In all the years I have lived in Athy I never, that is before Sunday last, spent any time boating or canoeing on the River Barrow or the Grand Canal. All that changed last week when in deference to my age I was invited to take part in a canoe trip on the river during Age Action Week. It's extraordinary to think that many of us reared within stone throwing distance of a river or a canal bank never took a boat trip up or down either waterway. It was as if we had turned our backs on the water corridors in much the same way as had the local house builders of the past who kept the dwellings of the local people as far away as possible from waters edge. Indeed the houses in Athy had their backs to the river and it was only the canal stores of the early 1800's which embraced the man made canal to form a pleasant and harmonious setting which survives to this day.
Last Sunday a couple of elderly and not quite so elderly males, each chaperoned by a young skilled canoeist, set out from the slip at Rathstewart to travel on the river to Levitstown. As we approached Crom A Boo Bridge we passed over the site of the weir which once ran across the Barrow almost opposite St. Michael's Parish Church. It had been put there to divert water into the millrace which powered the mill at the town centre bridge. The last owners of the mill were the Hannons of Ardreigh and the closure of the mill in or around 1924 gave the Barrow Drainage Board an opportunity to dredge the river and remove the weir. Many of you, I'm sure, will have seen photographs of the Barrow Drainage Scheme of the 1920's and particularly the photograph of the workmen standing in the river bed which had been drained while they removed the weir.
Crom A Boo Bridge which I passed under for the first time ever last Sunday presents an awesome sight when viewed from underneath one of its arches. The Duke of Leinster lay the first stone of that bridge in 1796 and how well it has endured the passage and weight of traffic for more than 200 years. That same bridge was defended by local loyalists under the command of Thomas J. Rawson during the 1798 Rebellion and for a few months of that year the heads of some hapless local rebels were displayed on Crom A Boo bridge as a grim warning to the disaffected locals.
Just after the bridge the river widens, or at least it once did, when the stone quay walls of the harbour were exposed and kept free of mud dredged from the river bed. Unfortunately the earlier mentioned Barrow Drainage Scheme resulted in the filling in of the harbour in the centre of the town with dredgings from the river bed and the planting of a tree or two on the heaped soil was thought a worthy replacement for what had been lost. The opening up of the harbour back to its original quay walls has been discussed for years but we still wait for those in authority to authorise the restoration work which when done will add greatly to the appearance of the river and the town itself.
The horse bridge and the railway bridge soon came into view as we journeyed downstream to meet the Grand Canal. The first pre-stressed concrete bridge in Ireland was built in Athy in 1919 as part of the Athy Wolfhill railway line which was opened to facilitate the movement of coal from the Wolfhill collieries. The difficulties posed by the First World War had prompted the building of the Wolfhill railway line but when the war ended and coal supplies again became plentiful, the local coal fields were closed. Train movement over the bridge was for decades thereafter limited to the carrying of cement to the Asbestos factory, but even that has now ceased. The railway bridge will in time carry motor traffic as part of the relief road measures planned for Athy.
We passed over the weir separating the Barrow River from the Grand Canal to paddle a course along the west bank of Lords Island, keeping clear of the canal cutting and instead keeping to the River Barrow as it meandered between banks handsomely endowed with ash and drooping willow trees. The site of Ardreigh Mills, closed like its town centre counterpart in and around 1924, was quickly passed as we struck out for Levitstown. Up ahead was Bunberrys Weir where nearly fifty years ago we youngsters from Offaly Street spent many an enjoyable afternoon in what was then a popular bathing place. I can't say I had as much enjoyment as Niall Smith or his friends had in their time in Bunberrys which included, if Niall is to be believed, the playful removal of a young maiden's swimming togs by a teenager who would later become a well known figure in footballing circles.
On our right ahead of us appeared Kilmoroney House, even in the October morning sunlight a sad and almost ghostly sight on the headland, while just beyond on the left were the remains of what was once Grangemellon Castle. What stories could be told of “Handsome Jack” St. Leger who came to live here in 1766. A member of the Hellfire Club which is reported to have met occasionally in Grangemellon Castle, Jack was the founder of the English classic horse race which today bears his name. We had bypassed the Levitstown canal cut to stay on the River Barrow and in so doing missed out on the longest canal cutting on the Barrow navigation which runs to two miles or so. Tankardstown Bridge made its appearance as we approached Levitstown Mill which was to be our final destination. What I wondered was the connection, if any, with Christine Longford's play, “Tankardstown”, written perhaps fifty years ago and seldom, if ever, performed since. I had never before been up close to the mill at Levitstown which was burned down in 1943. It operated as a maltings up to then and the canal boats travelled up and down each day to and from Dublin with malt on the journey to the city and Guinness on the return journey. Here we got out, well satisfied with our journey, and pleased with ourselves at having experienced something which most of us had never before enjoyed. Jimmy Kelly, the oldest and freshest looking of the lot, was I believe a seasoned canoeist, but Niall Smith, Dave Henshaw, Noel Scully, Jack Wall and myself were first timers who needed all the help we got from our youthful minders that day. My thanks to rugby playing Ciaran English for seeing me safely on the journey. I gather Ciaran recently received a sports award for Gaelic football. In my time he would have been the recipient of a GAA ban if he had even looked at a rugby match, not to mind playing the oval ball game.
The River Barrow is a rich source of game and coarse fishing and on our journey downstream we came across mute swans and ducks, the first flying overhead while the ducks paid little attention to the water invaders whom they no doubt noticed at a quick glance were too enfeebled to pose a threat. At Levitstown I gather eel traps are still in use, a reminder of the rich harvest to be garned from the local river of a delicacy which I must admit I ate for the very first time only a few weeks ago in a London restaurant. In my younger days eels were always plentiful in the Barrow, but somehow or other they never seemed an attractive fish and so were avoided by many, including myself, until a few weeks ago. Having tasted eel for the first time I must profess a liking for the fish which in medieval times was a rich source of nourishment for those living in the village of Athy, including the Dominicans who had their own eel weir on the River Barrow.
Congratulations to Dave Henshaw and Mark Wall and everyone involved in the Age Action Week. This ould fellow enjoyed himself immensely. A special thanks to Aidan McHugh and his team of canoeists who gave up their Sunday morning to steer a few old codgers safely down the Barrow.
Finally, I came across a reference last week in Florence O'Donoghue's book “The I.R.B. in the 1916 Rising” to the Philo-Celtic Society of New York. In the book O'Donoghue, quoting from the diary of Diarmuid Lynch, referred to the appointment of Michael J. Doyle of Athy as president of the Philo-Celtic Society in New York. The society, founded in 1873 by Irish emigrants, sought to encourage the use of the Irish language by holding Irish classes in and around New York city. The society survives to this day. But whom I wonder was Michael J. Doyle, formerly of this town, who was president of the Philo-Celtic Society of New York? If you can help to identify him or his family connections I would be delighted to hear from you.