Christopher Moriarty takes a trip along road to nowhere.
Most of roads in Ireland go to meet other roads. But byway to Nire Valley in heart of Comeragh Mountains goes nowhere else. People spend days wandering around these beautiful hills – but valley also makes a very good base for discovering exciting parts of neighbouring counties of Tipperary and Waterford. Our route takes a day and a half to explore seaside, mountains and historic towns that go with them. Having set out from Dublin we started circuit in Clonmel but people coming from southern ports could begin by seaside in Dungarvan Ardmore.
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Clonmel is clearly signposted from M9 motorway. An ancient town with an ancient street layout, best way of visiting it is to make your way to one of riverside car parks – and walk. What makes it especially exciting is survival of a substantial piece of 15th century town walls together with a selection of buildings from most of centuries in between. And it’s a thriving, busy bustling town with a peaceful riverside walk and a view to south to mountains.
The highlights are clustered around centre within old walls and you don’t have to be especially energetic to find them. In particular look out for 17th century Main Guard, which houses a helpful Tourist Offi ce, 14th century town walls with their restored West Gate and rebuilt Franciscan church which contains brilliant modern stained glass and a particularly fine 15th century effigy.
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The old town was built entirely on left bank of River Suir but it spread southwards across water in 19th century. Take most downstream of three bridges that cross it and follow R678 road which takes you high up into Comeragh Mountains. Four miles out of town look for a signpost which encourages you to go even higher and find way to Hanora’s Cottage. It is second of two such signposts. Both lead to wonderful hilltop roads, but second is even more wonderful than first. They take you into very heart of mountains, past sheep pasture and then through heather moorland before going downhill again into Nire Valley.
You meet River Nire and cross it by a black-and-white bridge at bottom of hill. Then turn left and re-cross river over a beautiful old two-arched stone bridge, overlooked by a guest house called Hanora’s Cottage and a church built in 1861 from same honey-coloured local stone as bridge displays. We made Hanora’s Cottage our base – it is a most delightfully welcoming establishment with rooms far beyond normal level of comfort – each has its own Jacuzzi. The proprietor Mary Walls happily imparts her prodigious knowledge of region to all and is full of ideas and advice on how to enjoy it.
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Cottage and church are set in a narrow part of valley, in shadow of Shauneenabreaga Mountain and look at first glance as if they are at end of road. And so they are in a way because it is only way for cars to enter or leave higher parts. But in fact it goes on for another mile and a half and valley, surprisingly, instead of growing steeper and narrower opens out into a prosperous landscape of green pasture, hedges and farm houses. The road ends at a car park and an enticing foot-path which goes through heather over Knockanafrin – Mountain of Mass – and down other side to Rathgormuck.
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But we were not so enticed and turned back down valley in search of seaside. The mountain road leads to village of Ballymacarbry where a left turn brings you on to road for Dungarvan. This ancient seaport lies at head of an immense shallow bay where tide falls to reveal sand flats spreading for miles. Like Clonmel, it is a place to park your car and walk around. There is a castle claiming to be a foundation of 13th century King John of England and a 17th century market house.
Take coast road from Dungarvan for two miles and then turn left to find village of Ring and little harbour of Helvick Head. Ringville, officially An Rinn, is centre of a remarkable outlying area of Gaelteacht, where Irish survived as a living language and remains preferred means of communication of many people, both old and young. It houses Irish-speaking schools and enjoys a great influx of students attending summer courses. Farther out is remote headland of Helvick with its busy little fishing harbour and a stone obelisk commemorating heroes of Fenian Rising of 1867.
Retrace your drive from Helvick though Ringville and turn left for Ardmore when you meet N25 – a good road that gives fine views of mountains to north and sea to south as it makes its way to Youghal. But we don’t go that far, turning to south after five miles for our last close look at seaside at Ardmore ‘big hill’.
Signposts to left take you to pleasant beaches from which you can look up towards said hill and admire splendid round tower that has stood there for eight hundred years. That may not be much for a round tower, since most of them are a couple of centuries older. But Ardmore is special, both in its refined architecture and in marking a spot of unusual interest in history of Christian Ireland. Everybody knows that St. Patrick spread faith throughout Ireland. Not so many are aware that St. Declan had established a Christian community at Ardmore before arrival of Patrick. Below tower you may visit a little stone oratory, said to be burial place of Declan and, nearby, extensive ruins of a big church, richly decorated with Romanesque carving and presenting a unique collection of 10th century relief sculptures showing scenes from scriptures.
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From Ardmore stay on main road as far as Lemybrien, then turn left at crossroads and head westwards towards Monavullagh Mountains. Follow signposts for Mahon Falls and embark on an exceedingly narrow road that takes you uphill fi rst through green fi elds and then through more and more barren and stony hillsides to a car-park. The view is of a thin white ribbon of water that seems to come down from skies as water cascades from Knockaunapeebra – Piper’s Hill.
The narrow road goes in a circle and takes you back towards Lemybrien. Turn left when you meet R676. If you follow it into valley of River Suir you will end up in small town of Carrick and access to main roads that take you away from mountains. But a left turn at crossroads in direction of Clonmel takes you over Comeraghs once more and mountain road that brought us to Nire Valley in first place.