I have always been fascinated by old guide books and enjoy the opportunity to read what travellers to this part of the country have to say about our area. One such book I bought recently was an 1878 edition of Handbook for Travellers in Ireland published by John Murray of London. In the preface to that book we are advised that it was based “in great part on personal visits and research made by the editor on the spot in order or render it as trustworthy as possible”. The editor’s subsequent faint praise for the inn-keepers of Ireland of 125 years ago is circumscribed with an admonishment that “if facilities for travelling in Ireland were greater and more attention were paid to order and cleanliness by the Irish Inn-keeper he would have a fair chance of diverting into that beautiful Ireland a large portion of the tourist flood which now streams for the continent.”
Irish Railways described in the book as “by no means luxurious” were stated to have carriages which were antiquated and occasionally ragged. The railway stations themselves were regarded as even more primitive than the carriages, and the Station Masters and their assistants throughout provincial Ireland were regarded as “curiously unsophisticated although imbued with genuine civility and eagerness to render the best possible service.”
Where the railways had not yet penetrated, transport was provided by coaches or public cars. Here the editor offered advice to his readers as to how best to travel on an Irish outside car.
“Ascertain which way the wind is blowing, if the weather is cold or likely to be bad and choose your side accordingly … Aprons are provided in the car, at the same time a private waterproof apron is a great convenience and added to which the traveller should obtain a strap by which he can buckle himself to the seat during night journeys and thus go safely to sleep without fear of being jerked forward”.
Irish Hotels with some exceptions were regarded as inferior to those of England, Scotland or the continent. One of the features of most Irish Hotels, even in the 1870’s, was the exaulted position occupied by “the boots”. He generally was to be found in provincial town hotels, and almost always was a native of the district who could direct you to all the best eating and drinking houses within the area. The broken bells, ragged wallpaper and carpets and ruptured sofa cushions were even in the most inferior of hotels, or so the editor would have us believe, accompanied by substantial good food, reasonably clean sleeping accommodation and always with good humoured civility and attention.
When travelling by the Great Southern and Western Railway from Dublin to Kilkenny the intrepid travellers passed by, as they approached Athy, the large mansion known as Bert Hall (as it was then styled). The land around Kilberry was described as “low, wet and boggy” and by all accounts was lying very little above the levels of the River Barrow. A description of Athy in the 1870’s as noted in this English publication will be of interest to modern day readers.
“It was in early times a place of importance as a neutral ground between the territories of Leix and Caellan, which as a matter of course were always at desperate feud, and struggled hard with each other for possession of Athy or Ath-legar, ‘the ford towards the west.’ Subsequent to the English invasion the Lords Justices regarded it with equal jealousy, from its being on the frontier of the Kildare Marches, and a castle, now called White’s Castle, was accordingly erected for its defence by Fitzgerald Earl of Kildare, at the commencement of the 14th century. It is a massive rectangular and embattled building, flanked at each corner by a small square turret, and overlooks the bridge that crosses the Barrow. This bridge bears the curious name of Crom-aboo, from the ancient war-cry of the Fitzgeralds, and is in itself worth notice. A little distance to the North of the town by the river-side is another square fortress, called Woodstock Castle, which, although usually ascribed to the Earl of Pembroke, is considered, with more probability, to have been built in the 13th century by an Earl of Kildare, who received the manor of Woodstock by marriage with the daughter of O’Moore of Leix. It is remarkable for the thickness of its walls, its square mullioned windows, and a round-headed gateway adjoining the tower. Formerly a monastery existed for Crouched Friars and another for Dominicans, both established in the 13th century. There are also the remains of Preston’s Gate leading into the town. Athy is a well-built little place, and is, jointly with Naas, the assize town of Co. Kildare. Its situation in the middle of a rich plain, together with facilities of water and land carriage, commands for it a large agricultural business.
A branch of the Grand Canal from Monasterevan here joins the Barrow, forming the commencement of the Barrow navigation, by which water communication is maintained between Athy, Carlow, Bagenalstown, Borris, New Ross, and the sea.
Kilberry is 3 miles to the North, between the railway and the river, and near Lord Downes’ seat at Bert. On this spot 2 strong castles and an abbey formerly stood, of the latter of which there are slight ruins; and on the other side of the river is Rheban Castle (Righ-ban), “the House of the King,” one of the fortresses of Richard de St. Michael (the same who founded the monastery for Crouched Friars in Athy). But it is probably that he only enlarged or rebuilt it, as not only the name appears to be of an early date, but it is even mentioned by Ptolemy as an inland town of some note.
The Moat of Ardscull, 3½ miles on the road to Kilcullen, is a high mound (now planted), supposed to have been raised to commemorate a desperate battle in the 3rd century between the men of S. Leinster and those of Munster. About 2 miles to the East, by a cross-road, is another historical spot, the Rath of Mullaghmast (Mullach-Maistean, Ir. ‘the Hill of Decapitation’). It was formerly known as ‘the Carmen,’ where, on 16 conical mounds, many of the elders of the province of Leinster held their councils; but it derived its other name in consequence of the act of some English adventurers in the 16th century, who, being resisted in their encroachments by some of the Irish chieftains, invited the latter to a conference on New Year’s Day, fell upon them unawares, and slew them. In consequence of the anathematization of Carmen the place of assembly was removed to the rath at Naas. Visible in the West is the tower of Inch Castle, one of King John’s fortresses, which was the locale of a severe engagement in 1642 between the armies of Ormond and Mountgarrett.”
The visitor today could without difficulty retrace the steps of his predecessor of 175 years ago using the same guide book. The only differences noticeable today arise from the since destroyed mullioned windows of Woodstock Castle and the round-headed gateway of the same Castle removed, as was Preston’s Gate. The stones taken from these medieval buildings were presumably used for building purposes elsewhere in the town.