by jdurney on January 12, 2012



In spite of the weeds and sedges, the canal today is as it always was, long and lean and leisurely. It would be impossible to associate it with the hectic haste of our roads; and between it and the dual-carriageway leading from Dublin to the West within earshot of it there is a world of difference.
Now the boats on it are painfully few. There was a time not so long ago when a long line of turf barges could be seen making steady progress from the bog to the city. They kept the home fires burning there when little or no coal was imported and returned with what we in they country couldn’t do without, stout, furniture, groceries and machinery. That was a good time on the canal.
Day and night cumbersome awkward barges chug-chugged along, leaving a trail of foam in their wake, and cutting away at the weeds that now flourish unchecked.
Some boats were horse drawn and through it was hard on the horses they were of the stout sturdy kind, tough and well cared for, and never pressed for time. Mules there were in plenty too and they never tired or so it seemed. Rarely did they sulk either sulky as their kind are reputed to be.
Pranks played by schoolboys
Many the prank schoolboys on their way home from school used to play on the canalmen. I remember one bright lad leading a mule by the headcollar up a boreen at right angles to the tow-path while the poor man at the tiller used bad language, but was unable to retrieve his mule until the barge came alongside the bank and he jumped out. By that time however, the lad had put many fields between himself and the irate boatsman.
The boatmen themselves were well-known along the canal. They were good spenders, for horses needed stabling, and hay and oats, and they were jolly good cooks when it came to making a dinner of bacon and cabbage and the plump tasty hares and rabbits foraged by their dogs en route.
Eggs and milk and spuds – in fact every cookable vegetable was bought and paid for; and should the boat pass in the middle of the night and a head of cabbage or a turnip be taken from a garden adjoining the canal it would be paid for on the return journey. The boatmen were strictly honest and a great asset to the farmers bordering the canal.
Many of the yarns they told as they sat by our fires when the boat was moored at the lay-by. It is strange the wealth of lore and legend this long stretch of water had built around itself. The faery lights that glimmered in and out among the bog patches; the haunted bridge where men shivered as they passed under its awning; the bad spots where a man could get a “turn” passing a lone stretch, and had to screw up his courage to repass it so as to leave his ailment behind him. Ghosts there were plenty, too. The thirteenth lock in Kildare was full of them. Arthur Griffith wrote a poem where a captain had not only the wraiths from the outer world to contend with, but a mutinous crew as well. But his action was swift and brave, “Then the skipper quick made a mighty kick and the mariner felt the shock. And the crew found a grave ‘neath the deep blue wave on the way to the Thirteenth Lock.”
Tales were exchanged
The boats had spotless holds where local boys swopped tales of the district for those of places far apart as Arigna or Waterford. Indeed, without stretching our imaginations too far it would be easy enough to “voyage” from Belfast to these places taking in the network of inland lakes without touching dry land. The country is shaped that way geographically. They seldom pass now, Jo Hayes, Mick Kane, Jack Roche, Paddy Farrell, the Fennels from Athy, and the wag whose thirst stranded him in Robertstown and he sent home for supplies thus: “Boat sinking, Jim drinking, come quick or send Mick,” and with their passing has gone much that gave the canal its character. They were unique characters, and they belonged to the canal and nowhere else. In fact I doubt if they’d fit in in any other way of life.
The canal has changed nothing since the first lock was built in 1740. Its long slender line still runs due West catching the glow of the setteling sun and the blue of the noonday sky. There is charm in its defiance of the restlessness of change.
Once fly-boats plied for hire and tall imposing hotels stood on its banks from Portobello to Shannon Harbour. Along this route too were numerous warehouses filled with merchandise. Some of these have fallen into decay, and some have happily become useful as at Sallins where a prosperous meat processing plant is working full time.
Now a new phase is opening on this erstwhile sleepy waterway, and prim perky, brightly coloured craft with gay curtains and inviting deck chairs, and lovely luxurious houseboats have taken the place of the company’s barges and the old traders. They carry people from another world to the one we knew, people who display grand manners and who speak with polite accents. They have been growing in numbers these last few years. They are not as friendly as our old friends who never hurried and yet got there.
Radiogram plays ‘pop’ tunes
Ah, no. In this new era there is no time for meandering as a craft speeds by leaving a nice smell of cooking food after it. On sunny days young lads scantily clad stretch themselves out on rugs and cushions on the decks their torsos brown and tawny and while a radiogram plays ‘pop’ tunes or classical music to suit the moods of the voyagers.
They wave as they go by sure of themselves and of their destinations – some inland lake to fish in, Derravagh perhaps where Fionula sang to comfort her brothers, the children of Lir, during their captivity, or Owel where Malachy drowned the Danish king after first filching his collar of gold. Or maybe ‘tis to the lordly Shannon to cruise on, past Kincora where lived Brian of the Tribute or Athlone of the storied bridge, or Carrick of the rallies.
When they stop they never stay long. They never talk a lot either. They just buy our eggs or rhubarb or apples, and they don’t barter for anything. They pay us in a businesslike way and go. If there’s change nobody would say “toss you for twopence” or when when won cry “doubles or quits.” They mightn’t like it, and so we never try it on.
Isn’t it time anyway that these weedy growths were dredged out the Grand Canal? Time to make way for the new life that’s growing with terrific speed on its waters? Or is it worth dredging it at all?
Somehow we in the flat lands think it is. We refuse to visualise the end of this old familiar ribbon of water linking us with the country Westwards and Southwards and Northwards, this quaint and friendly watercourse redolent of the spirit of the midlands, of easy placid sun-kissed fields where cattle graze and men move from place to place unhurriedly because the tempo of their lives is slow; where brown bridges that cast their shadow at noon and where birds call from peatlands where heather blooms and streams are dark. We refuse to think that any people, no matter how learned and wise, would cut us off from the world that this grand waterway is now opening up for us.
There is a sobering thought worth thinking before this awful thing happens – if it does happen. When floods come down and banks are swollen to bursting point, we in the short grass lands can save ourselves by opening the lock gates one after the other, as we have always done, letting off the waters thereby. But when the Blackhorse Bridge lock is sealed against it where will the released spate of water go?
Looking down now from the parapet of a canal bridge one sees clearly the steady downward flow of water strewn with the decayed leaves of Autumn on its way to the sea. It flows unhurriedly and smoothly now. But when floods sweep it angrily and swiftly that way it might be disastrous to prevent its getting there. Indeed it might.

Another article sent to us by Eoghan Corry,  in this one from the Irish Press, November 8, 1963 Brigid Maguire recounts tales of her life beside the Grand Canal. Retyped by Aisling Dermody. 

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