I spent an enjoyable few hours last week talking and listening to Stephen Bolger, an octogenarian heading into his 89th year. He has been a patient in St. Vincent's Hospital for a number of years but his memory retains a sharpness in relation to events of previous decades which prompts admiration and a slight little regret that I had not previously interviewed this grand old man.
Born on the 31st of August, 1905 Stephen may well lay claim to have been one of the few Athy people caught up in the Easter Rebellion in Dublin in 1916. He was then a young boy working on Jack Rooney's canal boat. Jack lived in Woodstock Street where Danny Kane's shop is now located. Stephen was one of three people on Rooney's boat that fateful week. Rooney, the skipper, steered the boat while another local man and Stephen took turns in leading the two horses which traced together, pulled the boat on the journey from Athy to Dublin. Passing through Vicarstown, Monasterevin, Rathangan, Robertstown, Hazelhatch and Clondalkin the boat was scheduled to berth at James's Street Harbour near the centre of the city.
The opening of hostilities on Easter Monday coincided with the arrival of Jack Rooney's boat in Inchicore and so it was that eleven year old Stephen Bolger found himself trapped in Dublin when the guns of rebellion blazed across the city sky. His memories are of the wild rumours which abounded with talk of killings in the city centre to rival the worst excesses of the 1798 rebellion. He did on occasions hear gunfire but he and his workmates were not allowed to move on from Inchicore and so Jack Rooney's boat and its cargo and crew spent almost a week there.
Stephen and his colleagues had to depend on the hospitality of some local Inchicore people during their enforced stay as they had rations only for the three days which they would normally expect to take for the return trip to Athy.
His memories of life and work on the Grand Canal is tinged with sadness as he recalled those Athy men who over the years died tragically while working on the waterways. Jack Rowan, brother of Mick Rowan presently living in Woodstock Street and son of Paddy Rowan, a noted Grand Canal boatman in his day, died at St. Mullins after falling into the twelfth lock. Jimmy Carey of Shrewleen Lane drowned at Levitstown on a trip from Carlow to Athy. Indeed the Grand Canal's boatmen were always somewhat wary of the rough waters of the Barrow navigation which they tended to avoid as much as possible as they did the Shannon navigation for the same reason. Their fears in this regard can be understood from the fact that the relatively smooth waters of the canal required only one horse to pull a canal boat while the Barrow navigation between Athy and Carlow might require four horses to pull a boat, especially when the river was in flood.
Corn and malt were some of the principal exports to Dublin from South Kildare while bricks from the local brick factory were also another common cargo of the day. On the return trip from Dublin barrels of Guinness were sure to be on board.
The horses used were what Stephen describes as "good heavy horses", Irish draught mares being particularly favoured. Each horse had a nose bag from which it could feed while walking on the canal tow path. It was extremely hard on the horses pulling boats, sometimes laden with 46 tonnes of cargo. Because of this each horse was fitted with a special collar which was "bridged", that is with a stitched hollow to keep it off the animals breast.
Stephen Bolger recalls many horses pulled into the Barrow by the sheer weight of the cargo combined with the force of the waters when the river was in flood. The Horse Bridge in Athy saw several horses pulled over the parapet as they made their way across the bridge to join the Grand Canal. Another danger point was the weir below the present Railway Bridge. The building of the Bridge in 1917 altered the position of the weir but prior to then many a horse was dragged over the weir by the sheer force of the rushing waters.
Stephen Bolger is a delightful man to listen to as he reminisces about life on the canal boats almost 80 years ago. The clarity with which he recalls the events of yesteryear is a testimony to a life of hard work and to times when "honest sweat and toil" was a badge of honour amongst working folk on the Grand Canal.