Here we are, first week in June and we haven't been boating yet. We're having some major reconstruction done at Riversdale, on the Shannon–Erne Waterway, and we decided to go a bit further than we originally intended. You know how these things happen.
The thing is, it's very tempting: Riversdale specialises in building and working on steel boats, and they've got all the kit, so we might as well get more done while we're there. At some stage we'll have to call a halt and, water levels permitting, make our way to the Erne and then back to the southern end of the Shannon.
Speaking of which, the new Waterways Ireland development at Killaloe is almost finished, and very splendid it looks too.
What WI have done is to build a wooden platform on top of part of the old canal wall above the bridge. Outside of that is a set of mooring pontoons, anchored to large piles; bridges link the pontoons to the platform. I suspect some rearrangement of the navigation markers will be required, but that's a minor point.
At its downstream end, the platform is linked by a ramp to the area around the library, on the site of the former lockkeeper's house. It forms part of a looped walk: from the library to the bridge, upstream along the old towing-path, then cross the canal at the new flood-control gate.
This gate is, I gather, to be operated by the Portumna bridge-keeper, summoned via a squawk-box; there are cameras and loudspeakers on tall poles so that malefactors can be detected and users can be supervised. I don't yet know who will be allowed in, but I note that there are cleats along the inside of the platform so perhaps the local small-boat owners will be allocated places.
Killaloe has probably the richest waterways heritage landscape in the country, from the former City of Dublin Steam-Packet Company premises at the Pierhead down through the lock to the eel-packing station, the marble mill and the dockyard. Much of this is in the hands of the ESB and Waterways Ireland, and the new walk provides an opportunity to highlight Killaloe's historic importance in water-borne transport.
That reminds me. Waterways Ireland has a Lakelands & Inland Waterways Strategic Plan 2010–2015. It includes this about what tourists can see:
Experiences offered in Lakelands and Inland Waterways area:
• Shannon and Erne Journeys – car and boat based
• Special Landscapes
• Historic Houses
• Castles and Gardens
• Christian Heritage
Now Christian Heritage is all very well, and I'm all in favour of old houses, castles and gardens, but there are people who are interested in waterways, transport or industrial heritage. Waterways Ireland owns quite a lot of heritage material, including that at Killaloe and at every lock on the Shannon, so why does it not get a mention?
The other thing that doesn't get a mention in the Strategic Plan is the Royal Canal. Restoration was finished in 2010, at the start of the period covered by the Strategic Plan, and WI has been promoting (to British narrowboaters) the idea of the round trip: into Dublin on one canal and out on the other, then back to base along the Shannon.
But the Strategic Plan does not mention the Royal, apart from the facilities at Clondra, and the area covered by the plan does not include Dublin: the country east of Mullingar (Royal) and Tullamore (Grand) is omitted.
This is worrying because, if the Royal does not see a considerable volume of traffic, its restoration will be seen as a waste of money. The first few years are likely to see increased demand for passage, but after that numbers will fall off. The only way of bringing about a sustained increase is to have profitable hire businesses on the canals, appealing in particular to British canal boaters.
So far, though, I have not seen any published plan for bringing boats and users to the Royal, and its omission from the Lakelands & Inland Waterways Strategic Plan is worrying: perhaps even more worrying than the short-term difficulties encountered this year.
Boats made it in to Dublin to the IWAI Rally, and a contingent from Clontarf Yacht and Boat Club repeated their club's trip to the Shannon in 1925, despite having to carry out their own repairs to the twelfth lock at Blanchardstown.
But when boats attempted to leave Dublin, the Iarnród Éireann lifting bridge below Newcomen Bridge (North Strand Road) refused to lift. This delayed the return of the Rambler, a former Royal Canal steam tug-barge, from Dublin to the Shannon, and caused the postponement of filming of its voyage. As I write, the bridge is said to have been repaired and it is expected to lift soon for the Rambler and other boats.
The lifting bridge was working in 2004. It is owned by Iarnród Éireann, not by Waterways Ireland.
