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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Boats On The Barrow

County Carlow

Source: Carloviana 1952

Boats On The Barrow

By T. P. Hayden

Horse Drawn Barge

 THE thriving boat business that used to be known in Carlow has steadily declined. Many of us remember the horse-drawn boats on the Barrow, the coming of the motor-boats, and the advance in the popularity of road transport, which forced the Grand Canal Company into the road freight business. Water transport is still the best and cheapest way of transporting non-perishable goods. It has been used from time immemorial. In this article, condensed from a paper read to the O.C.S., Mr. Hayden tries to trace the beginnings of the Barrow navigation.

NOT all beginnings are easy to trace. Some say that boats plied on the Barrow before the Norman Conquest, but apart from the tidal water up to St. Mullins, there seems to be no evidence of navigation of the part we know, until the middle ages.

Before the Normans, St. Mullins on the tidal waters was a thriving city and Ireland traded with France probably through the Barrow estuary.

Ships in the early days were flat-bottomed, and mariners used to drag them ashore on sandy beaches. So there is no reason why such shallow-draught vessels could not have navigated the tidal waters of the Barrow.

Bent Oak

These old boats were strong and seaworthy, with ribs made of naturally bent oak. Latterly the ribs were made from wood bent in water. I saw these naturally crooked ribs in an old Barrow boat in good condition which I examined about 1910, and it was built about 1820 or 1830.

Irish hides were exported to Gaul for making shields, and in 1086 William Rufus, King of England, received a present of Irish oak from the King of Leinster to roof Westminster Hall.

Irish wood was mostly used for making ships. But as the easiest way to export it for this purpose is to make the ships in the country of origin, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that St. Mullins was a ship-building centre.

St. Brendan

St. Brendan is known to have visited the place before he set out on his voyage to America. The cell on Brandon Hill he is said to have built is still to be seen. He had been advised that stout timber ships would be required for his voyage across the Atlantic. What could be more likely than that he went to St. Mullins to have his ships built there?

In 853 the Danes settled in Waterford, beginning a rivalry between that port and New Ross and St. Mullins on the stretch of estuary called the Ross River. The rivalry ended when James II in 1686 gave Waterford control of all the tidal waters.

No Towns

From old records we know that the Barrow in its higher reaches was not navigated by the ancient Irish. There were no towns on its banks.

Only after the Norman invasion were Carlow, Athy and Leighlin built. Their sites were formerly fords where the river was widened and made shallower, which would preclude navigation. Bridges were built, fords removed and the river was deepened.

The lock and weir system was constructed in 1792-after the Barrow Navigation Company was incorporated by an Act of the Irish Parliament. John Semple, a famous bridge-builder, was the engineer, and he built the old Royal Oak and other well-known bridges.


Before the Navigation Act the Barrow had a thriving trade. Portarlington was a busy river port, named after Viscount Arlington, member of Charles II's cabinet and known as The Cabal, and Arthur Young, the 1775 traveller, mentions that butter was brought by river from twenty miles beyond Carlow for sixpence a hundredweight.

Transport before 1792 was done in 4 or 5-ton flat bottomed boats. The boatmen either cooked for themselves or refreshed themselves in eating houses. Traces of the old track line can still be discerned where it was untouched by the navigation works.

Horses and jennets were used for locomotion. Some say gangs of men also pulled the boats, but it would seem that this idea stemmed from the practice of all hands giving a haul at difficult points.

Weirs and Locks

Remains of old weirs have been revealed during drainage works, some of them intact since they were submerged over 150 years ago.

Locks were an invention of the mid-eighteenth century, and before that small weirs were built with a 2-foot drop every half mile. Boats were hauled through, a small channel through which the water rushed furiously. Both Weir and channel were called a haul. The part of the bank cut off by the channel and adjoining the weir formed an islet. Some of them remain and are mistaken for natural islets in the river. Where natural islets occurred they were used.

I cannot say when this system was constructed. The Irish Parliament passed a Navigation Act in 1707, but I think the work subsequently affected was improvement and repair and the provision of quays. It is likely that the weirs were built before 1531, possibly by the Normans.

It seems safe to conjecture that iron, smelted with charcoal, was part of the river trade between the 12th and 17th century. In 1641 there were iron works at Graiguenamanagh. In Killeshin, near the waterworks, is a place called Iron .Mills, and tradition says Hint, iron was made there. Iron was made at Portarlington in 1666. Corn and wines and other common commodities were also carried.

After all, the rivers were a more important source of transport in those days when there was no wheeled traffic and goods by road had to be carried by pack horses. The Shannon was a great artery of trade from the earliest times, and it is not too much to conjecture about the importance of the Barrow, which is the greatest waterway in Leinster and must have served in Norman times as the most con­venient way of moving large quantities of merchandise.

Source: Source: Carloviana December 1952. Vol 1. No. 1.

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