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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

The River Barrow

County Carlow

The Carlow Boat Club alongside the Corcoran & Co Ltd Motor Garage & Stores taken from Carlow Bridge c1968

Photo by W. Muldowney

Carlow town on the river Barrow

Old Barge At Barrow Mills  Looking Back At Graiguecullen Bridge Early 1900's.
Source ebay seller


History of the River Barrow

This river rises in the Slieve Bloom mountains north west of the Ridge of Capard, in County Laois and flows in a north easterly direction through mountainous forested land crossing over the Slieve Bloom Way. After crossing the Slieve Bloom Way it meets its first tributary, the Glenlahan River just upstream of Tinnahinch Bridge,Co. Laois. from where it flows through agricultural land till it turns in a south easterly direction at Ballyclare Brg. Downstream of Mountmellick, which it by passes, it is joined by two other tributaries, the Owenass that flows through Mountmellick and the Triogue that flows through Portlaoise.

Onward it flows towards the sea this time in a north easterly direction towards the town of Portarlington. This town is the first major centre of population centre that it flows through. From Portarlington the Barrow flows in an easterly direction toward the town of Monasterevin where its receiving waters are swollen by the Fighile or Black River. Fighile or Black River is a combination of the following rivers - the Philipstown River which flows quite close to Dangan, Co. Offaly and joins the Fighile at Clonbulloge, Co. Offaly. From there the Fighile or Black River flows south towards Monasterevin and is joined on the way by the Slate River which flows through Rathanagan, Co. Kildare, and by the Cushina which does not have any major population centre in its catchment. Before the Barrow leaves Monasterevin it has the distinction of the Grand Canal (Barrow Line) passing over it via an Aquaduct.

(The above picture appeared for sale on eBay recently c2008 Caption: The Slip, Kilkeeny Road, Carlow) Should read Kilkenny Road!

The Barrow Navigation

Carlow section of the Barrow Navigation

A Committee was appointed as far back as 1703 in the Irish House of Commons to propose a Bill to make the River Barrow navigable. However, work did not actually start until 1761, and by 1800 ten lateral canals had been cut.

Lack of consistent depth in the river caused problems, especially in summer, and commercial traffic was affected by frequent delays.  In 1935 the Upper Barrow drainage scheme resulted in the lateral canals being affected by silting and finally commercial trade was ended in 1959. The river is now navigable between Athy (County Kildare) and St. Mullins (County Carlow).  The Barrow Navigation is linked with the Grand Canal via the Barrow Line, above Athy, and the Grand Canal itself reaches west to the Shannon and east to Dublin.

The Barrow is Ireland's second largest river. It runs for 192 km from source to sea and is navigable from Athy to St. Mullins, some 68 km. There are 23 locks, including the sea lock at St. Mullins. The Barrow Line of the Grand Canal is 46 km long and forms the second part of the navigation carrying 9 locks between Lowtown and the junction of the Barrow at Athy.

Over 300 years before the Christian era, legend has it that a great battle took place to capture the fort of Dinn Righ, a large mound near Leighlinbridge. The presence of such formidable defensive structure indicates the importance of the Barrow as a strategic military highway as well as a highway for commerce since earliest times. Evidence of early Christian and later medieval church establishments can be seen all along the river, notably at or near St. Mullins, Old Leighlin, Carlow, Sleaty, Nurney and Monasterevan.

The Barrow was a significant commercial canalised waterway right up to the 1950's with important river ports at Athy, Carlow, Graignamanagh and New Ross. Barges carried consignments of malting barley to Dublin as raw material for the famous Guinness stout, which was transported back downstream in its finished state. Later, beet-filled barges supplied Ireland's first sugar factory at Carlow. The Barrow is now completely given over to pleasure.

Milestone at Knockbeg Lock
Image was taken by Carloman2 in 2010

Barrow Wildlife

The unspoiled banks of the Barrow, the open fields and woods, attract a huge variety of birds and waterfowl. Mallard and moorhen can be seen fussing about in the quieter stretches. Kingfishers flit above the water, while herons wait patiently for dinner to swim within striking distance. Farmlands harbour lapwing, thrush, rook, hooded crow, pheasant and woodpigeon. Other species commonly seen in woodland areas include the little grebe, woodcock, the shy sparrow hawk, kestrel, whitethroat, goldcrest, spotted flycatcher, long-tail tit, chiffchaff and many, many more. The Barrow is a nature wonderland, providing many hours of enjoyment for visitors cruising its waters. Electric blue and emerald green damsel flies share the riverside flora with red admirals, painted ladies, peacocks and common blue butterflies.

