Mountrath (Co. Laois / West)
Mountrath, also called Moynrath (Maighean Ratha – “the fort in the bog”) (pop. 2000) is a small agricultural market town exactly midway between Dublin and Limerick.
Mountrath in 2006 (Photo by Sarah777)
It was founded in 1628 by Sir Charles Coote, Baronet of Castle Coote, whose son, an extremist anti-Catholic Parliamentarian who switched his allegiance and participated in a 1659 assault on Dublin Castle, was ennobled by King Charles II as Earl of Mountrath. The family lived in the adjacent estate of Newpark. Their earldom became extinct in 1802, but the Baronetcy has survived to this day.
Mountrath’s prosperity centred on its iron industry, which flourished for a century and a half, but resulted in the destruction of the surrounding forests for timber. While it lasted it supported a thriving cotton mill and a tannery. The River Mountrath that flows through the town is still also called the Whitehorse due to the white colouring present in its water from the whiskey distillery that used to be in the centre of the town.
In addition to the legal discrimination against Roman Catholics in the C18th, those who lived in Mountrath were frequently subjected to sectarian insults and violence by Orange Order members. Despite strong opposition from landlord and neighbours, they succeeded in building a church in 1795, replaced in 1867 by Saint Fintan’s church, an elaborate Gothic Revival edifice. The house formerly used as an Orange Lodge was later incorporated into the Convent of Saint Brigid.
Roundstone House is a wonderful early Georgian Villa set amongst rambling wooded gardens at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
The estate was once a Quaker-tenanted property called Friendstown, established c.1680 by Anthony Sharp, whose house remains intact at the rear of the main building; the latter was erected by his grandson, another Anthony, who was born and brought up in America and lived here until his death in 1781. His great grandson William Edward Flood Sharp inherited the estate at the age of one, and lost it to mortgage holders in 1835; it was soon taken over by a cousin, William Hamilton, whose descendant Chetwode Hamilton sold the house and remaining grounds to the Land Commission in 1968. The Irish Georgian Society purchased it in 1970 to save it from ruin.
In 1983 the property was bought by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan, who now run it as a very attractive country house hotel, with B&B and dinner for guests in the main buildings and self-catering accommodation in various cottages etc. on the grounds.
Saint Fintan’s Tree is an ancient sycamore; when a local farmer blocked up a Holy Well, the water miraculously re-appeared in the centre of the tree, which came to be known as “The Money Tree” as people hammered coins into its bark to invoke the Saints’ help for some intention. It was blown down in a storm in 1994, leaving only a rotting stump. There is another spring called St. Fintan’s Well in Cromogue.
Clonenagh, originally called Cluainadnach, is the site of a monastery founded by Saint Fintan (d.603 AD), who was succeeded as Abbot by Saint Columba. Today there are two graveyards and the ruins of an early church. (Photo by Paddy Brennan)
Clonenagh’s location on the Sli Dhala road between Leinster and Munster ensured its importance in early medieval Ireland, and it enjoyed the patronage of the O’Mores for several centuries. It was a major seat of learning, and it is said that students came to study from all over Europe and, indeed, perhaps further afield. The Book of Leinster / Lebar na Nuachongbala was started here before being moved to Oughaval near Stradbally.
After being frequently plundered and destroyed by the Danes, it continued to flourish until the mid-C17th Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland. A famous Book of Clonenagh disappeared at that time and has never been found.
A number of saints are reputedly buried in Clonenagh, including Saint Fintan and Saint Aengus the Culdee.
Mountrath is northeast of Abbeyleix on ByRoute 9.
Castletown (Co. Laois / West)
Castletown is a handsome collection of mainly Georgian houses set around a pretty triangular fair green. It is situated on the banks of the River Nore, surrounded by peaceful green countryside. This friendly community has won several awards, including a prize for the Tidiest Village in Ireland.
The claim that the castle from which the town takes its name was built by Hugh de Lacy for Robert de Bigarz is disputed. It changed hands on several occasions. According to Lewis (1837) it was garrisoned in the early part of the C16th by Sir Oliver Norris, son-in-law of the Earl of Ormonde, “with a view to curbing the power of the Fitzpatricks, to whom it was afterwards relinquished.” The Fitzpatricks burned the castle to the ground in 1600 to prevent the English seizing control of it. The foundations and part of the walls, clearly of C13th origin, are all that remain.
Churchtown, south of the village, is the site of a ruined medieval ecclesiastical edifice.
Gash Gardens, founded in 1984 in a former paddock by Noel Keenan and maintained by his daughter Mary, are famous for a small rocky cavern known as the Moon House, and in addition to a wide range of interesting plants, also feature cascades, ponds, meandering streams, a laburnum tunnel and a hidden walkway through a fernery to a looped walk along the banks of the River Nore, where wildlife abounds. These gardens even appear on a Russian gardening website (Photo – www.gardener.ru).
Castletown is within reach of Ballycolla on ByRoute 9.
Coolrain & Camross (Co. Laois / West)
Coolrain is a pleasant little village in the southern foothills of the Sliabh Bloom Mountains, with a good pub (Sheeran’s) on the location of a formerly famous shebeen.
Anatrim (Eanach Truim – “marsh of the elder tree”), on the north bank of the River Nore (the ancient border between Leix and Ossory) was where Saint Mochaemhog founded a monastery during the second half of the C6th. The site is occupied by a Protestant church erected c. 1700, derelict since 1832, containing a memorial to of the Delaney family of Ballyfin. Adjacent to the ruin is an ancient stone-roofed chamber, strikingly similar to the former sacristy of the medieval church of Monahincha. It probably used to have a second storey until converted into a mortuary chapel in the C18th by the Sharpes of Roundwood and the Floods of Middlemount. A Holy Well partially covered by a Bullaun Stone, both dedicated to “Saint Kavan” (sic), can be found in a hollow “about 20 perches north of the churchyard”.
Coolrain Bog is a small but good example of the increasingly rare Midland-type raised bog, with an intact dome. As well as being a good hunting ground for cranberries, crowberries, and various species of sphagnum moss, it is a breeding site for Merlin.
Tullibards Stud is the home of Hans & Julia, who run Kilvahan Horse-Drawn Caravans, and also have a small pet zoo.
Coolrain is within eay reach of Borris in Ossory on ByRoute 9.
Camross (“crooked wood”) a tiny community with a single pub, a shop, a school and parochial hall, and a church (1811) with a Millennium Garden, takes in the sunny south facing hillsides and glens at the heart of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, and is an ideal starting / finishing point for scenic walks.
Camross has access to scenic routes (via The Cut and the Glendine Gap respectively) to Clonaslee and Kinnitty on ByRoute 11.
Arderin (Ard Eireann – “the heights of Ireland / Eriu”) (517m), the highest summit in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, commands wonderful views southwards across the flat midlands. The ancient festival of Lughnasa is celebrated every year here on “Height Sunday” at the beginning of August.
Glasshouse is the location of an early C17th sandstone barrel-vaulted forest glass furnace, believed to have been built by the French craftsman Abraham Bigo. The only other similar structure is in Jamestown, Virginia.
Glasshouse, was also the name of a magnificent early C18th mansion owned by the aristocratic Rolleston family, and the childhood home of the poet Thomas William Rolleston (1857 – 1920), widely considered one of the greatest authors on Celtic legends. It was demolished in 1930 by the monks of Mount St Joseph’s Abbey in Roscrea, who used the stones to built extensions to their complex.
The Glendine Gap overlooked by Arderin. (Photo by Hugh Chevallier)