Updated post: 18/10/19 | October 2019
It had become a ritual. As we approached Borris, my father would say “Open the car window now and breathe in that beautiful Borris air. Can you smell it yet?“ Although Dad spent nearly half of his life in England, his heart belonged to his hometown until the day he died.
It’s easy to see why. Located in County Carlow, in the heart of Ireland’s Ancient East, Borris is a small but perfectly formed Georgian estate town. Buildings constructed with local granite flank the north side of its gently sloping high street. Dominating the town on the opposite side of the street is Borris House, the ancestral seat of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, descendants of the Kings of Leinster. In Lower Borris, at the other end of the high street, the clock tower of The Sacred Heart Church rises over the town like an exclamation mark.
Although the term ‘authentic’ is overused in travel writing, this Co. Carlow town is the real deal. There is no evidence of it capitalising on its rich heritage, history and charm to cash in on the tourist Euro. Aside from the recent introduction of a few mini-supermarkets and fast-food outlets, its 19th Century buildings have largely retained their original facades and shopfronts.
In fact, little has changed from childhood visits, when I used to accompany my grandmother on her weekly shopping trip to town. This trip would start with her ‘thumbing a lift’ into town. Who could resist stopping for a sweet little lady, especially if that sweet little lady had all but jumped into the path of the oncoming car?
She would then move from shop to shop, passing the time of day with the proprietors and having the occasional argument about the price of bacon that week. One of these establishments – the venerable O’Shea’s – includes one of her shopping invoices in its case of memorabilia. After some hours, the shopping trip would end with the promised glass of red lemonade. Happy days.
Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh: The limbless landlord of Borris
The fortunes of Borris are closely entwined with that of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, and particularly Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, who was born 25th March 1831 without any arms and legs.
The reason for these deformities is open to debate. Some say that this was the result of his mother, Harriett Kavanagh, overdoing it with the laudanum during pregnancy. Others maintain that the umbilical cord severed his limbs during delivery.
But the most compelling theory is that it was the result of a peasant’s curse. To demonstrate that she had renounced Catholicism, Harriett demanded that two religious statues be removed from the family’s chapel. This outraged the pious locals and legend has it a curse was put on the family that one day they would be led by a cripple.
Whatever the cause, Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh went on to lead an extraordinary life, to an extent that beggars belief. He became a proficient horseman, an expert angler and a good painter. Briefly exiled from Borris House when his mother found out that he had been conducting affairs with girls on the estate, he travelled extensively and ended up as a despatch rider for the East India Company. This was, again, at the behest of Harriett Kavanagh, when she discovered that he had spent two weeks in an Indian harem. Arthur certainly liked the ladies!
Following the death of his older brother, Thomas, in 1851 he succeeded to the family estate. Under his guiding hand, Borris prospered. He built a sawmill, founded a lace-making industry and established a lime kiln.
Elected as MP for Co Wexford at the age of 35, he became the only limbless man to sit in the House of Commons. However, the political tide in Ireland was turning. In 1880 he was thrashed by the Home Rule candidate. On his return to Borris, instead of the customary celebratory bonfire, he was greeted by the townsfolk burning his effigy and celebrating his downfall.
His political career in tatters and his health failing, he died nine years later at the age of 58. It was said of him: “He did not equal any man, but few men equalled him.”
The 50-room house that Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh called home was built in 1731. It is one of the few great Irish houses to be built beside a town.
Following serious damage inflicted during two attacks during the 1798 rebellion, the house we see today was restored in the early 1800s. In 1958 Borris House faced ruin when, following the death of her husband, Joane Kavanagh moved to a smaller house on the estate. However, Andrew Macalpine-Downie, Joane’s son, returned to Borris after a career as a jockey in England. He then set about running the 650-acre estate and reclaiming the Kavanagh surname. The Kavanagh family continue to live in Borris House.
Visiting Borris House
- Borris House is open for guided tours on selected days from May to September. Check the website for opening hours. Admission price is €10.
- Five Euro gains you admission to the granary and the grounds
- It is also possible to stay in one of the cottages on the estate.
- Borris House will host the annual Festival of Writing and Ideas on 12th – 14th June 2020.
Borris’s magnificent 16-arch viaduct is another legacy of Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh. He instigated its construction and was instrumental in bringing the railway to Borris. This line from Wexford to Muine Bheag (Bagenalstown) was operational from 1858, finally closing to passengers in 1931. The old station house still stands in the aptly named Station Road.
