Lost Landmark

Photo 97It’s a sad thing to lose an iconic landmark. You know the kind I mean – the one that’s in every photo of the place, the one that helps to define it, the instantly recognisable image. In the case of West Cork, that would include the Mizen Bridge, the Galley Head Lighthouse, Ballydehob’s Twelve Arch Bridge, the castles at Three Castle Head, Bantry House, the Baltimore Beacon and of course the Fastnet Rock.

The morning after the lightening strike

The Cappaghglass Mine Chimney the morning after the lightning strike

But we used to have another one, until it was hit by lightning and came down in 2002, 15 years ago this month. The mine chimney at Cappaghglass stood tall on the crest of the hill, visible for miles around from Mount Gabriel to Cape Clear, from Long Island to Baltimore.

View from magazine

I don’t know the origin of this drawing. It’s a view of both mine captain houses and the chimney, taken from the south near Audley Cove

It was the most visible manifestation of the industrial past that has vanished so completely from this area. When it was built (to replace an even older one) in 1862 it was to vent steam from the engine that powered crushing machinery. Robert has written about the mining industry here – take a look at his post, Copper Country. At its height, hundreds of people were employed, above and below ground in the Cappagh Mine and what is now a lonely stretch of heathery hilltop was once a populous place.

Fastnet Trail sign

The chimney was so conspicuous on the landscape that it was used by the Admiralty to provide a reference point for mariners and by travellers to orient themselves in West Cork.

Admiralty Chart

Admiralty chart showing the ‘Steam Chimney’ as a reference point

As many landmarks are, it was also a favourite spot with locals – a place to walk out to on a fine summer’s evening or to bring your visitors to so they could admire the panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and listen to tales of a grandfather’s backbreaking labour in the mines.

Jan Clement print

The storm that roared in on the afternoon of February 9 in 2002 came with no warning. It slammed into Cappaghglass with a noise like a jet engine. The first lightning strike killed several cows on an adjacent field, the next brought down the chimney and one after that hit the telephone wires causing a powerful surge to explode into the old Mine Captain’s House, by then the comfortable and modernised home of Terri and Mark O’Mahony and their family. The impact was devastating (we’ve seen the pictures) – the house was ruined and everyone inside was incredibly lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries.

Chimney stump

The chimney stump today

The O’Mahonys have rebuilt the Mine Captain’s House, but all that remains of the chimney is a stump. There was talk of reconstructing it but this never happened. In circumstances like this, all we have are the images that we can gather together to remind us of what an iconic structure this was. Fortunately, there are photographs and works of art extant that bear witness to how it dominated the landscape and that help us understand how it became such a beloved feature of the countryside.

Photo 97 to SW

Among the images that remain is a charming drawing by Brian Lalor (yes, he of Brian’s Sketchbook fame), commissioned by friends to celebrate Mark O’Mahony’s birthday. It shows the chimney and the house and since it was done in 2002 it must have been just before the lightning strike.

Lalor 2002 sketch

But last week a new image emerged – Brian came across a pen and ink drawing he did in 1974 and he has allowed me to use it in this post. Because Brian unites the eye of the artist with the training of the architect and archaeologist, this is an important new piece of documentary evidence, as well as being a work of art. Thus we can see that the lower two-thirds of the chimney were made of stone, with render still clinging to the outside in patches. The top third is brick, separated from the stone by a corbeled course of expertly laid brick – a feature that is repeated at the top of the chimney also.

Lalor Cappaghglass Chimney – closeup

In Brian’s drawing the chimney stands splendidly on the hill like a round tower and its medieval resonance is echoed by the distant castle across the water.

Lalor Cappaglass Coppermine

My thanks to Mark and Terri O’Mahony for allowing me to use their photographs and drawings in this post, and to Brian Lalor for giving me a copy of his sketch. It’s lovely to have this evidence – but of course I can’t help regretting that the chimney is gone forever.

Mining area

Cappaghglass now

End of Navigation

end of navigation

In 1946, the Rolts travelled to the upper limit of the Shannon Navigation in their borrowed boat, Le Coq. In 2016, exactly seventy years later, we followed them and found ourselves in Battlebridge, Co Leitrim. The Rolts’ travels – and our journey retracing their steps – have been the subject of a series of posts on this blog, and there are still a few more to come!

Battlebridge

Battlebridge 2016

Upper picture: Angels Rolt’s photograph of the historic Battlebridge, taken in 1946. Lower picture: we revisited the site in 2016 – very little has changed

Battlebridge is still the ‘end of navigation’ on the Shannon itself. But, interestingly, it is now possible to travel by water much further north – something the Rolts were unable to do.

