Tóchar Phádraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, is an ancient route that begins at the 13th century Ballintubber Abbey and finishes some 20 miles away, on Croagh Patrick.
Historians believe it is actually part of a long lost route from Rathcroghan, formerly the seat of the high kings of Connaught, to what was then known as Cruáchan Aigle, the pagan name for the Reek. Others take this as part of a route from even further east – all of the way to the Hill of Tara in County Meath. It is known as a ’causeway’ because it was originally built to carry heavy traffic, such as horse-drawn ‘chariots’, across the boggy terrain.
The route from Ballintubber Abbey to the Reek crosses no less than 113 stiles. In winter, the Tóchar can be a difficult hike, and waterproof footwear is a must. On a dark December day, we joined the trail at Stile 36, in an area known as ‘The Battlement’. Here the Aille River was in full flood as it rushed past the ruined Killawullaun Mill.
During penal times (when a series of laws were imposed in an attempt to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept a reformed denomination as defined by the Anglican Church), a man who became known as Sean na Sagart was employed to hunt priests in the area. Despite the best efforts of the locals to protect the priests, this man enjoyed some success before he himself was stabbed to death. The trail passed close to a lake known as Lough na gCeann – Lake of the Heads – where it is said that Sean disposed of his victims heads after claiming his reward.
After weeks of rain, the trail was extremely boggy. Several times we sank up to the tops of our boots. Fortunately, the landowners had allowed the trail pioneers to maintain small bridges across some of the swollen streams.
We followed the Aille River for about a mile, crossing several more stiles, before coming to a place named Teampleshaunaglasha, the ruins of a church that was abandoned in 1562. It is believed that the ‘Shaun’ in the name was a hermit who lived in this place in later years. The ruins were surrounded by a killeen – a unbaptized infants graveyard – and other graves from the famine years. There are several legends associated with this place, particularly those involving the terrible fate of individuals who removed stones or artifacts from the old church.
A bohreen (little road) at Stile 46 then led through overhanging trees to the remains of a famine village that once housed 26 families. A legend tells of a mysterious woman who visited at night to leave food for the starving inhabitants.
Large slabs of limestone became visible as the Aille River emerged from its underground course at Stile 50. Potholers have measured the underground course of the river at Pollflanagan to a depth of 112 feet, where they reported the existence of fish with no eyes. Nearby is another cave known as Pollhondra, where a man named Hondra is said to have hidden after he killed his wife. It seemed that there was a tragic story at every turn of this route.
At Stile 57, a depression in the ground reveals a place once called ‘The Well of Stringle’. It is here that St. Patrick is said to have baptized many locals when he camped there over two Sundays.
The trail then crosses a hillock known locally as ‘Creggaun ‘a Damhsa’, or the Hillock of the Dancing, where fairies are said to dance. this is followed by another bohreen (‘bothareen’ or small road) which leads to the impressive cliffs that tower above the River Aille as it vanishes into the earth.
At the village of Coill an Bhaile, the trail turns towards the ancient site of Aughagower (“The field of springs”), which Saint Patrick established as a diocese around 441 a.d. At this turn, the ruined castle of MacPhilbin, who captured one of the O’Rourkes and paid a heavy price in return, dominates the landscape for miles to the west. On the way to Aughagower, the trail crosses a large swath of uncultivated land.
Approaching Aughagower, after Stile 75, the trail is temporarily lost as landowners have strewn wire across the stiles on the road from Westport. It is believed that it is unlucky to cut directly across a sacred path, but the site of Cloondachon – where Patrick is said to have either tamed or disposed of two unfriendly wolfhounds, does not seem accessible.
Apart from its impressive round tower, graveyards and churches, Aughagower boasts several artifacts dating back to Saint Patrick’s time, including ‘Dabhach Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Vat), ‘Tobair na nDeachan’ (The Well of the Deacons), and ‘Leaba Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Bed).
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