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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

An odyssey on The River Barrow

County Carlow

by F. S. Magan

Reproduced from a two part article in the Irish Independent November / December 1968.

I spent my youth on the River Barrow between Athy and Carlow. Our house, and the provender mill my father ran, were virtually on an island formed by the river on one side, and the canal on the other, and these met just below the mill. There was always great activity going on this mill, with farmers coming and going with their grain and provender, but was gave me, as a small boy, the most interest were the barges. There were still a few horse-drawn barges, but by this time – the late twenties – most of the barges were mechanised and the used to pass at all times of the day and night.

I frequently went up to Athy or down to Carlow in a barge, and I once went all the way to Dublin in a barge, but never in all those years did I get an opportunity to discover the Barrow south of Carlow and I this I determined to do. I knew that there had been no commercial traffic on the Barrow for about the last 15 years, and therefore I checked both in Dublin and Carlow to make sure that the river was still navigable, and I was assured that it was.

The Barrow navigation was originally created by the building of a series of weirs for a length of about 50 miles from where the Grand Canal joins the Barrow at Athy all the way south to tidal waters at St. Mullins. These weirs average about two miles apart, and running away from each weir is canal or cut which can be anything from hundred yards to about a mile and a half long, each canal terminates with a lock which lowers you back into the river, and away to go again to repeat the procedure.

Open Boat

Early in September my wife wished to spend the weekend in Co. Wexford and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to discover the Barrow with my son, aged 15, and the necessary preparations were duly made. For equipment we brought a tent which was little bigger than a double bed; two li-los and two sleeping bags. We have a general purpose boat which is fitted with centerboard and can carry a 100 sq. foot of sail although on this occasion we left the sail and the mast behind. The boat is an entirely open boat 17 ft. long x 4’ 3” in the beam – and draws about 9”. We also have a 13 year old Labrador bitch which we took us.

First Lap

We set off, trailing the boat for Carlow on the first weekend of September and we had the boat in the water and all ship-shape above the weir, just before 1pm on a dull, murky day which was trying to rain, but couldn’t. The lock-keeper saw us through the lock and assured us that all the locks were working perfectly well, down to the sea, so off we went with my son steering on the first lap. I had with me a copy of the “Waterways of the Republic of Ireland” at the back of which is a chart of the Barrow navigation, and for the first few minutes of the trip, I studied this chart hard, in order to get an idea of the scale, and I noticed straight away that there was about a 3ž4 mile an hour current in the river.

We hadn’t gone a mile down the river when I said to my son,, “Look out, if you go much further to will be going over the first weir”. I had previously noticed a broken-down bit of an arrow pointed to the right, but didn’t really see what it was pointing at so we turned round and went back, and turned into what looked for all the world like a grossly overgrown drain which was very narrow, with banks and thick with overhanging trees. So dense was it, that it gave one the impression of being in the upper reaches of the Amazon. We chugged along this for about a mile, not really knowing whether we were in the canal or not, and sure enough we came to our first lock. We had already armed ourselves with a lock-key so that we would not be delayed at each lock looking for a key to open and close the racks.

It was just as well that we took this precaution because we eventually found that only four of the 19 locks which went through were manned, and in all the others there wasn’t a key to be found, and if there were human beings around they were not prepared to help. We took it in turn to get out of the boat before we reached each lock in order to prepare the lock for entry. I could see from the chart that for the first four locks south of Carlow, the canal always left the river to the right-hand side. After the fourth, and all the way to tidal waters, it went to the left of the river. Thereafter the first thing you saw was a weir, and therefore, below Leighlinbridge Bridge we were on the look-out for this and sure enough the weir soon came.

What was in front of us still left us in grave doubts, because all we saw was a mass of weeds, and here and there, a tiny bit of clear water about 9” to a foot wide. We decided to stop the engine and start poling through this weed with our oars, but we soon found that this was useless; every time we pushed forward with an oar, we found that we had to come all the way back again in order to pull it out of the mud. We therefore decided to start up the engine again and luckily it was wonderful at going through the mud. Had we known that we would have to go through this procedure no less than 15 more times between where we were and the last lock, we have been disheartened.

