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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

Thoughts On The Barrow And The Canal

County Carlow

by Willie White

The Nationalist (Carlow) April 14 2006

'Willie White Times Past'

If we look at a picture of the beauty spots of Carlow today there is no doubt but that we will find the scene at Clashganny Lock on the Barrow among them. The tranquil beauty and the pleasant appearance of river and Lock will reach us as if we were walking the bank ourselves and bring us back memories of the stories we were told in our younger days of the barges and boats who piled the canal as keenly as the road and rail services do on their separate ways now. The voyages up and down the Canal and the Barrow were thought as much of by those involved as the crews of the ships that plied between the Irish and British ports or headed for some far away places.

Now that we have given Clashganny Lock its moment of glory let us take a look at the real source of this great river and the Canal, which shares its waters, and follow its course to the sea at Waterford Harbour. It is easy to trace the reason for the name of many of the rivers of Ireland but somehow there is no clear- cut definition to the name of the Barrow. In the Irish language it is An Bheabha, or in the Old Irish Berba. There are other suggestions such as Beirbaim (to boil), Bearg (a stream), or bir (water). In the Dinnshenchas of the Book of Leinster there is a reference to Berba, a queen or female deity of the Tuatha De Danann, whose son, Mechi, had three serpents in his heart.

Diancetht, the medicine god or physician of the ‘Tuatha De, killed the serpents, burned them and threw their ashes into the river, causing it to boil. This story has the conventional symbols of the Celtic ritual including the Threefold Death by wounding, burning and drowning. There is another story told in connection with the Barrow which refers to the goddess Berba in the Tinna Cathair Mair, the testament of Cathair Mar, divine ancestor of the Leinstermen, who describes his youngest son, Fiachu Ba h | Aiccid, as the ‘lucky off spring of ardent Berba’. Fiachu was to be the progenitor of the great Leinster dynasties, and Berba - goddess or river - is thus the mother figure of all Leinstermen.

So much for the name of the river, now let us try to do what men have been doing since the beginning of time or when man first came upon a stream of water which he later called a river, try to find its source. We may have read of the pool of knowledge from which the river springs or the crystal clear water that pour from a rock to start the flow, but believe me there is no such source to the mighty Barrow.

The source of the Barrow is in a boggy stretch of ground between an area called the Cut and Barna Mountain in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It is the water coming from several points in this heather covered bog that eventually forms the baby Barrow and starts on its long run to meet the Atlantic ocean at what is called Waterford Harbour (Don’t be under the impression that Waterford Harbour means Waterford city because the city is built on the Suir which flows into the Barrow at a place called Cheekpoint, roughly ten miles from Waterford city and it is the broad stretch of water between Dunmore East in Co. Waterford and Hook Head in Co. Wexford that is known as Waterford Harbour .

As far as the nuts of knowledge are concerned, don’t be downhearted regarding finding one in the Barrow. Tradition tells us that the nuts of knowledge are closely associated with the river. It appears that the king and Bishop of Cashel Cormac Mac Cuilennain, whose youthful studies took place not far from the river at Disert Dhiarmada, (Castledermot) records that ‘I found my nut of knowledge on the waters of the Barrow’.

To turn out attention to the Canal and the work on the boats there was a period when a job on the barges was one of the God sends of the working class along the river. There was nothing soft about barge work. The week’s work started at 12 o’clock on a Sunday night and continued until 12 o’clock on the following Saturday night, six days on duty all the time. Accidents were few, if you had an accident the person involved was shifted at once and someone else took his place.

The work itself was hard, carrying bags of meal weighing 24 stone (3 Cwt), was no easy task, but you learned the best way to carry them quickly or you left the boat. A very important thing when loading the boat was to make sure that the weight was under the 50 tons allowed. This was when the water was high. Another point that had to be watched was not to have the load too high for some of the bridges to be passed under. Generally speaking the trip was from St. Mullins to James St. Harbour in Dublin and took about 2 days and one night to complete. The barges carried red lamps to warn each other at night time.

Probably the best period that the boat crews had as far as money went was during the ‘39-45 war, Wages went to £1 5/per week and £1 13/ if you were in charge of the engine. There was no such thing as holidays or bonus pay - Guinness were one of the best customers for the Carlow run. They had three boat loads every week for Carlow town and the surrounding rural area. There was no retirement age, you worked as long as you were able to do your share.

While most firms today supply protective clothing for their workers there was no such thing for the bargemen. If you were unlucky enough to get wet you had to try to dry your clothes by the side of the engine during the night. As far as food went the charge hand had to buy the provisions for the week including a bag of coal for the stove to cook the meals during the week. Some crews had better cooks than others and a good cook could make excellent meals for the crew.

That was another good point about the barge crews, no one was ever hungry A 10st bag of coal cost 2/ at the time and it would do for a week for cooking and heating. They slept in bunks and clean bedclothes were supplied every time the boat docked in Dublin. In Carlow if a strange boat had to dock overnight there was a store across the river from the Canal Store where hay oats were stored for the horses and stables to pass the night.

Overhead the men could get a meal for themselves and bunk down for the night. In a way life on the Canal had been hard but it also had a certain romantic air about it that was not to be found elsewhere. The spirit of comradeship that built up among the crews on the river and the sincere sympathy offered to members of crews who had suffered a loss or were in any sort of trouble. It is a period now past, but for those who worked on the Canal when times were hard let up hope they have all found a safe harbour in which to rest.

Previously published in The Nationalist (Carlow) April 14 2006


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