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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 69

You are always in the countryside on the R700 but never far from houses; many of them new. Bungalows with enough lawn to imitate a demesne, and a small wall, turreted to play at lords of the manor. Flying the flag is as popular here as in other counties. I pass several red and green stripes of County Mayo and wonder why the owners have chosen to live in Kilkenny. It is a handsome flag. Though the little lordling who had also painted his defensive wall red and green may have crossed the line between pride and bad taste.

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Bennettsbridge is still sleeping as I trundle through. It has a fine and lovely crossing which, like many on the Nore dates from the 1760s; its predecessor having been swept away by the great flood of 1763. It must have been quite a torrent. The town is quietly clustered about the river. It has become something of a craft centre in recent years and boasts several potteries including one imaginatively called Stoneware Jackson; presumably a deliberate pun on the Confederate General. Not necessarily a name I would choose. Apart from being on the side of slavery and being victorious in many battles, he is largely remembered as having success in a lost cause.

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As you leave the town you pass a curiously military police station. Curious in that it obviously dates to the early twentieth century yet its defences are of a medieval flavour. Were battlements necessary in the fight against Republicanism? It adds character to the little town.

Thomastown is the next place the road crosses the Nore. I’ve now covered enough ground to treat myself to a little walk round. It still feels very peaceful even though Sunday morning is approaching eleven. There is no rush at all. The town is the final resting place of two people I have an enormous amount of time for. One symbolises the genius of being a giving and caring soul and the other the wilful pig-headed genius of going your own way. Jerpoint Abbey is reputed to hold the remains of St Nicholas. Yes, that St Nicholas, the one who, to the accompanying tunes of Bruce Springsteen, Maria Carey and the Beach Boys comes down your chimney every twenty fifth of December and leaves stockings filled with giving. He wasn’t Irish, never came to Ireland, but when Irish Norman Crusaders returned to the Abbey in the twelfth century, they brought the saint’s remains back with them.

Iain David McGeachy spent his last years living on the banks of the Nore, composing songs of an exquisite beauty that seemed at odds with the rather wilful, selfish persona he put across over forty years of being the guitarist’s favourite guitarist and the songwriter’s favourite songwriter under the name of John Martyn. His single minded approach to how he wanted to live his life can be shown in his declining years when he was told that if he didn’t give up drinking he would lose his leg. He chose the drink that had brought him enormous pleasure over the years. My memories are of wondering how anyone can smoke quite that much marijuana on stage and still produce such wonderful music. His song “May You Never” is a work of consummate beauty, his album Grace and Danger changed my whole thoughts on singer songwriters. It no longer seemed enough to have a nice voice and a caring attitude to the world. Jackson Browne was out and I spent a year or two singing Sweet Little Mystery. He replaced the hippy dippy approach with some hurt, some pain and some earthy life experience that had, until then, been the preserve of the best country music and the blues. Like Hank Williams and Tim Hardin, he wasn’t always the easiest to get on with, but my, did he leave behind a set of records worth listening to.

I’ve known lots of people who were affable and amiable, and lots of people who have lived a safe and sober life. I have known a good number of drunken bores and followers of fashion. I haven’t come across many who did it their way as clearly, as successfully and as painfully as John Martyn. His spirit is resting somewhere in this valley and I hope it has found a hand to hold. Maybe St Nick’s. They were both ultimately people who gave.

Thomastown is also the first place that morning that I witness what seems to be a very Irish tradition. Fly fishing from a public road.

This section of the River Nore is famous for its salmon and trout. I don’t know the laws and rules of this activity. What I do know is that rights are either jealously guarded or sold at a very high price in Great Britain. It is the sport of the toff and the laird. Gamekeepers and ghillies are employed to take strong armed action against anyone found taking a salmon from the rivers of great estates. Poaching is very much looked down upon.

I’m not sure how it works. I don’t think anyone can own a river but you can own the river banks. All fishing must ultimately rely on using the riverbanks and therefore the riparian owners are able effectively to own the river and the rights to fish it. I presume the same is the case in Ireland, and yet here, I have regularly found anglers openly casting their flies from bridges. Are bridges not the public highway? Are anglers not therefore within their rights to anything they may catch from there? Certainly I had seen happy fisherfolk making their casts in Sligo, in Roscommon, in Leitrim and I saw them all the way down the River Nore. As they might say around here, “Fair play to you”. I once ate sea trout almost straight from the river and into a skillet. I don’t think I have ever eaten anything finer.

I wonder if I could begin a trend to fish England’s trout steams from its bridges. I’d have to learn how to fish before I could even think about beginning.

The road leaves the banks and heads up onto higher ground between Thomastown and New Ross. By now my legs are fully warmed and though I can hear my own stertorous breathing, my rattling chest and my gasping and wheezing, I still make good progress and rejoin the stream, now called the River Barrow, as I glide down into the port of New Ross. Here I find a fine bridge, a statue of an American president and a nineteenth century famine ship. I arrive in hope of getting some respite from the road, a glimpse into Irish history and some help in finding the best way to Wexford and Rosslare. One out of three will have to do.

Photo of Jerpoint Abbey Paddy’s Wagonhttp://paddys-wagon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/kilkenny-inistioge.html

photos of John Martyn Mojo4music.com and bbc.co.uk

Photo of Thomastown trip advisor.co.uk