All along the banks of the Royal Canal …
Kildare resident and explorer Dick Warner is making a welcome return to Ireland’s canal system as seen in the television series ‘Waterways-the Royal Canal’ currently being screened on RTE1 on Sunday evenings. With a countenance that has seen many storms and a voice that is laden with benign gravitas he is the ideal guide for a voyage along the Royal Canal on its course of ninety miles from the Liffey at Dublin to the Shannon at Clondra, west of Longford.
Kildare landmarks feature in the series as some ten miles of the Royal navigation lie within the county beginning at Leixlip/Confey and on westwards to Spin Bridge beyond Kilcock. And for another twelve miles the canal flirts across and back over the Kildare-Meath county boundary before finally exiting Kildare territory as it approaches Longwood.
Dick Warner’s vessel for the voyage is the Rambler, a steam tug built in 1878 specifically to tow barges on the Royal Canal. It’s the first time that the Rambler has voyaged on the canal since 1923. It’s a big boat for the channel and the crew have had close shaves as the vessel just squeezes underneath bridges and clears through lock gate chambers with bare inches to spare.
Fortunately there is no rush on the voyage – it took half a day to cover the first mile of the channel setting out from the sea lock at Dublin’s North Wall. A railway bridge which had to be lifted, and propellers fouled by canal debris, slowed the boat to a crawl on this first stretch and even when clearer water was reached beyond Blanchardstown progress was still leisurely. It is a tribute to film director Stephen Rooke and his production crew that the slowest form of travel on the planet is made into an adventure with exciting distractions on and off the canal.
The Royal canal is well-known to north Kildare dwellers with the road linking Leixlip, Maynooth and Kilcock running parallel to the channel for long stretches. The Royal is a constant companion to commuters on the Kilcock to Connolly railway line with the tracks running on the south bank of the canal. This coincidence was brought about when the canal was purchased in 1845 by the Midland Great Western Railway company not for its value as a transport waterway but for its towpath which provided a ready-made foundation for the railway tracks from Dublin to the midlands.
The richness of this transport heritage is perhaps best seen at Maynooth where the gem of a harbour sits adjacent to the ultra-modern railway station. Equally striking is the approach to Kilcock where rail and canal are framed by Shaw’s bridge overlooking the pristine harbour now a venue for a thriving canoe polo club.
Dick Warner’s voyage is timely as it was only last year that the Royal canal was reopened to navigation along its full length.
Built by manual labour between 1792 and 1817 it was closed to boats in 1961 and its condition deteriorated almost beyond recovery in the following decades. A stop-go restoration project began in the 1980s but it was only last year that the collapsed sections of the channel were rebuilt and low bridges heightened so as to once more allow boats to transit from the Liffey to the Shannon.
As well as its engineering heritage the canal has associations with some of the great figures of Ireland’s literary history. Brendan Behan immortalised the waterway in his prison ditty ‘The auld triangle goes jingle jangle all along the banks of the Royal Canal.’ Kildare’s own poetess Teresa Brayton was inspired by the peaty lanes which lead to the canal bank west of Kilcock– her composition ‘The Old Bog Road’ was the sentimental anthem of generations of Kildare emigrants.
And now Dick Warner and Tile Productions, the producers of the current television series, will inform a new generation about the charms of this most regal of waterways. As their publicity blurb says ‘The stunning cinematography of the spectacular canal vistas will evoke the look and feel of an Old Masters landscape painting.’ Or as an old time cameraman is supposed to have said to a demanding director — ‘Every shot is a Rembrandt …!’ Series no: 250.
PS: this column this week reaches its 250th instalment this week. Many thanks to readers from Carbury to Castledermot – and everywhere in between — who have made contact with nuggets of information to add to the tapestry of Kildare history told in these pages from week to week. LK
We break with protocol this week and publish the article from Liam Kenny which in the Leinster Leader of 11 October 2011. This marks the 250th instalment of Liam’s column which has been recently renamed "Looking Back". This week Liam looks back at the history of the Royal Canal in light of Dick Warner’s return to Ireland’s canal system as seen in the television series ‘Waterways-the Royal Canal’, As always our thanks to Liam.