The cost of restoring the Royal is a sunk cost: we can't recover the money, although I suspect that it will prove to have been a very poor investment. Now that it's been reopened, we're stuck with it, and the best that can be done is to try to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs.
However, the proposed restoration of the Ulster Canal is still, as far as I know, an avoidable future cost. There is no prospect of the canal ever making a reasonable return and the project should be abandoned immediately, before the German taxpayer finds out about it.
What, though, of volunteer restorations? The Royal started out that way, but there have been only minor attempts at voluntary work on the Ulster. However, the abandoned Kilbeggan Branch of the Grand Canal has two local groups working on it.
The eight-mile branch was opened in 1835 and closed in 1961 by a dam at Ballycommon. William Dargan was the contractor, as he was for the Ulster Canal. But although it had no locks, the Kilbeggan Branch took a long time to complete. It has no water supply of its own and, when its embankments leaked, they drew water from the Long Level of the canal's main line.
The Kilbeggan Harbour Amenity Group, formed in 1989, restored the canal stores at Kilbeggan Harbour and has worked from the northern end; it has now been joined by the Ballycommon Canal Renewal Group, working from the south.
One of the Ballycommon group's first aims is to clear the towing-path and the bridges so that the canal can be seen, especially along the stretch bordered by a road. It has had help from IWAI and the Heritage Boat Association, notably from Tommy McLoughlin of IWAI Boyne, and from Waterways Ireland and Offaly County Council.
On the day I visited, 22 people had turned out for a day of hard work led by the knowledgeable and enthusiastic Gerry Feery. Waterways Ireland and Offaly County Council had donated bags, gloves and pickers and paid for landfill permits; a local shop had donated filled rolls and refreshments were served alongside the canal.
I'm all in favour of volunteer restoration work. But restoration of navigation is a much bigger undertaking: the Kilbeggan Branch is said to have difficulty in retaining water and major engineering might be required. I do not know of any cost-benefit analyses, but it would be difficult to justify spending public money unless there is a major increase in traffic along the main line of the canal.
In recent years, the Irish Amateur Rowing Union has been promoting (non-competitive) touring and recreational rowing. In May, a fleet of four boats set off from Twomilegate, north of Killaloe, to row to Limerick, with a trip on the estuary planned for the following day. Three of the boats were coxed quads and one was coxless.
I followed them (by road) down the headrace from O'Briensbridge to Ardnacrusha and saw them descend in the lock. All four fitted into the lock, with careful arrangement of the oars, and the descent was gentle. The boats looked very frail from up top, but when the lock was emptied the crews set off very energetically, and made it quickly down to Limerick. Nice to see an environmentally friendly form of boating being promoted.
Finally, there is a wooden sailing boat being built at Querrin, Co Clare, that represents a vanished industry. For many years, Limerick's main fuel was turf, some from upstream but most of it from the Shannon Estuary. And the principal source — likened to Limerick's oilwell — was Poulnasherry Bay, west of Kilrush.
From there, wooden cots carried the turf out to sailing boats that would carry it up the estuary, sometimes picking up limestone from Askeaton on the return journey. The boats also carried adventurous holidaymakers going to Kilkee; they established the passenger trade from which the Shannon steamers benefited in the early nineteenth century.
Pretty well every account of the Shannon Estuary in the nineteenth century, whether fact or fiction, has a turf boat in it somewhere, and the trade carried on into the twentieth century. However, none of the boats survived.
With research from Críostóir MacCárthaigh, a design by Myles Stapleton and shipwright Stephen Morris on the spot, the project aims to build a 25' gaff-rigged wooden boat. It will differ in some respects from the originals, notably in having an external keel and an engine, but it will remain open. It will be built of Portumna oak, with larch from near Belfast and green oak for deadwood.
The Seol Sionna project www.seolsionna.org intends to use the boat for sail training and hopes to revive the use, on the estuary, of small craft that can use the many abandoned piers and quays and the under-used harbours. The Shannon Estuary has plenty of room for this boat and more like her.