Boats On The Barrow
By T. P. Hayden
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
Graignamannagh. 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.
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