Dear fellow travellers
The talk this month is of Ireland, it being the centenary of the country’s unhappy partition - a solution in May 1921 to the bubbling issues of identity politics which suited neither the unionists nor the nationalists. If you have a few minutes to spare, join us on the banks of the River Slaney.
In each cut and fold of the land there is a litany of temptation. What might be just over the hill? Or around the next bend in the river? There can be few finer spots to be, on these bright spring days, than exploring the land around the River Slaney in south-east Ireland. The lower reaches of the Slaney, from Enniscorthy down to Wexford, is a gorgeous sweep of river. Anyone who has taken the train from Dublin to Rosslare will surely recall this stretch of the Slaney. The railway hugs the right bank of the river downstream from Enniscorthy.
But we reserve the highest category of praise for the middle reaches of the Slaney, territory which was never touched by any railway. It is here that the Slaney flows through the rolling countryside of County Wexford and neighbouring Carlow. For a spell, just upstream of Bunclody, the waters of the Slaney mark the boundary between these two Irish counties.
Bunclody. Now there’s a name that evokes a few associations. If you’ve spent as many nights in Irish pubs as we have then you’ve surely heard of the streams of Bunclody. Be it sung by Christy Moore or the Dubliners, or just by a local band in the pub, everyone knows that “it’s near the streams of Bunclody that all pleasures do meet.” The song is a lament of lost love that perfectly captures the plight of emigrants - for even the soft and rich farming country of Wexford and Carlow was hit by famine and emigration to the New World.
Bunclody is a classic estate village - a planned settlement, created in the 18th century to serve the needs of the owners and managers of Newtownbarry Estate. And it happens to be a rather watery place. It’s here that the River Clody, tumbling down from Mount Leinster, joins the Slaney. The planners of Bunclody channelled a leat from the Clody right through the heart of the town to provide an adequate supply of fresh water to the residents. The main channel runs in a neat stone aqueduct down the main street.
Like so many small towns in rural Ireland, Bunclody has seen good times and bad. The local quarrying and slate industries have largely disappeared, and Bunclody was hit hard by the financial crisis in 2008, leading one Irish newspaper to question whether Bunclody might be the most economically depressed town in Ireland.
For all the economic woes, the beauty of the Slaney Valley is undiminished. A gentle climate, lush vegetation and fertile soils make this rich agricultural country, and the region is home to some of Ireland’s most dramatic garden landscapes, such as those at Altamont, just upriver from Bunclody. Here ancient oaks and sculptural outcrops of stone lead down to the banks of the River Slaney.
As ever in Ireland, there’s a fractured history just waiting to be discovered. It’s a part of the country with a fiery republican tradition. While others recall the Easter Uprising in 1916, in the Slaney Valley there’s more talk of the Wexford Rebellion of 1798. Its ruthless suppression by the British didn’t quash republican instincts. The Young Ireland movement in the 19th century found many followers in the region, among them Patrick O’Donoghue, who was born in the village of Clonegal, on a tributary of the Slaney upstream from Bunclody. O’Donoghue’s role in the 1848 Famine Rebellion led to his exile to Tasmania where he continued to agitate for Irish liberation, among other things editing a publication called The Irish Exile.
And is not exile the story of all of Ireland?
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)