An Irish Diversion
For personal reasons quite unconnected to canals I recently travelled by car across the middle of Ireland. However, being the waterways nerd that I am I took the opportunity to take a bit of a detour to look at bits of the Grand Canal on the way.
First call was to Tullamore where an arm of this handsome and truly grand canal leads to an entirely enclosed and gated basin which the Irish call the canal harbour. Although in the middle of a substantial town it was surprisingly difficult to find for it is surrounded by high walls and buildings with only a single entrance. But what a find when I did manage it! It is the base for the local waterways staff and the maintenance fleet, which was interesting, but the big surprise was the clutch of old carrying barges sunk and rusting away in various bits of the basin. The office staff were a bit bemused by my interest in these rusting hulks but were very accommodating and let me walk around the site so long as I wore one of their high visibility yellow coats to stop me falling in. No photographs I’m afraid as the situation was darkish, a bit difficult and a little dangerous, but fun nonetheless. I would like to know more of these old boats’ history, and their probable fate.
Next call was to Shannon Harbour where a lot of development has taken place since my last fleeting visit in 1995 and the scene is now clean and prosperous with ranks of smart boats, both cruisers and houseboats on either side of the canal, and lots of car parking for visitors. It was interesting, but in the hour we were gongoozling there were no boat movements whatever, a sharp contrast to most English canals at the height of the holiday season. There were a couple of converted carrying barges but they appeared rather mundane when compared to the big graceful Dutch barges that had found their way here to the heart of Ireland. But over all this flash prosperity looms the derelict presence of the old Grand Canal Company hotel, one of a series built for the booming passenger boat trade of the early 1800s. Even then they were seen as a rather over-optimistic enterprise and the coming of the railways brought about a rapid demise. It is a surprise and a pity that no other use could ever be found for it and it must now face the authorities with a conservation conundrum. It is impressive and quite graceful, and it is history made manifest, but it is seriously derelict and presumably expensive. What price for canal heritage here?
My destination was Galway, a fine town with a small but vibrant city centre relatively unspoilt by the usual out-of scale modern developments. It is a harbour town with a commercial shipping wharf and expensive yacht marina at one end running round to the older harbour at the mouth of the River Corrib where there are a few fishing boats, some traditional gaff rigged ‘Hookers’ and even some canvas covered ‘currachs’ pulled up on the hard. Much of the civilised charm of the town is created by its fresh water too, the foaming river itself and its various by-washes and mill leats that cuts the town into little islands but it was a complete surprise to me whilst walking up one of these by-waters to suddenly come to a seriously big canal lock. I do apologise to any Irish readers for my parochial English ignorance but I had no idea there was a canal that side of the country, and of such a large scale. Some sly reference reading in the local bookshop revealed it to be the entrance to the Eglington Canal, only 5/8 of a mile long but opening up navigation into Lough Corrib. It opened in 1852 and was quite successful throughout the nineteenth century and traffic only finally ceased in the 1930s. It stayed open for pleasure boats for a while but the swing bridges were replaced in the 1950s and navigation ceased. With the amount of road traffic in the town centre today it is impossible to envisage it ever reopening, but it still remains a handsome architectural addition to the town and well worth a walk if you are ever lucky enough to visit. Thank you Galway.