A personal guide to the River Barrow Valley in South East Ireland
“I hope you can visit. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of authentic Ireland off the tourist trail, in this beautiful and peaceful part of South East Ireland. It is located on the main tourist route from Dublin to Kilkenny so provides a perfect recharge for the weary traveller”.
As well as lovely riverside walks, the Barrow Valley area offers hill walks of all grades. A good place to find both is Borris village. Ballytiglea is nearby for the riverside Barrow Way and the road through the impressive viaduct in Borris will bring you to the Blackstairs Mountains, with spectacular views.
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Ireland has some great locations to watch the night sky from. As an ex-Londoner, the first time I saw the Milky Way was in County Kilkenny. Plenty of places along the Barrow Valley will give you a clear view with little or no light pollution – perfect for photographing star trails or simply enjoying the wonder of the night skies.
Walking the Barrow Way
Enjoy easy grade walking beside the River Barrow in South East Ireland . I have listed the entire Barrow Way walk but the southern stretch is more scenic (in my humble opinion). You can also pick a shorter section and ring your B&B to collect you at the end (check with them when booking). Of course you can drive to a particular place and just wander around if you are pushed for time, which is what many people do.
Graiguenamanagh & St Mullins are favorite places to spend a few pleasant hours, take photos & get refreshments. Milford is a lovely quiet spot. I’ve linked in the text to individual pages which are also on the drop-down menu above.
> Hill walking info is at bottom of page
I read recently that someone’s guest said “it’s like walking into a Constable painting” when first experiencing the Barrow Way. There’s nothing like it in Europe and quite a few mainland Europeans come here to experience the peaceful, natural atmosphere you get while walking beside the river.
113km (70 miles) in length, running beside the beautiful River Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river. By breaking the journey into manageable strolls (or even at at different times) you can enjoy one of Europe’s most beautiful walks beside the beautiful River Barrow. TIP: carry snacks & drinks if you are going far as there will be nowhere to stock up between villages & towns.
The Upper Reaches of the River Barrow
The Walk – Stage 1 Starts in Lowtown for a distance of 14 miles (23km) which takes you to the town of Monasterevin. The raised banks of the canal offers beautiful views of the surrounding countryside with views of the Hill of Allen and the Wicklow Mountains.
Stage 2 Monasterevin to Athy – 14 miles (23km). This stretch offers the visitor much of architectural interest with many old bridges and houses. Athy Heritage Centre near the bridge is well worth a visit.
Stage 3 Athy to Carlow town – 12 miles (19km).
This is the first of four stretches which pass through the county of Carlow. We start off from the heritage town of Athy and pass many interesting lifting bridges and old mills. Maganey bridge marks the junction of Three Counties: Kildare, Laois and Carlow. A very scenic stretch of the river here and there’s more to come..
Recommended on the Barrow Way | Walks & Destinations
Stage 4 Carlow to Bagenalstown 10 miles (16km).
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Carlow Town has a number of interesting old buildings and a new Arts Centre plus lots of shops and 2 cinemas. There is a “linear park” alongside the river. From my point of view, one of the most impressive sights near Carlow town is the prehistoric Browneshill Dolmen with its enormous capstone – located on the Hackettstown Road. The Barrow Valley was populated many thousands of years ago, the river being used for transport long before roads existed. The whole county has an array of prehistoric remains which are listed here. See also here.
Milford, approximately 7 km south of Carlow town. Arguably, the most scenic stretch of the whole river begins here as you head South towards St Mullins.
Set in an idyllic location with three bridges, weir, large mill buildings and a large wooded area, Milford is an ideal antidote to driving on motorways. Otters, herons, dippers and kingfishers are often to be seen here – in fact I saw my first Irish otter here. Walk up to the lock if you have time, along the tree-shaded navigation canal bank. See video page for a short film I made here.
Leighlinbridge (pronounced Locklin Bridge) This stretch of our walk is rich with historical buildings, including the Black Castle at Leighlinbridge which was an important river crossing for centuries and said to be the oldest working bridge in Europe. Scientist John Tyndall was born here. A charming village, there are several shops & pubs. Cross the river by the Valerian Bridge and continue towards Bagenalstown via Rathellin Lock (shown below). Further downstream there are many architectural gems in the larger town of Bagenalstown. If you need supplies, there is a riverside Aldi here and a nice picnic area created by local community activists near the outdoor swimming pool – (pool open in high season only).
Stage 5 Bagenalstown to Graiguenamanagh – 16 miles (26km).
A small village with a Petrol Station / Deli / Shop for supplies. plus a couple of pubs. Recently the riverside area on the Kilkenny side has been developed into a lovely mooring & picnic area by the local community. There are riverside walks in either direction on the Carlow side, along the Barrow Way.
The village of Borris nestles in the foothills of the Blackstairs mountains and has retained its Georgian buildings and charms of former days.
