Abbeyshrule (Mainistir Shruthla) (pop. 250), a picturesque village in a scenic valley on the Longford/Westmeath border, was recently declared the winner of the National Tidy Towns competition for 2012.
The Abbeyshrule Aerodrome is a bastion of light aviation. The only aircraft facility in the region, this airfield also hosted Ireland’s longest running international air show every August until 2005, when the Red Arrows failed to attract sufficient numbers due to heavy rain all weekend.
Located at a major crossing over the River Inny, and historically aka Shrule , Shrowle etc., the village supposedly takes its name from the Gaelic word for stream or a river, although some insist that the toponym refers to the sruaith fhuil (“river of blood”) spilt in 960 AD at a major battle in which Brian Boru’s elder brother, Mathgamain mac Cennétig, defeated O’Rourke of Cavan.
The surrounding area was a stronghold on the O`Farrell Buighe sept. In the middle ages a major medieval fair was held here on the feast of Corpus Christi.
A Cistercian abbey founded here in 1150 was one of the earliest in the country. Belatedly closed by Queen Elizabeth I, this was one of the last victims of her father’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The Royal Canal, on the west side of the village, reached the area in 1814 and the River Shannon three years later. The attractive canal harbour, sunk on the site of the then village fair green, was the departure point for many sad emigrants to the Americas in the C19th.
The Clonbrin Shield is the only surviving leather shield from the Bronze Age, possibly dating from as early as the C13th BC. Found locally in 1908, it is the most notable of several early bronze era implements unearthed by workers cutting peat in the area. Originally made from one piece of vegetable tanned leather, probably ox hide, and bearing marks of combat, its bog burial ensured near perfect preservation. The shield is on permanent exhibition at the NMI.
The ruins of the Cistercian Abbey at Abbeyshrule were once part of a much larger community of buildings, not visible today except for the outline stones of quite a few foundations. This was the first Cistercian site in Longford County, and the fifth in the country following the first very successful settlement at Mellifont. The Abbeyshrule monastery was funded by the O’Farrell family.
Upon their arrival in Longford County, the Cistercians recruited local people to become monks and help build and run the community. The Cistercians conducted free schools, and taught the locals more advanced methods of agriculture. They also built corn mills on the river, and some of them can still be seen at Abbeyshrule, which later became one of the principal centres in Ireland for this activity.
The abbey was one of the largest in the area, rectangular with a square tower, and a unique spiral staircase near the cloisters. It contained many cells along with a chapel, sacristy, pantry refectory and kitchen.
C9th Christian Crosses can be seen in the ancient graveyard, together withthe shaft of the only High Crossdiscovered in County Longford.
After the closure, control of the property was given to Robert Dillon, Earl of Roscommon.
Our Lady of Lourdes church (RC) is an unusual post-modernist edifice with a striking profile, an open and well-lit interior and pleasant artwork by Ray Carroll. Built in 1980 to an irregular and inventive sub pentagonal-plan by John Kernan, Limerick, it is quite similar in appearance and style to another church he designed at Keenagh. The present church replaced St Mary’s church, built c. 1819 on a site granted by the Royal Canal Company. (Photo – www.buildingsofireland.ie)
Interesting bog-oak sculptures of birds and fish by Brendan Collum stand net to a modern housing estate.
In addition to flower arrangements adorning baskets and old bicycles etc, the work of Tidy Town Committee members, certain areas have been allowed to grow pleasantly wild, while grassy expanses are kept in trim by two resident lawn-mowing goats known as Thelma and Louise.
The Royal Canal was effectively reborn locally in 2005 whenWaterways Ireland removed the half century old culvert at Webb Bridge, thus allowing water traffic to proceed westward towards the River Shannon. The work was complimented by extensive landscaping and stonework which enhances the overall appearance of the village.
The Whitworth Aqueduct, built in 1817 to carry the Royal Canalover the River Inny, has been described as “arguably the single most impressive feature along the entire length of the Royal Canal” and “the most important element of the C19th engineering heritage of County Longford“. The stone used in the construction was reputedly quarried at Castlewilder, a short distance to the northeast. It cost c. £5,000 to construct, and is probably named after Charles Whitworth (1752 – 1825), 1st Baron Whitworth, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1813 to 1817. A plaque reads ‘This Aqueduct with the entire Royal Canal Extension 24.5 miles in length, having 21 locks, 38 bridges, and 40 tunnels, with several harbours, quays, and other works of masonry was designed by John Killaly Esq., Engineer to the Director General of Inland Navigation and executed under their Direction in the short space of 3 years by the undertakers, Henry, Mullins and McMahon‘. (Photo –www.buildingsofireland.ie)
Pallas & Forgney (Co. Longford / South)
Pallas lies in an area often promoted as “Goldsmith Country“, on the grounds that, in the same way as much of County Sligo came to be called “Yeats Country”, the surrounding countryside informed the work of the great C18th writer, poet, playwright and historian.
Oliver Goldsmith was probably born sometime between 1727 and 1731 in Pallas, where his parents lived, although he might well have first seen the light of day in his grandparents’ house in Elphin. His father, Rev Charles Goldsmith, served in the nearby parish of Forgney as the rector of the church of St Munis.
In 1730 the family transferred to the parsonage in Lissoy in the County Westmeath parish of Kilkenny West, where Oliver spent most of his childhood. According to popular legend, his career as a poet started while listening to his father preaching in St Canice’s church, where he was curate until his death in 1747.
