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Inland Waterways Column: Derg To Ourselves

27th April 2011
Inland Waterways Column: Derg To Ourselves

Always a late starter, Brian J Goggin was surprised to find a deserted Lough Derg on a sunny weekend outing

We've never thought of ourselves as early birds: as our boat has no heating, our boating season starts rather late. But we were surprised, on two successive weekends, to find that others seem to be leaving things even later. Apart from sailing boats involved in a race, and anglers dapping, there were very few private or hired inland boats on the move on Lough Derg. At times, on a sunny weekend, there was no other boat to be seen in the middle of the lake. And that may have been the summer.

Killaloe did have a large group of Emerald Star boats on one weekend: we were told they had been hired by a wedding party who were enjoying themselves (happily, on the Ballina side of the river) until the early hours of the morning. On the Killaloe side, the new floating moorings have had the pontoons installed, but Waterways Ireland has only recently called for tenders for the remaining work. So the shortage of spaces will continue for another while, causing difficulties for those heading for the excellent Killaloe market.

The town has acquired another attraction recently: the 12-seater fast trip boat Spirit of Lough Derg (www.spiritofloughderg.com), operated by the same people as the existing 50-seater Spirit of Killaloe. The new boat is offering one-way charters between Killaloe and Limerick so, if you've never been through Ardnacrusha Lock (an experience not to be missed), here is your chance. See the website for details.

Take a boat to the theatre
If you've been near the Grand Canal in the more salubrious parts of Dublin recently, you may have seen the Heritage Boat Association barges, fleet auxiliaries and other supporting vessels. The fleet entered Dublin somewhat ahead of the annual Dublin Rally, and has been making the most of its time: visiting restaurants (including the MV Cill Airne) by boat, travelling up the Liffey to Islandbridge and taking a look downriver towards the sea. More photos and details on www.heritageboatassociation.ie.

The MV Cill Airne and the restaurant boat Riasc are both ventures of Irish Ship & Barge Fabrication (www.isbf.ie) whose latest vessel, the Cadhla, is now on the Grand Canal. This electric vessel offers a daily "customised canal tour", written by Pat Liddy, as well as pre-theatre cruises during the evening. You can take the Luas tram to Charlemont Place, transfer to the barge and eat while travelling slowly to the Grand Canal Theatre. Post-theatre drinks and a trip back to Charlemont are also available. See www.citycanalcruises.ie.

Rambler through the Royal
What do you do if your boat is in Dublin, you want to get it to the Shannon but it's too big for the Grand Canal and it's not designed for the sea? You wait for Waterways Ireland to reopen the Royal Canal, even if that takes a while, as its locks are longer than those of the Grand.

The Rambler was one of five steamers used by the Midland Great Western Railway Company, which owned the Royal Canal, from 1875 onwards. She was able to carry 30 tons and to tow unpowered boats. The Company ceased carrying in 1886 and the Royal reverted to horse-drawn traffic.

Since then, the Rambler has passed through many hands and been converted and reconverted many times. The most recent conversion was done in the Grand Canal Basin in Ringsend, to which she was carried by road; since then, the Rambler has remained in the Basin awaiting the reopening of the Royal Canal so that she can return to the Shannon.

That reopening is now in sight: Waterways Ireland expects it in September 2010, and it has set up a working committee to plan appropriate events and celebrations. The committee includes waterways bodies, local authorities, anglers and the Kilcock Canoe Polo Club, which uses the Kilcock canal harbour for its sport (www.kilcockcanoepoloclub.com).

As a preliminary event, the HBA fleet visited Spencer Dock, where the Royal Canal meets the Liffey. The Rambler, carrying a party of Royal Canal Amenity Group members, was in the van, with the former horse-boat 4E behind: although built for the Grand, she was used for maintenance on the Royal from the 1950s.

The last cargo
The last commercial cargo to be carried on the Grand Canal was stout to Limerick. Guinness needed time to build a new depot near the railway station, so the water-borne service to Limerick continued until 1960.