The Barrow River

Rathvinden Lock 

Rathvinden Lock

Our exploration takes you downstream from Athy on a journey of enchantment along the Barrow, a relatively undiscovered gem among the great inland pleasure cruising waterways of Ireland. Here is a river where the waters and backwaters soothe the soul and renew the spirit. Ireland's second longest navigable river, the Barrow, is noted for the beauty and variety of its landscape, the fascination of its historic hinterland and the picturesque charm of its riverside towns. The marriage of the River Barrow with the Barrow line of the Grand Canal takes place in the Heritage Town of Athy. Great silos and malt houses surround the canal harbour, where once warehouses were filled with grain and malt waiting to be transported to Dublin by commercial barge.

Along the banks, adorned with stately trees and cultivated fields, the empty eyes of old country houses evoke a past where the pace of life was in tune with the waterway. Fields of barley, wheat and beet accompany the journey under Maganey Bridge.  Below Maganey Lock, the River Greese enters the river, and the River Lerr joins it at Shrule Castle.  This dates back to Elizabethan times and was later owned by Robert Hartpole, another Hellfire Club member.

The soothing sound of falling water signals the approach of another weir and the following lock. The Three Counties Pub at Maganey reflects the fact that three county boundaries - Kildare, Carlow and Laois, meet hereabouts. Tie-up, have a relaxing drink and enjoy the peace and the company. Grangemellon Castle is on the east bank, once the home of 'Handsome Jack' St Leger, who was a member of the notorious Hellfire Club and the founder of the St Leger race. Boats rejoin the river after Levitstown Lock.

Boaters take the Levitstown Cut to avoid one of the river's un-navigable stretches. The longest of the lateral canals on the river, it follows the main road from Athy to Carlow and is some two miles long.

After Bestfield Lock, the dominant feature is Ireland's largest sugar refinery, which processes the raw material from the extensive beet fields in the area. This signals the approach of Carlow Town. The boat stream, which has been close to the east bank from Athy, now switches to the west bank after Graiguecullen Bridge (1815) and its weir. Looming above the bridge is the imposing ruin of the 13th century Anglo-Norman Carlow Castle. The expanse of grassy quays and the huddle of warehouses bear witness to the town's pivotal role in trade and commerce along the Barrow Navigation. Below the lock is the fine modern marina of Ceatharlach Moorings with overnight mooring facilities, toilets, showers, telephone, safe docking, pump out and recharging facilities.

Below Carlow Weir, the banks are liberally endowed with walls of willow sallies and alder. The landscape is according to Thackeray - the 19th century satirist and author of Vanity Fair - "exceedingly beautiful, with noble hills rising on either side and the broad silver Barrow flowing through rich meadows of that astonishing verdure which is only to be seen in this country". The pink heads of Himalayan balsam add an exotic touch to the banks on the way to Clogrennan Lock.

Milford Lock is negotiated on the way to Milford, once the centre of an extensive milling industry. It was from this quiet hamlet, that, in 1981, Carlow became the first inland town in Ireland or Britain to receive a public electric supply. The generating plant has been recently restored. The idyllic setting includes 3 bridges, handsome mill buildings and a wooded area, containing an aquatic triangle, rich with wildlife. The river now meanders through tranquil countryside, past a wood of oak, ash and draping willow, where time seems to stand still. An island-studded straight stretch of water leads to Leighlinbridge. Glide through the graceful arches of the oldest bridge on the river. The attractive 7-arch structure was built in 1320 by Maurice Jakis and the castle which dominates the river is known as the Black Castle, originally built in 1180.

Towpathat  Rath Ellen Lock BagenalstownThe sea of tranquillity may be on the moon, but the earthbound version is the stretch of river between Leighlinbridge and Bagenalstown. The celebrated Dinn Righ ring fort (not open to the public) on the west bank presides over pastoral beauty and pastoral peace in equal measure after which a cut leads to Rathellen Lock and on to Bagenalstown. The approach to Bagenalstown is infused with the character of its 18th century origins, with lovely stone-cut buildings, a drawbridge and a picturesque lock. Cruise on through the east arch of a railway viaduct after which a series of locks will keep the crew busy; these include locks at Fenniscourt and Slyguff.

