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Inland Waterways Column: Going off-piste On Water

27th April 2011
Inland Waterways Column: Going off-piste On Water

With the boat laid up for winter, there's a chance to think about some of the smaller and less-well-known navigations on our inland waterways.

In winter, when the vegetation has died back, it's easier to see hidden features, and (if it's not raining) the light is often very good for taking photographs.

Several of these navigations could be tourist attractions. The Irish tourism product needs to be revitalised — and that includes the waterways product. Shannon traffic figures this year are down about 25% on 2006 and registrations of new boats are down about 50%. One market that hasn't really been tapped is that for industrial heritage, and the waterways have lots of it, but even abandoned waterways also offer activities (walking, kayaking) and opportunities to get away from it all.

In some cases, though, the powers-that-be don't realise what they have and what they could (at low cost) do with it, while in others the powers seem determined to block public access to the waterways. Here are some of the problems and the opportunities.

The Maigue through Adare
The Maigue flows north through Adare into the Shannon Estuary. In bygone days it was regarded as a separate navigation and the annual Board of Works reports covered it separately.

There was a plan to link Limerick to Cork by canal, but it got no further than making the Maigue navigable to Adare. A short canal ran from the river into the centre of the town. When the railway came, it cut off the entrance to that canal; the old harbour is now beneath an iron works and a new quay was built downstream of the railway bridge. You can walk down the bank from there; you can also visit the Maigue at Ferrybridge on the N69.

Although commercial traffic was confined mostly to turf boats, and not many of them, the navigation continued in use until the 1920s. However, I have found no evidence — in Oireachtas records, in legislation or in statutory instruments — that the navigation was ever formally closed or that the Office of Public Works ever passed over its responsibilities to any other organisation. I have been pestering an unfortunate official of the OPW for some time now; he has found no relevant records.

Accordingly, I believe that the OPW is still the navigation authority for the Maigue, and it might perhaps give some attention to dredging and to the installation of aids to navigation.

In Clonmel itself, flood prevention works have resulted in the construction of walls all along the river, with no provision (as far as I could see) for access to the river. I saw one group of people launching boats on planks laid down a flight of steps; couldn't a slipway have been provided somewhere? And what about providing somewhere safe for boats to be tied up, with a gated pontoon so that people wouldn't have to clamber over walls to get to their boats? Sixty foot wooden yawls (shallow lighters) used to carry goods to Clonmel, but the town seems determined to turn its back on the river and to make it hard for people to use it for pleasure.

The Limerick Navigation
The Limerick Navigation, the old route between Limerick and Killaloe, was abandoned in 1929 when the new route through Ardnacrusha was opened. However, the towing-paths remain in public hands, although Limerick City and County Councils leased parts of them from the Office of Public Works.

In the early nineteenth century, the Limerick Navigation was the scene of operations of the most remarkable inland waterways fleet ever seen in Britain or Ireland. And the navigation itself is packed with unusual features, some of which are unique but most of which are still accessible. It is possible to walk the old towing-path from Limerick to the university grounds at Plassey, then across the river and along the canal to Gillogue. There is a break in the accessible stretch there, but you can walk by road, or along the headrace, to Clonlara, and regain the towing-path there. The route continues along the canal to the Shannon, then by the river through O'Briensbridge to Parteen Villa Weir. The Flooded Area covers the navigation from there to Killaloe, but the old canal at that point has a great wealth of artefacts.

But nowhere is there anything to tell you that you are walking the Limerick Navigation or that these stretches of towing-path were all part of one route. There is nothing to identify and explain the various features or to discuss the boats, the people and the cargoes that went along this route. It would cost very little to make the Limerick Navigation into a tourist attraction: interpretation and marketing are the main needs.

And now the route itself is threatened. The Black Bridge, built by Thomas Rhodes in the 1840s to allow towing horses to cross the river, bears on its parapets the grooves worn by the tow-ropes. It was damaged by last winter's floods and has been closed off. It is possible to cross the river using the university's road bridge, but the Black Bridge itself should be saved, repaired and re-opened as a part of this tourist route.

Plenty to pick from in Estuary
If you want a quick lesson in transport history, get in your car and spend a weekend driving around the Shannon Estuary (a ferry links the Kerry and Clare sides). Some of the attractions (those that charge fees) close for the winter, but there is still lots to be seen.

If you like traditional boats, look for the gandalows from Limerick down (and on the Cashen in north Kerry) and the canoes (currachs) in west Clare. Note the large number of stone piers, built for the estuary steamers and now largely abandoned.

The main steamer ports were Cappa (outside Kilrush) and Tarbert; you can see how the piers were built and extended — and you can think about the early iron steamer Garryowen: when it survived being cast ashore in a gale, the news went around the world and convinced many shipowners to adopt iron for their fleets.

In the summer, you can add the West Clare Railway at Moyasta (between Kilrush and Kilkee), the reproduction monorail Lartigue Railway at Listowel, various stations on the Limerick and North Kerry lines and the flying-boat museum at Foynes.

The individual attractions in this area are fine by themselves, but put them together as an industrial heritage (transport) package and you have something that will bring enthusiasts from overseas — and as the attractions are already there, the cost would be minimal.

Hidden treasures
You never know where you're going to come across a trace of an old canal. The most surprising I've found so far was in Johnstown, Co Kilkenny. It is marked on the 1840 Ordnance Survey map as "Old canal" and the bridge shown in the photo is on a road called "Canal Road": that's what we call a clue. The canal seems to have served a single estate, probably allowing farm materials to be moved around and perhaps brought to and from the road.

There was also a canal system in the bogs on the Dublin side of Roscrea, near Racket Hall. Turf was carried by boat, hauled by donkey, to Birch Grove distillery, where the Equality Authority now has offices. A visit to the area should also take in the small but remarkably atmospheric ruins of Monaincha Abbey.

Several waterways books mention the Rockville Navigation, a series of small lakes linked by cuts near Hillstreet in Co Roscommon. One of the cuts is spanned by a fine, but recently damaged, bridge which bears the date 1765, but I have found no written information about who built the navigation or what it was used for. It is still navigable by small boats, though: I went down it myself last summer, from the bridge to the Silver Eel at Grange, and a group from the Heritage Boat Association carried out a more extensive survey.

The Mayor of Roscommon, Cllr Luke Ming Flanagan, kayaked down from the bridge with a companion; with a slight flow on, they reached Grange in a couple of hours. A small investment — perhaps a launching ramp, a bit of tree-trimming and some signposting — could create a new visitor attraction for the county, appealing to those who want a not-too-strenuous kayak or boat trip.

The era of big waterways projects is probably over. For the future, we need to think small.

Published in Afloat December 2010

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