IF YOU are a regular reader, you will know that, from time to time, I take to the bicycle. I do this primarily as a means of exploration rather than a method of exercise. And on Sunday week last, it was the former that had me criss-crossing the ancient parish of Lea. I was in search of the coach road, where, two centuries ago, the horses’ hooves beat out a rhythm and the iron-clad wheels of the coach they were pulling made an unmerciful clatter, raising a cloud of dust which could be seen at a distance.
I have been reading William Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey, and it was the Rev John Jones, the author of the account on the parish of Lea, who is to blame for my recent Sunday cycle.
In a comprehensive account of the parish, the Rev Jones makes reference to five high roads in the parish, which he describes in some detail. The first of these, he tells us, is “the Limerick road, which leads from Monasterevin through Ballybrittas, by Emo to Maryboro”. Apart from its passage through Emo, this road seems to follow the line of the recently bypassed Dublin Road.
But it was his description of the second high road that set my mind racing. He tells us that the road runs “ from Monasterevin, by Old Lea, straight to Portarlington, and so to Mountmellick”. But he drops in an aside that: “it is on this road that the Birr coach travels”.
I first thought that this was the present-day Monasterevin- Portarlington road, but the reference to its passage through Old Lea, and William Beauford’s map of the parish, (which accompanies the survey), changed my mind.
Once you have crossed the Barrow on what you may regard as the old road to Portarlington, you take the next right. This takes you along an unlikely high road, by today’s standards. Passing through the town lands of Ullard and Old Lea, amongst others, this less travelled route, two centuries later, does boast the odd tuft of grass along the middle of the road, but it most definitely conjures up the clatter of the carriage wheels of yesteryear.
And when you see the majestic ruin of the Castle of Lea, poking its head up over the trees, you are looking at the same sight that told the coach passengers that they were on the final approach to Portarlington, and a welcome stop at Fleming’s Inn.
Interestingly, I wonder if the aspect of the ancient Castle of Lea will change for future travellers along this route. Indeed, will the very route itself see change. I refer, of course, to the Heritage Council-funded Lea Castle Conservation Project which is currently in train.
The Rev Jones, inadvertently, makes possibly the first reference to ribbon development in the town of Portarlington. As far as I can tell, the final approach to the town would have taken the coach along what we know today to be Bracklone Street. The following account may point to its origins. The Reverend Jones in his description of villages in the parish says: “as to Bracklan, however, it might have been once a village, it has been laterally joined to Portarlington by a continuation of houses, so that it should now be considered as composing part of the suburbs of the town”.
On the matter of longevity in the parish of Lea, we are told that there are ‘eight old men and two women from 80 to 95’. And hot off the press, you might say, the reverend tells us that “four days ago, there was a burial at the French church yard, an old maiden lady of ninety four years, Miss Mary Frazer; and about a year since another parishioner was buried here, Bryan Dunne, at the very advanced age of 111 years”.
While William Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey may not have reached the heights that John Sinclair achieved with his survey of Scotland, it contains a vast amount of information, and is a treasure trove for any student of local history.
You might drive a coach and four through some of its content, but for the most part, William Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey was compiled by honest, well- meaning men, at the heart of their communities, who told it as they saw it, 200 years ago this year.