The Three Athenry Castles' Heritage Cycle Trail: Part 2

Hitching a Ride in Monivea
The Generous Heart of Rural Ireland Still Beats On
In spite of ongoing high emigration, the closure of village post offices, Garda Stations, court-houses, livestock marts and parish schools as well as the almost virtual disappearance of mixed farming and the once omnipotent family farm brought about by decades of disastrous government economic policies which have been totally bias in favour of supermarket chains and the big rancher, the recent experiences of those who participated in our Three Athenry Castles Looped Heritage Cycle Trail Tour (organised by Cumann na bhFear) showed that the generous Meitheal (Irish term for working together) spirit of rural Ireland still lives on though somewhat weaker than what it once was. Local communities and visionary individuals across Ireland still battle against the odds to  keep alive a flickering of the traditions, skills, stories, beliefs, biodiversity and neighbourliness generosity that have defined our island peoples for millennia.
Athenry Railway Station: Bikes & Riders
For the first stage of our journey we travelled by early morning train from Galway city (Ceannt) Station to Athenry. The special discount return rate of €15 for passenger and bike was very reasonable. Iarnroid Éireann staff were courteous and could not have done more in accommodating bikes and riders into the railway carriages.
Athenry Castle
Once in Athenry, we visited a number of the 13th century Norman sites such as the Dominican Abbey that makes this town one of the most important medieval locations in Ireland. We were then taken on a guided tour by Fiona Cannon of the impressive castle that has very well preserved and is an excellent example of medieval architecture and fortifications.

Then it was up on our bikes to travel at a leisurely pace through the fields and bogs of Bingarra and Newcastle.  We stopped off at Monivea Bog to look at the myriad of mosses, trees, shrubs and flowers that thrive in this unique raised bog that is defined as a Special Area of Conservation(SAC) under European Union habitat directives. Bogs consist of partially decayed vegetation known as Peat. When dried it is referred to as Turf, which has served as the fuel for Irish homes since time immemorial. The smell of burning turf reignites happy memories of childhood to many visiting Irish emigrants. 
Monivea Bog
But bogs such as that of Monivea act as carbon sinks storing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and as important flood plains soaking up huge amounts of water. Their wetland sponginess is what gives them their name as the word Bog comes from the Irish word for soft. 
Hence the confrontation that has developed between the government and some local bog owners who continue to cut turf in contravention of the ban. It must be pointed out though that the state has offered in return financial compenstation and alternative bog sites deemed less important for wildlife. We are one family that own land in the Monivea Bog that want to have it preservd for posterity, to do our bit to combat climate change and to provide a sanctuary for threatened wildlife.
Ffrench's Mausoleum
We continued our journey to the ancestral demesne of the Anglo-Irish Ffrench family now owned by Coillte where we cycled through the enchanted woodlands to reach a strange looking building that has the appearance of a miniature fairytale medieval castle. But it is in fact a mausoleum completed in 1900 to receive the body of Robert Ffrench, the last male landlord of Monivea and a member of the British diplomatic service. Robert had married Sophia de Kindiakoff whose aristocractic family owned large estates along the Volga river. Their only child Kathleen spent considerable sums of her Russian wealth to hire a renowned designer and international experts to built a structure made from Wicklow granite, Italian marble and German stained glass windows. Its architectural grandeur in many ways symbolized the imperial power of both Britain and Tsarist Russia. Yet within a few years of its completion, Ireland had fought for and won its independence from an empire that would soon be in terminal decline whilst Kathleen, as with many of the Russian nobility, was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks with all her estates confiscated by the new communist regime.

Next stop was the picturesque colonial village of Monivea (Irish = Muine Mheá, meaning Meadow of the mead). Its geometric design was typical of the plantation towns of the 18th century; the large green areas were formerly used for the drying of flax by the local weavers who were brought from east Ulster by the Ffrenchs to establish a local linen industry. The church that dominates one side of the street was built to serve the religious needs of the newly arrived settlers. Sadly it now lies in ruins and even sadder its former Protestant congregation are now almost totally extant from the locality.
Vintage Tractor
We arrived in the village on its busiest day of the year. Monivea Fair takes place on the last Sunday of August. 
Steam Power
Its origins go back to the great end-of-harvest fairs of times past when rural communities enjoy some fun and frolics after a busy year of ploughing, lambing, digging, sowing, cutting, collecting and threshing.  Once the hard work was done and the crops were in, the farmers and their families could sing, dance, play games, eat, drink and be merry on the village green. 
Food & Toy Stalls, Monivea Fair Day
On our visit, we found the fair full of cake and toy stalls, food vendors, a myriad of prize-winning geese, hens and sheep and exotic pigs on show: fairground attractions; vintage tractors and classic cars; potato picking races; martial arts displays and bouncing castles. 
Some of the cyclists took part in a competition to guess the weight of the sheep that they lifted! 
After all the fun of the fair, re-invigorated with food and drink, we remounted our bikes to continue our journey onto our next destination. 
Castle Ellen
By the time we reached Castle Ellen, the rain was coming down fast and furious. But for most of us this was part of the rural cycling experience. 

Still it was nice to arrive at the Georgian mansion to be greeted at the entrance and to be ushered inside by the owner Michael Keaney (Micheál Ó Cionnaith), his son Diarmuid, manager Annette Flanagan, a walking talking human tree flanked by two knights in shining armour, before being serenaded by a trio of musical troubadours, followed soon after by hot beverages, cakes and sandwiches.
Michael McDonnell working at the Blacksmith forge
We then took a stroll through the old Victorian farmyard and its outbuildings many of which are in different stages of renovation. 
Woodturning, Castle Ellen
As the grounds of Castle Ellen were open to the public as part of National Heritage Week we were joined by hundreds of other visitors who were treated to demonstrations of wood turning and blacksmithing (the latter by my fellow Cumann na bhFear members), an art exhibition, multiple collections of historical artifacts. The evening ended for us with a wonderful musical session by Jerome and friends in the main dining room.  
Art Expo, Castle Ellen
Michael Keaney is a man of vision who hopes that his country estate becomes a hostel for walkers, cyclists and those that want to experience an alternative but authentic countryside. I sincerely hope that this comes to pass and I will do my bit to make it so by organizing regular cycle tours to this beautiful but almost unknown jewel in the Irish landscape.   
None of our group wanted to leave this magical place which was the highlight of an excursion that had so much to offer. But time was moving on. So we once again mounted our bikes to take the road to Athenry.
The weather at this stage had turned nasty. After repairing a flat tyre, we made it back to the quaint little 19th century railway station to catch a night train back to Galway City.
Guard Dog, Athenry Railway Station
See my previous article on the inaugural Three Athenry Castles tour

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great to bump into you in monivea and congratulations on your great cycing initiative. I must pass it on to some pals working on cycle way development