National Famine Way:
Following in the footsteps of emigrants
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent and the Westmeath Examiner in Feb 2021 - full article and an additional gallery of images below
Launched in September 2020, The National Famine Way is a poignant reminder of our emigrant past. Traversing the midlands, the route runs along the banks of the Royal Canal: a 167km waymarked national walking trail that takes in six counties and which connects the National Famine Museum in Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, with Rowan Gillespie’s haunting Famine Memorial on Custom House Quay in Dublin.
It is a self-guided trail which documents the experience of assisted emigration in Ireland, and the harrowing journey of 1,490 poor and hungry famine emigrants. Upon eviction from the Strokestown Estate, they were forced to walk this lengthy route at the height of the Irish Famine in 1847. Arriving in Dublin, they boarded a ship to Liverpool before subsequently journeying to Canada on board some of the worst so-called “coffin ships” at the time. Unsurprisingly, ravaged by disease and starvation, not all of them made it and they became known as the 'Missing 1490'.
Along the trail, a moving tribute reflects their journey. Set on plinths and interspersed along the length of the route at significant points are thirty pairs of bronze 19th-century children’s shoe sculptures, a stark reminder that children were not exempt from this fate. The first pair can be found outside the museum in Strokestown, in front of a memorial wall bearing the names of the 1,490 people. The museum is housed in an elegant 18th century Palladian mansion on a large estate. Both the house and walled garden are currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, but the parklands are still open to the public.
The historic trail continues east to the harbour town of Tarmonbarry where the vast expanse of the River Shannon opens out from an impressive lock. This is also one of the access points to the Shannon Blueway, a paddling trail to experience the scenic surroundings from a different perspective.
The National Famine Way meets the Royal Canal for the first time at the picturesque village of Cloondara, home to the first lock on the canal. It then follows the path of the canal as it snakes cross-country through the towns and villages of Roscommon, Longford and Westmeath, to the urban sprawl of Meath, Kildare and Dublin.
From Cloondara to Maynooth, the trail merges with the Royal Canal Greenway, an off-road 130km stretch of mainly flat and well-surfaced paths, suitable for people of all ages and abilities. The route is a tranquil one, mainly through unspoiled countryside with rolling hills, attractive waterside villages, well-preserved stone bridges and working locks to admire as you pass. There are also a number of historic landmarks worthy of a pit-stop. This is a wonderful public amenity; safe and with clear signposting throughout. It can be done in sections or all at once, though with current restrictions, we may have to wait until the summer months before we can experience it in its full glory.
At Newbrook and Ballinea in Mullingar the route joins the Old Rail Trail, a 42km Greenway between Mullingar and Athlone. It also links with the 22km Royal Canal Blueway Trail and Activity Zone. It’s wonderful to see the seamless integration of our outdoor networks, creating an easily navigable experience for all to enjoy.
There are seven pairs of bronze shoes to be found on the Westmeath section of the route: at Ballinacarigy Harbour, Kilpatrick Graveyard near Kilpatrick Bridge, Mullingar Harbour, Lough Owel feeder, Piper’s Boithrín, McNead’s Bridge and Thomastown Harbour. The National Famine Way passes the Robinstown famine graveyard in Mullingar at its mid-point which contains the marked and unmarked graves of victims of the Great Famine. The entrance gateway is made from cut-stone with wrought-iron gates and topped with a cross.
The pathways along the Royal Canal have long been favoured by cyclists, walkers and families but the historical significance of this route had not been widely acknowledged until the launch of the trail. The placement of shoes along the way certainly gives us pause for thought and encourages a moment of reflection on what must have been a harrowing feat of endurance.
In a similar idea to the world-famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, this is an accredited Trail. Walkers or cyclists have the option of becoming an Officially Registered Participant by obtaining an official National Famine Way pack online here. It costs €10 and allows participants to record their progress in a special passport with 27 stamps that can be collected along the route, though this option is on hold due to current restrictions. The pack comes with a guide, highlighting historical landmarks and points of interest, as well as local amenities. It also contains an OSI Trail Map.
Your trail will end on the Dublin Docklands. Here you come face-to-face with the poignant Famine Memorial by one of Ireland’s greatest sculptors Rowan Gillespie. His starving figures walk towards you, hunched and pitiful, along Custom House Quays – a profoundly affecting experience. Once you have collected all 27 stamps, a Certificate of Completion is awarded at EPIC, the Irish Emigration Museum on the quays.
The National Famine Way is an inter-county collaboration between The Irish Heritage Trust, The National Famine Museum at Strokestown Park, Waterways Ireland and the seven City and County Councils: Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Meath, Kildare, Fingal and Dublin. Full details and route map to be found on https://nationalfamineway.ie/