Christopher Moriarty leaves Dublin to follow flow of River Slaney into Wexford.
In prehistoric times Rivers Slaney and Liffey fought for supremacy – but they settled down some thousands of years ago and go their own sweet ways, although nearly meeting each other in wilder parts of West Wicklow. This trip down Slaney makes a delightful day’s excursion from Dublin, or perhaps a diversion from main road for visitors making their way to County Wexford ferryport of Rosslare.
It begins by following Liffey Valley from Dublin’s fair city, heading for Blessington along N81 but avoiding all temptations to stop at such wonderful places as stately home of Russborough or to plunge into mountains and valleys of infant Liffey. To find headwaters of Slaney we follow road south from Blessington for 11 miles (18 km) and, at Old Tollhouse pub, take left turn for Donard. In tiny village of that name, with its well-kept green and a stone with a few letters carved in ancient Irish ogham script, turn left and immediately right where signpost says Military Road. This road was built after great republican Rising of 1798 to facilitate hunt for defeated rebels. It makes its narrow way through hills and woodland south-eastwards for four miles (6.5 km) and a crossroads in woods. The left turn is little more than a car-park and site of a really good ogham stone. This is heart of Glen of Imaal, enclosed on three sides by some of Wicklow’s most lofty mountains. The right turn leads downhill to our first encounter with River Slaney, which we cross by an old stone bridge. The road goes back towards west along south side of Glen, passing through crossroads village of Knockanarrigan, centred on a stolid granite-built post office, and then, just a little way after a school safety sign, a small car park allows a visit to stone circle of Castleruddery.
A helpful notice on site tells that this is an extremely rare sort of monument and, with a date of about 3,500 years before our time, a millennium and a half older than ordinary stone circles. A pair of massive blocks of quartz mark entrance to what was once a great gathering ground for cattle barons of remote past. A mile farther on you meet road to Baltinglass and turn left to follow Slaney to where tower and ruined arches of an ancient Cistercian abbey overlook a calm stretch of river, created long ago by building of a milldam. In village, turn left at crossroads and immediately left again along narrow lane. Founded in 1148, long-abandoned abbey was so successful in its early years that it sent out groups of its monks to establish ‘daughter-houses’ in many parts of Ireland. What remains of its original stonework is of particular architectural interest because it has features both of old Irish Romanesque and innovative continental Gothic styles.
Back in village, turn left and follow main road for a mile, then take rather unobtrusive road to right to continue down riverside to Rathvilly, a pleasant village with a particularly pleasing development of stone-built laborer’s cottages on right. Turn left to follow main road through hilly town of Tullow, where you begin to look out for signposts for Altamont. Centuries of love and hard work have gone into fabulous gardens there. You enter by way of beautiful parkland with shady trees. An old house, covered in creeper, stands on brow of a steep hill and garden entrance is beside it. At bottom of hill, Slaney flows slowly by, hidden from outside world by woodland. About half way down slope is a lake created in 19th century to provide work, pay and food for survivors of Great Famine. Between house and lake is a beautifully-tended formal garden. Beyond lake a stream flows amongst great rocks in a woodland setting, wild in parts, but planted with many exotic shrubs and full of hidden paths and mystery.