Visiting Borris Viaduct
- The viaduct is located at the edge of Lower Borris.
- Although it has been possible to walk across the viaduct, it has been closed by Carlow County Council due to safety concerns. However, the good news is that it will be restored thanks to a Government grant. This will include resurfacing work and improving access, linking it to local walkways and amenities in Borris.
Two easy walks near Borris
Borris’s other draw is its setting. The Blackstairs Mountains, that run north / south along the border of Co Carlow and Co Wexford, loom over the eastern end of the town. The River Barrow is to the west. Both offer multiple walking and fishing opportunities.
Here are a few ideas for walks:
Barrow Way walk
When I was growing up, the River Barrow meant three things: maggots, flies and fish. The maggots that I helped Dad collect as bait for his fishing trips on the Barrow. The flies that buzzed around our faces as we sat patiently on the riverbank during those hazy, seemingly endless summer days. And finally, the smell of fried eels emanating from my grandmother’s kitchen, the result of a successful day’s fishing by my father and his brothers.
Only when I was older could I fully appreciate the serenity and beauty of the Barrow Line. It is here, in the heart of the countryside, that you will be able to take one of the most beautiful walks in Ireland.
The walk from Ballytiglea – my father’s childhood home just outside Borris – to St Mullin’s is around 11km but can be divided into sections. Except for the section that goes through Graiguenamanagh, there will be no roads, no cars, no noise except for the sound of the occasional rustle in the undergrowth.
It is worth stopping in Graiguenamanagh to take a look at Duiske Abbey, which is one of Ireland’s finest Cistercian monasteries. Founded in 1204, it has been rebuilt many times over the years and now serves as the town’s parish church. Graiguenamanagh is also the home of Duiske Glass and the gift shop provides a great opportunity to pick up tasteful gifts for those back home.
St Mullin’s is a destination in its own right. Here you will find the ruins of four churches and the base of a round tower believed to have made up the monastery founded by the seventh-century local saint, St Moling. With its close links with major ecclesiastical centres such as Glendalough in Co. Wicklow, this has been a major place of pilgrimage for centuries.
The nearby St. Moling’s Holy Well is still visited. And the MacMurrough Kavanaghs are never far out of the picture is this part of Ireland. The graveyard at St Mullin’s is said to be the burial-place of the kings of Leinster.
Borris to Nine Stones
Named after the stones commemorating nine shepherds lost on Mount Leinster, the highest point of the Blackstairs Mountains, the Nine Stones offers spectacular views. On a clear day, you can see eight counties from here. On an exceptionally clear day, the Welsh coast is just about visible.
The walk is a touch over 10 km and takes around three hours to complete. Whilst I have never done the walk from Borris to the Nine Stones, I was taken up there by my grandfather in his wheezing Renault 4 many years ago.
I couldn’t write a post about Borris and not mention Borris Fair. This is held on 15th August each year, the feast of the Assumption. It is thought to date back to a 400-year-old charter, granted by Queen Elizabeth I.
This is one of Ireland’s oldest horse fairs, and thousands pile into the town for the event. Traveller families set up their stalls along the high street selling goods from designer knock-offs to religious knick-knacks, the aroma of curried chips perfusing the air. And there are always socks for sale. Lots of socks.
Here’s how local legend Richie Kavanagh sees it:
Finally, the pubs of Borris
Let’s return to authenticity. We are all too familiar with the faux Irish pub revolution. You know the sort of place I mean. Guinness on tap, a Gaelic road sign hanging over the bar, The Pogues playing on the jukebox, lots of things made of cast iron. These ersatz establishments sprung up in the early 1990s from Seville to Singapore and from Delhi to (God forbid!) Dublin.
Sadly, this branding of Irish pubs owes more to lazy cultural stereotypes and large companies seizing the opportunity to make large profits, than to authentic Irish tradition. Forget what you think you know about Irish pubs. In Borris, you get the real thing. Whether you end up in O’Shea’s, Joyce’s or Bob’s Bar, you may not get reproductions of antique spinning wheels but you will get a warm fire and warmer welcome. And you might be able to pick up a box of nails or some light bulbs at the same time as downing a glass of the black stuff.
So that’s Borris for you; in Dad’s words “The best little town in Ireland”. It just goes to show that there really is no place like home.