by mariocorrigan on November 20, 2007

Leinster Leader 11 October 2007
‘A long black line on the innocent green sod’
At first sight a connection between canals, the church and bigotry might seem an unusual one but such an association can be found in an account of a canal journey taken by an English lady on the Royal Canal back in 1837. The description, amusing in our times but no doubt deadly serious when it was penned, was quoted by Kilcock historian Jim Rochfort in a paper which he presented recently on the story of arrival of the Royal Canal in north Kildare.
He quoted from the memoirs of English writer Charlotte Brown who described how she was obliged to share the first class cabin on a canal boat with eleven priests travelling from Dublin to Maynooth. She said that she had never encountered looks of such ominous will as from these gentlemen under their slouched hats. Clearly a member of the reformed churches and not enamoured with the Catholic creed she claimed that not alone were these Catholic priests destroying their own souls ‘ but also those of the poor, the turbulent Irish papist, ‘ who were as much in need of reclaiming as the Irish bogs’.
And her ordeal – self-imposed or otherwise – did not end with that observation. She recounted that when the boat reached Maynooth harbour as each of the priests brushed past her, she said a little prayer, that God would convert them from the error of their ways. And in a parting shot that was as bigoted as it was colourful she watched them move towards the college and observed ‘ a long black line on the innocent green sod going towards the great curse of Ireland – that foul blot of England’s unrighteous legislation – Maynooth’ – a rancid reference to Westminister’s approval for the setting up of the Catholic College in the late 18th century.
Long before this episode laden with sectarian undertones took place the placid waters of the Royal Canal had already seen controversy. Historian Jim Rochfort explained that the channel had no sooner reached Kilcock in 1792 when the canal company went bankrupt – the £118,000 cost of the works no doubt being the contributory factor. A loan package of another £50,000 allied with government support enabled the construction to continue westward – the steep double-lock right at Kilcock being one of the engineering achievements. However the canal workers were to encounter more difficulties  attempting to cross Cappagh bog between Kilcock and Enfield.   
The progress of the Royal Canal was perhaps hindered rather than helped by the elite who constituted its board of directors. One of the most notable was Napper Tandy who, it later transpired, was more interested in winning Continental support for Irish Wolfe Tone’s rising, than digging a canal across the midlands. Less well known but almost as notorious as directors were John Binns who was branded a ‘a jobbing demagogue’ and William Cope who was nicknamed ‘the shoemaker’ (apparently a satire on his lowly origins). When the canal excavation reached Mullingar the directors were dismissed and Binns and Cope financially ruined but not before they had managed to get their names inscribed on canal bridges  which remain to this day.
Trade boats began operating from Dublin to Kilcock in 1796 – a commerce which continued until well into the 20th century when names like Kirkpatrick, Paddy Doyle, Mrs. Reilly, Kellys and Toddys all owned freight barges plying from the town. Passenger boats began serving Kilcock  with one leaving for Dublin at 9am with a second class fare of one shilling. Soon the passenger boat service was extended west to Ferrans Lock, Cloncurry and Enfield. There were hardly any commuters in Kilcock in 1796 but anyone so minded could take a 9am boat from the town for Dublin at a second class fare of a shilling. The passenger boats have long since stopped plying the placid waters of the Royal – their existence only now recalled in the memoirs of English writers with poisioned pens and their encounters with Maynooth-bound clergy!
* My thanks to Kilcock historian Jim Rochfort for his proud portrayal of the Royal Canal. Series No.36

An interesting experience of a ‘first-class’ lady on the Royal Canal near Maynooth forms the basis for a look by Liam Kenny at the Royal Canal in Kilcock and north Kildare. Our thanks to Liam

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