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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Follow me down to Carlow

Carlow is the second smallest county in Ireland and the third least populated. It is known, by those who know, as the ‘Dolmen County’ because of its number of megalithic Portal Tombs. Even though it is landlocked the navigable Barrow River cuts through it and encouraged human activity since early times.

I have spent the last month exploring the county but not for the above reasons. It happens to be close to me and I came across a booklet from Carlow Tourism that highlights three historic trails in the county, all named after pioneering Celtic saints.

The booklet was useful for information but my choice of visits was haphazard. If a place was in a scenic area or associated with an individual or event I was interested in I chose it.

Surprisingly the booklet confessed that few famous people hail from Carlow. It must have being thinking of recent history because there are ten or more major religious figures from there who played prominent roles in the ‘Golden Age’ of Irish history (450 to 1050). Few such compact counties offer so many examples of the studying, journeying and innovations of that period.

Despite the random nature of my trips it began to strike me that while each place was unique they were also part of a wider national movement that was growing from century to century.

My own lack of familiarity with early Irish history became obvious.

Among the great trailblazers from Carlow were Fiacc (415 – 520), a disciple of Patrick, Fortchern (6th c.), Finnian of Clonard ( 470 – 549) founder of one of the first great monastic schools, Laserian (566 – 639) and Moling (614 – 697). They all headed communities noted for learning, illuminated manuscripts and agricultural improvements. Carlow pioneers also abroad, such as Columban (543 – 615) from Myshall whose high reputation abroad is reflected in his been listed as a Patron Saint of Europe.

These activities extended over a number of centuries when Ireland was undergoing major changes.

From about the year 300 the population of Ireland was increasing after an unexplained decline. Forests were cleared as faming supplemented cattle raising. The country did not become Christian overnight, it was only in the 700s that the country was nominally ‘Christian’. The first baptised High King was Diarmuid Mac Cerbaill in 558.

Strong family dynasties emerged to dominate large areas. The kings of Ulster, Leinster and Munster continually fought each other for supremacy.

In the 800s small towns began to emerge, mainly around monasteries.

These were the times in Fiacc and his companions lived and made their contribution.

Carlow may not be the largest or most visited county in Ireland but the variety of personalities and activities associated with it have considerably widened my understanding of Irish roots and how we got to where we are today.


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