(The current church building on the site, erected in 1839, was closed in 1963, and is now derelict. To the rear lie the remains of a late C17th mortuary chapel. The Rev. Charles Goldsmith was interred in the graveyard). (Photo)
Even after moving to London, Goldsmith wrote to a friend in 1757 that “I had rather be placed on the little mount before Lissoy gate and there take in the, to me, most pleasing horizon in nature“.
His famous poem The Deserted Village is about Glasson on Lough Rea, while his satirical play She Stoops to Conquer was based on a classic case of mistaken identity at Ardagh House. Goldsmith also published histories of England, Greece and Rome, biographies of Lord Bollingbroke and Thomas Parnell and, somewhat more unusually, penned an eight-volume History of the Earth and Animated Nature.
He died in 1774 and was buried in Poets Corner at Westminister Abbey.
The Memorial erected in Goldsmith’s honour on the site of his family home comprises a rather unkempt “nature garden” and a sort of stone bunker with a barred entrance enclosing a plaster cast of the famous statue of the poet in front of Trinity College, Dublin. Poetry readings take place here every June as part of the annual Goldsmith Literary Festival.
Forgney is the location of the church of St Munis (CoI). The present Gothic edifice was built in 1810 to replace the one served from 1718 to 1730 by the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, father of the poet. A stained glass window was installed in 1897 with a brass plaque inscribed “To the glory of God and in Memory of Oliver Goldsmith, Poet, Novelist, playwright, born in this parish, of which his father was for twelve years Curate. This window is erected by lovers of the man and his genius“. (Photo).
Ballymahon (Co. Longford / South)
Ballymahon (Baile Uí Mhatháin) (pop. 1800), the most southern town in County Longford, is situated close to the very centre Ireland.
Ballymahon derives its name from Brian Boru’s elder brother, Mathgamain mac Cennétig, who defeated O’Rourke of Cavan in a battle at nearby Shrule (Sruaith Fhuil – “River of Blood”).
A monument on the town’s unusually wide main street commemorates Oliver Goldsmith, who lived with his mother in Ballymahon for three years before emigrating in 1752, never to return. It comprises a sculpture by Eamonn O’Doherty on the theme of The Traveller, one of Goldsmith’s most famous poems.
Newcastle House was originally established c1680. Robert Choppayne is credited with building the centre block.
A Scotsman named Anthony Sheppard acquired the estate in the late C17th and died in 1725. His sister Frances Sheppard married Wentworth Harman. Between 1765 and 1784 it was home to the Very Rev Cutts Harman, who built a notable octagonal hunting lodge of Castle Cor, west of Ballymahon.
The house was enlarged c.1790 by Lawrence Parsons Harman (1749 – 1807), who had married Lady Jane Kingin 1772 and became Earl of Rosse in 1806. He was succeeded in the title by his nephew, while the Harman property was inherited by his daughter, Lady Frances Parsons-Harman, who married General Robert Edward King, 1st Viscount Lorton. The property became the largest estate in County Longford in the C19th.
Reduced considerably under the Land Acts, it remained in the family until Col. Alexander Wentworth King-Harman’s death in 1949, when the house was acquired by the Holy Rosary Sisters. They, in turn, sold the building to Nicholas Kindersley. While some of the original Georgian interior detail have been changed over the years much of it still remains.
Newcastle Woods has forest trails for ramblers.
Ballymahon was developed in the first part of the C19th by the King-Harmans of Newcastle House and the Shuldham family of Moigh House. The town features elegant late Georgian architecture, notably the two- and three-storey gabled houses, colour-washed and in rows of three and four.
St Catherine’s church (CoI), built in 1800, has a graceful narrow spire that is a prominent feature in the town.
Ballymahon Court & Market House, erected in 1819, has been expertly restored as an attractive community library.
Ballymahon Mill, constructed in 1839 adjacent to the River Inny, is a fine mid-C19th six-story building, now restored as a set of apartments.
St Matthew’s church (RC), erected in 1906, is an impressive and richly detailed Gothic-style edifice.
Other buildings of interest in the area are Castlecore House (1740 – 1765), Ledwithstown House (1746), the Bank of Ireland (1869) and the Convent of Mercy (1882).
The Bog Lane Theatre, owned since 1988 by the local Drama Society, who perform two plays annually, also hosts the One Act Festival every November, performances by visiting groups and the local Choral Society, plus concerts, recitals and art exhibitions. The auditorium is the main venue for the annual Goldsmith Summer School.
The River Inny flows through Ballymahon and enters Lough Ree on the River Shannon three miles west of the town; the pleasant banks are popular for strolls.
Inny Park, a landscaped amenity area beside the Inny Bridge was developed in 1985 by the Tidy Towns Committee and is proudly maintained by the Ballymahon Community Group for locals and visitors. The park has a landing area for the local canoeing club across the river. A set of rapids near the town is particularly popular with kayakers.
The Royal Canal near Ballymahon has six miles of landscaped walkways taking in cut stone bridges, old store houses and locks plus scenic views such as at Mullavornia overlooking Lough Drum. (Photo by Alan L)
Brannigan Harbour, the main canal boat stop for Ballymahon, features a photogenic old ticket office and has been restored as a pleasant picnic location.
Locally recommended angling spots include Shrule Bridge, the Red Bridge, Houlihan’s Holej Lough Drum and the mouth of the River Inny. Fish range from Trout, Bream, Roach and Hybrids to Perch and Pike.
Ballymahon was the family home of Mary Flynn, a Dublin schoolteacher and author of a well-known series of children’s books starting with Cornelius Rabbit of Tang (1944).
Ballymahon is close to Tang (Co. Westmeath) near Glasson on Lough Ree.
NEXT: Keenagh (Co. Longford)