Walkers: There is a petrol station / shop on the road to Bagenalstown where you can buy coffee & snacks or continue uphill towards Borris village shops & the viaduct.
Clashganny Lock & Weir
Walk or drive through Borris, following the road & river to Clashganny – a popular spot for kayakers, swimming & walking. Look for a sign to Clashganny restaurant on your right to reach the lock and car park.
Many Graiguenamanagh shops have kept their traditional fronts and the local public houses have earned nationwide recognition for their friendly, old world atmosphere. Our walk ends here in Graiguenamanagh, a picturesque abbey town. The name means ‘Grange of the Monks’ in Irish. The beautiful, restored medieval abbey is well worth a look inside. There are ancient high crosses in the graveyard. Locally the town is known simply as ‘Graig’
Stage 6 Graiguenamanagh to St. Mullins – 4 miles (6km).
This lovely riverside stretch has beautiful woodland surroundings with a strong ecclesiastical theme in the religious settlement at St. Mullins. The St Mullins complex includes a medieval church ruin, the base of a round tower and the former Church of Ireland church, built in 1811, which now hosts a heritage centre (often closed). Many 1798 United Irishmen men are buried here and the area has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, especially during the Plague. It continues to attract pilgrims even today.
Walk back along the riverside to your right to find St Mullins Lock.
A Norman Motte (fortified hill tower) dominates the approach to the village of St Mullins. The Bailey (village) can still be seen in the uneven grass at it’s feet.
The lower stretch of St Mullins is set on a glorious stretch of the Barrow Valley and includes a picnic area.
The tide reaches up to St Mullins from New Ross – there is a sea lock nearby and this marks the end of the riverside walking.
Off season visits
The so-called ‘shoulder months’ are great for visiting the Barrow Valley. May gives you beautiful wild flowers and trees & fields in first flush of green while October has early mists, autumnal shades and wistful peace & quiet. Some attractions are closed but, as a bonus, off-season accommodation prices fall too.
USEFUL LINKS FOR BARROW WAY WALKERS:
Barrow Valley Facebook Page – share your feedback & get up to date events & photos
Why not take to the hills! – The Blackstairs Mountains offer a wide range of walks, from the easy to the arduous and all within a short drive. You can even drive up to the Ninestones viewing point and start from there – easily accessible from Bagenalstown or Borris.
The stained-glass effect of small fields below the Ninestones never ceases to amaze. This spectacular road continues down to Bunclody town. On the way there you pass below the windmills at Kilbrannish where there’s a looped walk.
TIP: A great walk up the hills starts near Ballymurphy in Co. Carlow. It’s known as Shannon’s Lane. You don’t have to do the whole loop of course. I’ve done some of it myself and I’m no mountaineer. Boots required as the path is quite rocky and bring water as you’ll need it after an hour’s steady climb. We used the East-West Mapping map for local place names. Parking is available at start of walk.
This website features the photography & writing of James Burke, who lives locally and has been enchanted by the River Barrow and Barrow Valley since arriving. All images & videos are copyright James Burke.
You can get from Dublin (Heuston Station) to Bagenalstown / Muinebheag Station. Click here for info. You can also book a ticket online then collect it from the machine at Bagenalstown Station. Note: Trains are a bit scarce compared to other countries, especially getting from Dublin. Last train from Dublin Heuston is around 6pm.
There are 2 main bus companies serving the Carlow area. See their websites at:
The Barrow Valley is one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets, comprising as it does an unspoiled passage through the South East’s most beautiful landscapes. Despite being the second longest river in Ireland, the River Barrow lacks the visitor numbers of the Shannon region and that’s what makes it so special. This could just be the Ireland you yearned to see.
About the river & Barrow Way
The river was made navigable some three centuries ago by the addition of weirs, navigation canals and locks. These wide locks once allowed the safe transport on huge barges of grain, sugar beet, coal, porter and other more fragile goods. As elsewhere, the railways subsequently took much of the trade away from the river and it’s commercial traffic slowly declined.
Nowadays the river is a priceless resource for anglers, boatmen, kayakers, swimmers, walkers, cyclists, artists, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts. The locks have been restored, as has the Barrow Way – the former towpath for the earliest horse-drawn barges. You can choose to walk, cycle or travel by car on the roads between the many riverside towns and villages, each with a charm of their own.
Several of the navigation canal locks can only be reached on foot or by boat, which makes them all the more rewarding to discover.
The wider Barrow Valley, away from the river, offers a chance to see authentic rural Ireland off the main tourist drag. As with much travel in Ireland, your journey is likely to be as pleasantly memorable as your destination. Stop to chat or ask directions and you may meet some unforgettable people too – Bon Voyage !
James Burke | Blogger & photographer
Don’t forget Kilkenny city
Well worth visiting and packed with good pubs and places to eat as well as several medieval buildings and a big castle. A popular and busy tourist destination but worth a day or two exploring. About 12 miles from Leighlinbridge.