The passing of a few decades brings huge changes in the life of any community. I was reminded of this fact when preparing a speech for Graduate’s Night in Scoil Eoin, my own alma mater, which I had left in 1960. Comparisons between the class size of 42 years ago and today, the differences in job opportunities then and now and the optimism of today compared with the pessimism which then hung like a dark cloud over our lives brought proof of the changes in the intervening years.
Nowhere are those changes in society more marked than in the way we now use that great transport corridor built by thousands of Irish labourers over 200 years ago. I am referring to the Grand Canal, again in the local news with the holding of the Water Festival in Athy at the weekend. Once an important link with the outside world, the Canal soon after its inauguration gave way to the railway which would remain the dominant partner in the transport network of this country for the following 100 years. However, the railway went the way of the Canal when giving way to the motor vehicles and tarmacadamed public roads. This left the railway underused in much the same way as the Canal suffered when “the iron roads” first came into use.
Nowadays the Canals, once the workhorse of transport in Ireland, are coming back into use as leisure facilities. Athy Water Festival celebrates the history of the Canal and brought home to us the continuing importance of the inland waterways in the life of our town. In history, Athy has always been known as a garrison town, an acknowledgement of the importance of our town in the defence of those living within the Pale. The town’s defensive role was confirmed with the building of a military barracks in the early years of the 18th century and up to the time of the Crimean War a garrison of troops were always stationed here. With the extension of the Grand Canal to Athy in 1791 Athy could and should lay claim to the title of Waterways Town given its important position at the merging of the Grand Canal and the Barrow Navigation.
Twice in its history Athy has been benefited from its location in the Barrow Valley where it is surrounded on all sides by rich farmland. The first was when the Grand Canal Company wanted to link up the new Canal with the Barrow Navigation which they had originally intended to do at Monasterevin. However, navigating the Barrow between Athy and Monasterevin proved too troublesome and so the Canal was extended into Athy. This gave a tremendous boost to the local economy and reinforced Athy’s importance as a market town. Local employment was generated not only on the Canal barges but also in the myriad of services required by a transport system which flourished during the first 50 years of its life.
The next occasion when Athy’s location again stood to its advantage was when the Great Southern and Western Railway was opened from Dublin to Carlow. Again Athy was to benefit and when the railway line opened in 1847 it marked another step in the forward advancement of one of Leinster’s busiest market towns.
Employment on the Grand Canal and the Barrow Navigation was an important contributor to the commercial life of Athy from 1791 onwards. Over the years as the inland waterways declined, its importance and the employment it offered became less and less significant. Despite that generations of Athy families depended on the Barrow and the Canal for their livelihood and family names such as Hughes, Rowan, Carey, O’Rourke, Maher and Dunne come to mind.
Working on the waterways was a hard demanding job. The boats that plied on the Canal were either Canal company boats or “B” boats known as by traders or hack boats which were owned by private individuals. These latter boats were licensed by the Canal Company and travelled up and down the Barrow and the Canal carrying malt, sugar and cement. The boat men on the Canal system worked 24 hours a day with crews of four working in shifts of six hours a time, with two men on duty at any one time. That at least is how the Canal barges worked, crewed as they were by a Master, an engine man, a deck hand and a “Greaser” . The last named was usually a youngster to whom fell the menial jobs and who attended on the other men. The by traders boats were not similarly crewed and sometimes they were worked by two men only.
A little known piece of information concerning the Cargo’s transported on the Canal is that Monasterevin was the loading point for perhaps the most unusual cargo transported on the Irish Inland Waterways. Bantam Fighting Cocks were for many years bred and trained in the parish of Nurney which became known as the fighting cock centre of Leinster. This had developed in days before cock fighting became illegal, but even the enactment of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1849 did not immediately deter the efforts of those involved in the Nurney Parish in breeding fighting cocks. The business continued, although now they were simply breeding “Bantam Cocks which seemed to have a propensity to fight among themselves.” The cocks were sold and supplied from Nurney and distributed to all corners of Ireland via the Grand Canal at Monasterevin.
The Canal barge men who worked 24 hours a day unlike their Barrow Navigation colleagues who worked from dawn to dusk were granted a reduction in their working hours in 1946. The Canal Company agreed that the barge men would only work 16 hours a day, but in return crew members were reduced to three, with the loss of the junior barge man known as “The Greaser”. This change came just shortly before the Grand Canal Company was nationalised and in 1950 the Canal Operation came under the control of C.I.E. Within ten years the Canals were no longer used to carry freight. The glorious days of the Canal and those who worked the barges was finished.
Now the Canal and the Barrow Navigation have taken on a new lease of life and last weekends Water Festival was a celebration of what the Inland Waterways means to the people of Athy and a re-affirmation of its future role as a leisure facility to be enjoyed by all.