This tour takes you off the motorway at Carlow, about half way between Dublin and Waterford. While about the same length in kilometres as the motorway route, narrower roads and stops along the way will add at least 2-3 hours to your journey, though you could very easily and happily spend an entire day on this drive.
The route takes in a wealth of historic locations in a series of picturesque towns, almost all of them along the banks of the River Barrow and other waterways. The countryside may not have the drama of other locations in Ireland, but it is quietly lovely and you won’t find tour buses, lines for admission or crowds at many, if any, of the stops on the way. It is a detour well worth taking to explore a beautiful part of Ireland that relatively few tourists discover.
For directions see the map at the bottom of the page.
1. The Old Mill at Milford Park
Set at a particularly beautiful stretch of the River Barrow, with the Grand Canal flowing alongside, only one building remains now of what was once a huge milling center with several large building on either side of the river. The Griffiths Valuation of 1845 estimated the mill complex that once stood here as one of the most valuable properties, if not the most valuable in Ireland.
Founded by the Alexander family in 1790 it eventually produced 50,000 sacks of flour annually and the two mill wheels, measuring 18 and 22 feet wide, were the largest and most powerful in the British Isles.
In 1862 disaster struck when friction between grinding stones produced a spark which ignited nearby corn and started a fire which burned for several days and completely destroyed the main mill building.
In the 1891 the mill was successfully re-purposed to generate electricity, eventually making Carlow one of the first towns in Ireland to be completely lit by hydroelectric power. Since 1991 the mill has fed power into the National Grid.
In 1965 another fire completely destroyed a tannery which was the only remaining industrial building at the site, spelling the end of its life as a centre of industry.
Today Milford Mill is a lovely place to stop, take a gentle stroll and perhaps enjoy a picnic and is home to a wide variety of water birds, including heron, kingfisher, swans and several breeds of duck. The Alexander family still live at nearby Milford House, as they have for more than 200 years.
This pretty village with narrow winding streets is set on the River Barrow, which you’ll be seeing a lot of today. The castle overlooking the bridge, known locally as the Black Castle, is one of the earliest Norman castles in Ireland, built in the early 14th century on the site of an even earlier castle from the 1180s.
On the other side of the bridge is a small but lovely and very well kept Memorial Park, which celebrates some of the towns famous residents, most notably John Tyndall, a 19th century physicist who made many groundbreaking discoveries and was also responsible for the development of practical inventions such as a safe miners’ lamp, a powerful lighthouse beacon and the first effective gas mask.
There is also a very moving and dignified memorial here to local men killed in the first world war, with long lists of the names of shockingly young men inscribed in two granite arches. Walter Alexander of the Millford Mill family appears here.
Although officially called Muine Beag nobody (except, confusingly, the announcer on the train) ever calls Bagenalstown that. It was renamed following the establishment of the Irish Free State in the 1920s, when there was a move to reinstate the older Irish names of places that had been named by or for English landlords.
The landlord in this case was Walter Bagenal, who was responsible for the town’s creation in the early 1700s. He originally planned a larger and more grand town but is said to have scaled back when the coach to Dublin was rerouted through Leighlinbridge. Still, it is clear to see the signs of a planned town, with a wide main street that seems out of scale in a town this size and a grid street layout unusual in Ireland.
A later Bagenal built the courthouse with its imposing Doric columns, which is best seen from the River side. There is a particularly nice Victorian train station too but really there is not much to delay you here.
The Bagenal family lived for centuries at Dunleckney Manor, a fine Tudor Gothic mansion originally built in the early 17th century a few miles from Bagenalstown. The house is no longer in the family but has been beautifully restored as a family home and is only occasionally open to the public for charity. You can however stay there – but you have to rent the entire house.
4. Borris & Borris House
Borris was at the heart of the kingdom of the McMorrough Kavanaghs, High Kings of Leinster and one of the great ruling dynasties of pre-Norman Ireland. The family had almost certainly lived here for centuries prior to that and, remarkably, have remained ever since. Borris House, set in an estate of some 650 acres and built in 1731 is today still home to the Kavanagh family, direct descendants of the Leinster kings.
The house is open to the public and well worth visiting, though check in advance whether it will be open when you visit as it is also a popular wedding venue and tours are not always available. As you’d expect there are some remarkable stories to tell about a family who have lived here for well over 1000 years. You can also stay on the estate in one of a number of rental cottages.
The town is grew up around Borris House and reached a peak of prosperity in the mid 1800s which is when most of the fine Georgian buildings which characterise the town were built. It was a centre of lace making and had one of the largest sawmills in the country, both industries established by Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, the landlord of the time.
The mile long main street is notable for shops that have retained their painted signs and original facades. Don’t leave Borris without calling into one of the finest of these. O’Sheas, pictured above, is easily one of the best traditional pubs in the country and has hardly changed in more than a century. Along with your pint you can buy a hammer and nails or some sturdy boots – it’s also a hardware store.
Borris Fair is held annually in mid August has been an important event for more than 400 years – it was apparently granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth 1 – and was traditionally where farmers gathered at the end of summer to sell cattle and livestock. Horses are still traded there on the streets, but nowadays it’s more notable for stalls selling tat than for anything else. I’d actually recommend avoiding it rather than seeking it out.