The Barrow at Bagenalstown 

The Barrow at Bagenalstown

Goresbridge, with its graceful 9-arch bridge, lies between Upper and Lower Ballyellen locks. International buyers in search of high quality Irish horses are attracted to the famous horse fairs held here every three months. The presence of so many locks over a short 9 km of waterway, signals a change in character to the landscape. The tension between the valley and the surrounding hills increases and adds visual splendour to the journey to Ballytiglea Bridge. Moor here for Borris (3 km).  Borris is the home of the Kavanaghs, an old Irish family and part of the MacMurrough Kavanagh dynasty, former kings of Leinster. Beautiful stone-cut buildings and traditional shop and pub fronts add to the appeal of the town. A 9-hole golf course and a linear park with picnic area and tennis courts provide pleasant distractions. The pubs with their traditional music sessions and friendly atmosphere have gained nation-wide recognition.

Below Borris Lock a miniature one-eyed bridge conceals a tiny harbour. It was from this place that Arthur Kavanagh, who was born without limbs in 1831, set forth by boat to Westminster to fulfil his duties as Member of Parliament. He was Lord Lieutenant of County Carlow, Member of the Privy Council of Ireland, local magistrate and a superb horseman. Further downstream, the Rhine-like aspect of the valley can be appreciated to the full, with the Blackstairs Mountains on one side and Saddle Hill on the other pinching the river tight between the valley walls. The hills flow down to the river, retreat, and flow again, all clad in a huge variety of deciduous trees, some of which bend their heads over the stream, creating rich leafy banks of great beauty.

The broad graceful curves of the weirs and the setting of the locks at Ballingrane, Clashganny and Ballykeenan provide beautiful subjects for your camera and your holiday album. The river bends and bends again past Silaire Woods and its choir of birds. This stretch of water is nature at its most gentle, which makes the final bend all the more surprising and exciting, when the colourful town of Gragnamangh is suddenly revealed on the west bank, with Brandon Hill making a dramatic statement above it.

Graignamangh is in Co. Kilkenny, while Tinnahinch, on the east bank, is in Co. Carlow. The beautiful bridge floodlit at night, links the two and dates from 1767 when a canal system was being built on the Barrow to improve navigation. Before the bridge and perched above the town is historic Duiske Abbey, now beautifully restored. Norman monks from Stanley Abbey, Wiltshire, founded it in 1204. Take time to walk through the town with its great selection of shops, pubs and music. Those of you who like long walks can take the road to Brandon Hill or head for Tinnahinch bridge and join the South Leinster Way long-distance walking trail.

Cruising downstream, the valley becomes deeper, with first the west and then the east banks carrying tiers of trees on steep hills which tumble colourfully towards the river all the way to St. Mullins and the end of the navigation.

St. Mullins is a scenically charming riverside village with an impressive ecclesiastical history and is one of the most important religious foundations in Co. Carlow. A walk of about 2 klm's from the mooring leads to the graceful ruin of the monastery founded by St. Moling in the 7th century. The kings of South Leinster, including the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs, are buried in the precincts. A small bridle path behind the ruins leads to St. Molling's Well, from which close up views of the river, its weir and old millrace can be enjoyed.

Note from Carloman:

"Carlow Rivers"

Ships could only come up as far as New Ross, Co Wexford. You should be aware that the Barrow is also not a large river. The Slaney in Co Carlow is small in width and the River Derry, even smaller.
The Irish Canals were not ship canals, but were for horse drawn barges. The toe paths that the horses used make ideal walks beside the rivers.
What made the Barrow suitable for barges was its conversion in places to a canal. This work was done before the advent of railways which in fact in Britain and Ireland spelled the death of the canals as the rails could go places where there were no interconnecting waterways.
The canals were build by men who were called Navigators which became shortened to "Navvy". Up to the mid 1960 all manual labourers working on excavations were still called Navvies and they are remembered in folk songs in Britain and Ireland.
I recall as a child in the late 1950's, Guinness barges bringing barrels of stout from Dublin down to towns like Carlow.
The Barrow was made usable by cutting channels parallel to it and building weirs across the Natural river, forcing a good flow of water into the side channels. Levels were taken care of by lock gates. There are several sets of gates near Carlow and just below the bridge there is a large weir.


Barrow Navigation Timeline 1537 to 1996 History of The Barrow Navigation
AN ODYSSEY ON THE RIVER BARROW This is a story of a mans trip down the River Barrow.
The Lovely Barrow River Extract taken from address to Members of Carlow Rotary Club.
Michael Webster Source: Michael Purcell
WEBSTER'S LOCK By Michael Godfrey The Nationalist Tuesday, January 12, 1999
Boats On The Barrow By T. P. Hayden
Barrow Milling Co Barrow Mills Buildings prior to demolition.
BY THE BANKS OF THE BARROW Clodagh Murphy  reminisces

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