The last consignment was in May 1960, carried by the Grand Canal Company's motor-barge 51M. Unlike many of her sisters, 51M was not sold off afterwards. She remained in the CIE (and now in the Waterways Ireland) maintenance fleet, fitted out for repairing locks and known as the Carpenter's Boat. Like the Rambler, she has been in the Grand Canal Basin for many years.

The Heritage Boat Association has received permission from Waterways Ireland to recreate the last commercial voyage, and will be moving 51M westward along the canal. The crew will include descendants of the man who skippered her on her historic voyage.

Mud rules Limerick out
It would be nice if 51M could travel all the way to the old canal harbour in Limerick, but access may be difficult at the moment. A fleet of boats from Lough Derg had intended to visit the Limerick Riverfest at the start of May but changed their minds when it became apparent that much dredging was required after the winter floods.

That wasn't the only casualty: Limerick County Council has closed the Black Bridge at Plassey. This bridge was built in 1842, as part of the improvements made by the Shannon Commissioners, and replaced a ferry. It enabled towing horses to cross the river: the towing-path of the Limerick Navigation was on the Limerick side from the city up to Plassey, but in Clare, on the other side of the Shannon, the rest of the way to Killaloe.

Hauling a laden barge across the river, against the flow of the Shannon in flood, can't have been easy, and the parapet of the bridge bears, to this day, the grooves cut in it by the tow-ropes. The closure of the bridge has cut in two the popular walk from the city through Plassey and along the Plassey-Errina Canal to Gillogue.

The winter floods have damaged the bridge's supports. However, I have been unable to find out why Limerick County Council, rather than Waterways Ireland, thinks it is responsible for the bridge.

It's a Suir thing
"Though not a seaport, the town [of Clonmel], from its situation at the head of the Suir navigation, is the medium through which the corn and provision export trade is carried on between the southern and eastern portions of this large county and England. There are generally about 120 lighters, from 20 to 50 tons burden, employed in the trade of this town."

That was in 1839. In the 1930s, Major Rowland Raven-Hart wrote in 'Canoeing in Ireland':
"From Clonmel (rail) to Carrick (rail) the navigation is quite amusing, and these thirteen miles should certainly be done: there is no danger whatever, and this part would be a valuable introduction to comparatively shallow-water canoeing for the absolute novice. The current here is always good, and there are several small rapids. On the whole run from Clonmel to the sea there is no portage, nor is it ever even necessary to float the boat down, unless perhaps in exceptionally low water. The scenery above Clonmel is fair, from there to Carrick excellent."

The navigation of this section of the Suir was never easy. The standard vessel was the yawl, 60 feet long but shallow-draughted and carrying perhaps 16 tons in summer. The traffic was horse drawn, with 12 or more horses used to get the boats upstream. The river is shallow and the currents can be fierce, especially at Sir Thomas's Bridge, below Clonmel, where the horses had to wade through the water.

It was here that the Avondale came to grief:
"O brave Sir Thomas Osborne, you little did suspect
Against your bridge the Avondale was fated to be wrecked;
The cruel pier in her poor side conveyed a dismal hole,
Scamandering her precious freight of thirteen ton of coal."
From 'The Wreck of the Avondale', published in the Clonmel Chronicle in 1903. Happily, Captain Britt, his son and his "tarrier dog" survived.

Downstream boats could travel with the current, the horses returning to Carrick by road. Commercial traffic ceased altogether in 1923, although it continued on the tidal stretches from Carrick down to Waterford. However, the river is used by fishermen, canoeists and others, while the towing path is used by walkers.

If the Southern Regional Fisheries Board gets its way, though, there will be no more boats. It proposes to build a crump weir at Ballinderry, and had located concrete units there in the belief that it did not require planning permission. The weir, which would include a fish pass, would enable it to count salmon. Happily, South Tipperary County Council has insisted that the Board seek planning permission.

The Suir between Clonmel and Carrick is never going to see much
traffc from cruisers or other large vessels, but it is a very attractive stretch of water that is used by cots, kayaks and other open boats of various kinds. There might even be scope for tourist trips downriver using large inflatables or rafts. I cannot see why the counting of fish should take precedence over the interests of other river users.

Published in Afloat June 2010

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