Look to your left as you leave the town and you’ll see the 16 arch Victorian viaduct, which once carried a railway line, long closed now. It used to be possible to climb up a bank and walk along the line, but I believe the entrance was recently blocked off. It’s a pity as there were wonderful views from the top, although it was a little scary as the boundary wall is less than a foot high.
Nestled in a wooded valley Griaguenamanagh is built around a river and is a centre for boats, barges and water based activities. The long name is pronounced Graig-na-man-aah and means ‘village of the monks’, so it’s no surprise to find a fine abbey in the town.
Duike Abbey is one of the finest Cistertian monasteries in the country, founded in 1204 and as the parish church it remains an important part of local life. Much of the original monastery still stands, incorporated into several rebuilds over the centuries. Look out for the beautiful medieval floor tiles and an imposing effigy of a 13th-century Norman knight near the entrance. The nearby Abbey Centre is a small museum with a fascinating collection of Christian art and artifacts.
Cushendale Woolen Mills is a long established family owned business using traditional methods to weave mohair, Irish wool and merino lambswool into luxurious scarves, throws, rugs and knitting wool. The Cushen family are descended from Flemish weavers who arrived in the area in the 1600s, to work in a woolen industry established much earlier by the monks of Duiske Abbey. The mill and its shop are located in one of the old Abbey mills.
This sort of old style craftsmanship with deep and historic roots in a small community is increasingly rare and its very well worth visiting the shop to pick up some unique gifts.
While in Graignemanagh take a little time to cross the beautiful old seven arch bridge for a stroll along the riverbank. The river here is unusual in being part of a navigable waterway and canal system which runs for 82 miles (132 km) from Dublin to the River Shannon with 44 locks along the way. While it once teamed with barges loaded with cargo – most notably barrels of Guinness from the brewery in Dublin – it’s now a pleasure boat cruising route and, with an almost unbroken towpath running alongside, is also very popular with walkers.
6. St Mullins
If you have time it’s worth taking a short detour before you move on to visit the tiny peaceful village of St Mullins. The ruined monastery here is the remains of what was once a great monastic settlement, and from a historic viewpoint is as important as Glendalough or Clonmacnoise, though it sees nothing like the tourist numbers who visit those better known sites. It was founded by Saint Moling in the early 7th century – the detailed plans for construction still exist in The Book of Moling which is held in the library at Trinity College in Dublin, the earliest known such plans.
There is a 9th-century high cross close by which depicts the Crucifixion and has a wonderful Celtic spiral pattern, as well as some domestic medieval buildings, including one with an unusual diamond-shaped window. References to the holy well of St Mollig go back as far as 1348, and while not the important place of pilgrimage it was for many centuries it is still somewhere that people regularly come to pray and seek solace.
By the river bank the excellent Mullicháin Café is a great pace to stop for something to eat, especially if the weather is good and you can sit outside watching the boats sail gently by. It is open from April to October only.
There is something very, very special about St Mullins, the beauty and peace of the surrounding and the sense of long history combine to make it a place apart. You won’t want to leave and a visit there will, I promise, be a memory you treasure.
It is back to better known tourist spots with Inistioge, a popular destination having been made famous by its starring role in a number of movies, including Circle of Friends and Widows’ Peak.
I’m not writing much about it here not because there is nothing to detain you, but because there is a full article on Inistioge here. Places you’ll want to visit include St Mary’s Church and the Woodstock estate, but like many of the stops on this route just wandering around the village is a pleasure in itself.
8. New Ross
New Ross was part of the Kingdom of the MacMurragh Kavanaghs, and while it was well settled by the 6th century the town rose to prominence when the Normans came into control of the area bringing settlers from England and Wales both to defend their new territory and to build ‘a lovely city on the banks of the Barrow’. It was Ireland’s busiest port in the 12th and 13th centuries, with boats coming up river from the Irish sea.
The history of the town and its surroundings is vividly told in the Ros Tapestry, a remarkable project undertaken by hundreds of local volunteers. Since 1998 they have been embroidering their story into 15 large detailed panels – 14 are now complete – which start deep in the Celtic past and depict important events and locations in the centuries since.
The tapestry now has a permanent home in the Ros Tapestry Exhibition Centre on the Quay in the centre of New Ross and is well worth seeing.
The Dunbrody is a detailed replica an 1840’s emigrant ship, one of those often known as ‘coffin ships’, which carried people from New Ross to America during the Great Famine. The visitor centre alongside tells the story of Irish emigration to America, during good times and bad, over the centuries. It’s an interesting visit but I have to say that I think naming the place ‘The Dunbrody Famine Ship Experience & Restaurant‘ is less than sensitive and sort of turns me off.
Dunganstown, a short drive south of New Ross is the ancestral home of the Kennedy Family and there are many members of the extended Kennedy clan still living locally.. President Kennedy visited the modest family homestead in this quiet and remote rural location in 1963, as have many of the family since. The visitor centre there, and especially the guided tour, make a fascinating visit for anyone interested in the history of the family and touches on many other aspects of the Irish emigrant experience also.
You’ve arrived – those who took the motorway will be there hours before you, but you can be smug in the certainty that they won’t have had the leisurely and interesting day that you did!
Map and Directions
The map below shows the motorway route in blue and the alternative in orange. Coming from Dublin you leave the M9 at Junction 6, which is signposted Carlow, Leighlinbridge and will be off the motorway all the way to Waterford.