I happened upon St. Mullins while on a day trip from Dublin. I had a vague idea of where I was going but nothing really definite other than finding Borris House, ancestral home to the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, descendants of the kings of Leinster (including infamously Dermot MacMurrough, he who invited in the Normans).
We found the narrow arched gateway to the demesne after a quick spin down motorway and along the kind of untroubled winding undulating country road you find in the Irish countryside. It was a glorious sunny fresh day. Borris House was stunning, set airily on a low bluff overlooking pastoral fields and distant mountains, mature trees standing at a respectful distance so as not to block the fine proportions of the house. It was reminiscent of Downton Abbey, without the TV kitsch. We’ll have to come back for the tour as the house itself was closed for a private wedding.
One of the more notable occupants of the seat at Borris was Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, born with severely shorted or deformed arms and legs in 1831. His mother, Lady Kavanagh, treated him as a normal child, teaching him to write and draw with his mouth and engaging local doctors to fit him out with a wheelchair and saddle. She did a good job as evidenced by his adventurous travels as a young man. More than a good job in fact for she eventually cut off his income when she learned that he was being entertained by odalisques in Anatolia.
This should not have come as a surprise to her for the bold Art had been something of a local Lothario according to local legend; when he succeeded to the The MacMurrough seat back home, he assured a reluctant local bride that their offspring would be fully formed by pointing out his progeny among the local peasant population. Such lore I learned from one of a number of plaques at the delightful cafe by the banks of the Barrow, of more anon.
Lady Kavanagh was herself an impressive woman, seizing her widowhood with gusto and sweeping off on travels to Europe with her daughter and two of her three sons when they were young teenagers. Her appetite for adventure whetted, she made her way to Egypt and the Middle East, haggling transport from locals to bring her by boat up the Nile and by camel around the Holy Land, penetrating as far inland to reach Petra (see my blog on my own visit there here). In fact her collection of artefacts forms the core of the National Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection today.
Maybe the spirits of Lady and Art Kavanagh still loom within Borris House for a local told me in hushed breath that the entrance hall is always markedly chilly, even on the warmest day.
Just outside Borris, we went for a walk along the Barrow Way, the river turned to a stately canal by a series of twenty three locks. The Barrow is one of Ireland’s great river systems, second only to the Shannon. At one end it is connected to the Grand Canal in Dublin. At the other it connects with New Ross, joining its sister rivers the Nore and Suir, before entering the sea. Almost 90 km of the Barrow’s length is tidal.
We resumed our travels to Graiguenamanagh to see the enormous Cistercian Abbey of Duiske there, built by the great Norman knight, William Marshall, Lord of Leinster through his marriage of Dermot MacMurrough’s granddaughter Isabel (herself daughter of Strongbow and Aoife). In fact New Ross owed its origins to Marshall when he built a bridge there and fostered his new borough as a port to serve his Leinster capital Kilkenny via the very navigable Barrow. Duiske Abbey has had a number of restorations, more recently an oaken roof constructed using Medieval techniques. The Abbey is swallow up by the town now but in its medieval prime Cistercian buildings and fields would have swept down to the Barrow creating a great centre of learning but also of agriculture, river management and crafts.
After an indifferent lunch which filled the stomach but not the spirits at a riverside cafe, we decided to head to St Mullins, marked in the red icons as a place of historic interest on the Ordnance Survey map. We had seen St Mullin himself in Duiske Abbey in a lively statue complete with an ox’s head between his legs. This bovine addition derives from his famous accomplishment of ending the Leinstermen’s tribute of ox to the High King of Ireland. St Mullin was of royal blood, a ‘rí-deamna’ or king-in-the-making. Not to take away from the man’s vocation but becoming a monk was a smart move in those days because it meant that your brothers were less likely to blind or even castrate you to disqualify you as competition in the vicious regnal wars that dominated Irish politics for hundreds of years.
What a delight St Mullins turned out to be. Perched on a rise in a bend in the Barrow, it comprises a cluster of early Christian ruins, including the circle of foundation stones for a round tower, and Church of Ireland chapels (one houses the interpretative centre). It’s graveyard is home to heroes of 1798. And beside it is a dramatic knoll, part of a man-made mote and bailey constructed by the first Normans to invade Ireland. This mote and bailey belonged in fact to Raymond Le Gros, the pre-eminent battlefield warrior in the taking of Wexford, Waterford, and Dublin at the outset of the Norman invasion of Ireland between 1169 and 1170.
A short walk down a boreen takes you to the Barrow river itself and a cluster of buildings by the idyllic river’s edge, including the ruin of a large grain store testifying to the river port’s commercial life up to the nineteenth century. St Mullins marks the reach of the tidal portion of the river. Today St Mullins is the terminus of the Barrow walk, a 190 km meander from Dublin that can be cycled or walked. Rental cottages are available at http://www.oldgrainstorecottages.ie. People basked in the spring sunshine on outdoor tables, dining on lunch provided by the Mullicháin Cafe as a nearby cherry tree waved its blossoms gently in the air. Now this was the place we should have had lunch! Another reason to return.