Deserted Country

We could always see hills and houses in the distance and the country was very beautiful, although it appeared to be desolate. With the exception of the odd town we went through we never once saw a pleasure-boat, not even a rowing boat on the river; nor did we see a soul going about his business. We might as well have been in an unpopulated country.

We carried on through the afternoon, some times going through fairly flat country with a slow moving current under us, and other times the river would narrow and we appeared to be roaring along with a fast moving current under us. Although the locks which we had so far gone through were in a bad state of repair, they were a least workable, and we had little or no real difficulty until about five o’clock in the evening. After going through what appeared to be a very long canal full of weed, we saw in front of us an old canal barge which was almost straddling the whole canal, and was surrounded by very thick weeds, just above a lock. This was the 13th lock at upper Ballyellen just north of Goresbridge.

With one rope fixed to the bows and one to the barge, and almost had to lift the boat over the weed in the tiny gap that was left to us, to get through. This particular lock was in a chronic condition. The wooden platforms on which one stands to open the racks were almost rotted away. The gates themselves were leaking badly and only two racks on the southern end of the lock would work at all. It was my son’s turn to go down the lock in the boat while I worked the racks and opened the gate. The lock appeared to empty sufficiently to open the gate, but when I came to do it, I found I was just not strong enough. So there I was, with my son in the boat at the bottom of the lock, and not able to move. I crossed over and tried to open the other gate, and managed to open it about 9”, and my son got the bows of the boat between the two gates. I was in a predicament – was I to fill the lock again? My son suggested he would climb up the slippery gate and I reluctantly agreed.

Climbed Down

He then manfully climbed up one the gates to come and help me, and between us we got this gate open a little more, but not sufficient to get our boat through. We then crossed back to the other gate to try our luck again, and between us we opened it a little, but not enough. We went on shoving and heaving for about half an hour; there was nobody in sight to help us and we eventually got the boat as far through the gates as amidships, only to find it was caught with one of the fenders, and just wouldn’t go through. My son climbed down the gates again, at considerable risk, got into the boat, pulled in the fender and with a supreme effort eventually squeezed the boat through. During all this we discovered the depth of the lock was only about 18” and remembering that our beam was only 4’ 3”, what hope would a pleasure cruiser have, let alone a barge?

Part Two

Beautiful Lower Reaches of the Barrow

In order to give us plenty of time to pitch our tent, I said that we must stop at 6 o'clock, but we were still going at 7 o'clock because we found it very difficult to to find anywhere to pitch it. Also with every further mile south that we went, the river became more exciting, the country more beautiful and we were always eager to know what was around the next corner. We eventually found ourselves in a lock which appeared to be miles from anywhere. There was a derelict lockkeeper's house and a bit of shelter. We left the boat in the lock with the upper gates open and proceeded to pitch our tent right beside the lock. Just as we were finishing our coffee, the rain started to come down in torrents, and we made a dive for the tent.

The dog was now the problem, because obviously she wasn't used to camping, but we managed to get her settled down between the two of us. It was raining hard, yet it was warm and the flaps of the tent had to be closed; otherwise we would have been soaked. Unfortunately the dog would not stay in the tent and kept going out into the rain and then come back into the tent, where she lay in a wet heap on top of us. It was still raining the next morning - so we had to forgo all ideas of a cooked breakfast - we just had two large plates of cornflakes and were on our way with the rolled-up sodden tent, wet sleeping bags, Li-los and wet clothes. However we soon forgot all this in the excitement of this beautiful river as we found ourselves getting into more mountainous and wooded country, and we could still have been on the upper reaches of the Amazon, because there wasn't a soul to be seen anywhere.

The river was now getting appreciably wider, and we were soon through Graigenamanagh and realised that we had only three more locks to go and it had stopped raining. The trees and the mountains were getting more awe-inspiring every mile, and we found ourselves going through deep ravines, with forests growing up the mountainsides on either side, and by 3 o'clock on the Sunday afternoon we had reached the last lock at St Mullins and tidal waters. This lock was manned, and as we went through it we were approached by the lock-keeper, who firmly told us that we could go no further. He told us that the tide at that time was just about the lowest and the highest of the whole year and even our little boat could not go into tidal waters without considerable danger. So, rather reluctantly we looked for a camping site, pitched our tent and searched for a few dry twigs to light a fire.

