strangers. “So you are on a bicycle. That would explain why you are somewhat, if I may say so, without wishing to cause any offence, decidedly out of breath.”
We talk about the weather and the area and I find I know no more than I did when I came in but I had thoroughly enjoyed the not finding out. He sends me on my way with that most Irish of partings. “Well, good luck to you.” It’s generous and friendly.
Sitting in the middle of Abbeylaix with an apple a Mars bar and a can of cola I think I could be in an awful lot of worse places. A vintage car trundles by adding to the effect of being in an earlier time. My odometer says I’ve covered thirty miles and my map says I’ve another thirty to pedal if I am to make Kilkenny by the end of the day. I’m very tempted to stay where I am but the very word Kilkenny has an appeal that draws me on.