A Sunday of Historic Cycling

I have been meaning to write this post for several days and finally have the chance to sit down and do so.  Last Sunday I went on “Off the Beaten Path” an historic cycling trip with Brendan Smith, a fellow I know from DERI.  He is a fount of knowledge about local history and Irish linguistics.  We started the tour at the Castlegar area to the North East of Galway proper.

Castle at the racetrack

Before we started Brendan talked about “Bóthar An Chóiste” (the road we were on).  It means the road of the carriage.  It seems that before the famine years (1840s) the area was very much a wetlands of the Corribe river, so much so that a raised road was built across the area so that the carriages could traverse it.  This road was called …. you guessed it, “Bóthar An Chóiste.”  Brendan went on to point out that most Irish place names are descriptive: pàircmore (parkmore) — big park, inishmore — big island,  Bóthar Na Tra — road to the beach, Na Tra (Salthill) — the beach.  He later told me that Bòthar literally means big cow path where “Bó” means cow.  “Bóithrín” means a smaller road like a lane or trail and seems to literally mean small cow path.

Anyway, during the famine years public works projects built dikes that reduced the water and dried up the wetlands, and today, after the building boom Celtic Tiger years, much of the area has been subdivided and built upon.  The Galway Civic Trust has been working to preserve public access to many of the historic sites and old Bóithrín in and around Galway city.

Our first stop was the castle of Castlegar itself.  Now this is not the prototypical castle that comes to the American mind at the mention of the word.  Put Buckingham right out of your mind and think more of a square tower three or four stories high, this was to be the typical form of all the castles we saw on the day.

Next to the castle is a small road (a bóithrín I suppose) that leads down to an old well.  Before the building of the dikes the castle would have been next to the wetlands and the well would have had water for drinking or washing.  When I saw it, it was a dry hole in the ground with well worn rock steps leading down into it.  While at the well we heard the family history of a local council member who said that his grandmother (or great-grandmother) traveled to the Castlegar area by boat up from Galway and that it was a large Gaeltacht.”caisleán gearr” or short castle, not due to its stature but because the owner did not live in it long.  The story, as related to me, is that Richard Burke (de Burgo), fourth Earl of Clanricarde demanded back taxes from O Flaherty and sent his son around to collect them.   O Flaherty invited the son in for dinner, said he would pay, but during the dinner the chair on which the son sat dropped him through the floor and into the dungeon where he was executed.   O Flaherty’s men then rode to Burke’s Menlo Castle where they tossed the head in a bog over the wall saying: “There are your taxes.”  Burke is then said to have built Castlegar because it was farther from the river where the O Flahertys were but then after staying a short time (one night?) he moved on to Portumna castle.

The group walking near the racetrack

When we left the well we rode over to the Galway Racecourse, which, in fine Irish tradition, is for horse racing. Our approach was also in line with fine Irish tradition as we took the paths that the locals would have taken to the course not all that long ago – though now there are several gates and fences that must be traversed.

We then rode from through the peat bogs to the castle Cloonacauneen, a nice restored castle with a restaurant.  We rested up and then headed back to “Bóthar An Chóiste” in dribs and drabs.

It was a wonderful day and I would recommend Brendan’s tours to anyone who has the chance to participate.

— Claude

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