We had had practically nothing to eat for 24 hours by now, and we were both tired, wet and hungry, and I asked my son whether he wanted breakfast or supper. He voted for supper, and we had with us one enormous which was meant for two of us. I then proceeded to fry the steak, and my son soon devoured the lot. I had my breakfast cooking, which consisted of half a dozen sausages, three rashers and two fried eggs. Both these fried eggs were taken out of the frying pan with a teaspoon and landed on the plate in an unbroken condition.

By the time we were in the tent it was again pouring with rain, and we had to face wet sleeping bags and a wet dog for another night. It was pitch dark by 8.30 and we settled down to sleep as best we could, because we knew we had to make an early start in the morning. We were up next morning at 7 o'clock, but unfortunately we hadn't time to go through the rigmarole of a cooked breakfast and relied on our flakes, but the lock-keepers wife was kind enough to give us a pot of scalding tea, which warmed the cockles of our heart before we set off.

Great Gore

It was not raining now and we were all packed up and through the lock at a quarter to nine into what appeared to be a very high tide, but we knew it was still flooding. We knew that we had about another 10 miles to go before we got to New Ross, but this is all we knew. We had no idea of the scenery or the grandeur which was before us. I have never had the good fortune to go on a trip down the Rhine, but I am now certain that I have done the next best thing. I have done the Grand Canal from Dublin to the Shannon, and from Dublin to Athy and I have done the Shannon from St James's to Killaloe, but nowhere have I seen scenery to approach this. Within a mile of leaving St Mullins you are in a great gorge, enveloped with high cliffs covered with gorgeous trees as this river winds its way through country that even at nine o'clock on a murky morning can leave one spellbound in its beauty.

We soon realised that the tide had indeed changed and we were fairly ripping along. The wild duck were flying in profusion overhead and now and then one would see the remains of a castle or tower appearing above the heads of the trees, towering away above us. At times the river was really rough when the southerly gale that was blowing got the chance to whip up the waters in the gorge. By 10.30 in the morning we had reached New Ross and in spite of the wet and murky weather we were happy in the knowledge that we had succeeded in completing a momentous journey through previously undiscovered territory right in the heart of our own country.

Hardly Navigable

Why is this most beautiful of all our lovely inland waterways being allowed to go to rack and ruin? Having done this trip I am convinced that the Barrow is no longer navigable for anything except the smallest of boats, and I, therefore, object to having to pay a toll of 2 shillings per lock for locks that are unkempt and positively dangerous to use. On the other hand, I find I cannot blame C.I.E. for not keeping a waterway in navigable condition if nobody is ever going to use it, and I cannot blame Bord Failte for not giving publicity to a waterway which is no longer navigable, but I can blame ourselves, the citizens of this country, for not utilising our magnificent heritage.

Even if only one pleasure cruiser per week demanded access to the sea from Carlow throughout the summer months C.I.E should be compelled to make this navigation possible. It is still not too late to carry out the necessary repairs, and if this wonderful waterway was once more used, even in a very small way, I am sure that in no time it would be receiving the same publicity as the Shannon is today and this would be followed by a grant from Bord Failte as has already happened on the Shannon. Is there no enterprising individual living in the New Ross area who would be prepared to hire even one boat to ply between New Ross and Athy.  Even this one boat would be enough to save the plight of the Barrow.

A lot of the present problem of weed in the canal would be overcome if C.I.E. would leave at least two racks open in each lock, to allow a continuous flow of water through the canals, instead of it becoming stagnant as it is now, and encouraging weeds. Having done this trip I am convinced that there is a tourist potential here, sitting on our doorsteps, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds if we ourselves could only see the wood from the trees and start using this waterway again before it is too late, and it will be too late in the next couple of years.

by F. S. Magan reproduced from a two part article in the Irish Independent November / December 1968.

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