…It was but a brief journey to Battlebridge where the Shannon becomes a shallow stream brawling over boulder strewn rapids under the arches of the fine old bridge. Here, in the last few yards of deep water, we came about to moor to two trees beside the bank at the tail of the ruined entrance lock of the Lough Allen Canal. It was a delightful mooring, secure, secluded and sheltered, the country round being undulating and well-wooded, for we had now left the level plain for the fringe of the broken, lake-studded country of central Leitrim… (Green and Silver L T C Rolt, George Allen and Unwin 1949)

Ardnacrusha 1925

The huge Ardnacrusha power station – in its day the largest hydroelectric generating scheme in the world – under construction in 1925: it was completed and opened on 22 July 1929 and, by 1935, was producing 80% of all electricity in the Free State

The Lough Allen Canal connected the Shannon Navigation to the Lough: it was first opened in 1817. Boats would trade to quays on the lake with grain and return with sand or with coal from the Arigna mines. The fate of the canal was sealed when Lough Allen became a storage reservoir for the great hydro-electric station at Ardnacrusha. To increase its capacity, the level of the lake was raised by dam to a height above the old canal banks.

…The last trading boat left the Lough Allen Canal in 1927, while the last pleasure craft battled its way through the weeds in 1932. The lock-keeper, young Sean Nangle, still lived in the neat, freshly white-washed cottage beside the ruined entrance lock, but his duties were confined to bank ranging on the reach of the river below. Le Coq was the first craft to visit Battlebridge for seven years, so that our arrival was a minor sensation, and it was with a sense of newly discovered importance that Sean signed his name on our pass… (Green and Silver)

Battlebridge lock

Battlebridge Lock, the first lock on the now restored Lough Allen Canal. The cottage in the distance was the home of ‘young’ Sean Nangle in 1946

One thing that the Rolts might never have anticipated was the revival of the Irish canals which has come about during the seventy years since their adventures, mainly during the economic boom of the decade or so from the mid 1990s. A cross-border authority – Waterways Ireland – is now responsible for a significant network of canal and river navigations within the island, including many that have been re-established. One is the Lough Allen Canal, now providing access from the Shannon to Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

…That evening Sean accompanied us to the inn which stood by the road side just across the old bridge, and a grand friendly house it proved to be. Nowhere in rural Ireland did we find any lack of kindness, hospitality and friendship, but in these respects this little inn at Battlebridge is particularly memorable. For this, credit must go to the Beirne family, mother, daughter and son. I will not attempt to characterize them; they speak for themselves in their photograph. Leaning against the counter in the bare whitewashed bar we enjoyed the best glass of ‘single’ porter that we found on our travels, while intruding chickens pecked unconcerned about our feet. Through an open doorway a turf fire glowed in a wide open hearth equipped with crane and ratchet hook. Upon the fire reposed a squat, black pot-oven with more smouldering turf upon its lid… Conversation was interrupted when a drove of bullocks passed by with a soft patter of hooves. Everyone crowded to the door to comment and criticize and to speculate where they had come from and whither they were bound, an argument which was settled when the drover himself stepped in for a glass… (Green and Silver)

The Beirne Family

Biernes 2016

Beirnes

Upper picture: Angela Rolt’s photograph of the Beirne family in 1946. Lower pictures: Beirnes Bar is still trading in 2016

The re-opening of the Lough Allen Canal was heralded triumphantly in April 1996. I was pleased to find an archived RTE news report on that event. The official cutting of the tape was carried out by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht – Michael D Higgins, now our President.

lock gates

Lough Allen

Upper picture: the lock at Battlebridge on the restored canal. Lower picture: Lough Allen today. Below: A mural on the garden terrace of Beirnes Bar

band playing

Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers

Brow Head Buildings

We have received a unique and treasured gift – a sketchbook from the 1980s of prehistoric and historic sites around West Cork. It’s the work of our good friend, and national treasure, Brian Lalor, artist, writer and printmaker. For an overview of his style, check out the retrospective of his work at Graphic Studio Dublin. Or browse the long list of his books, including the magnificent Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which he edited.

Marconi Station, Brow Head

Brow Head: (above and below) on the right is the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower; the other buildings date mainly from the time of the Marconi Telegraph Station, taken from a different angle than the sketch above

Brian has studied both architecture and archaeology and to that adds the keen observant eye of the artist. As a result these sketches, although, as he explained, often hastily done during a brief visit to a site, are accurate, detailed and charming in equal measure. They were made on field trips with the Mizen Archaeological & Historical Society in the 1980s. This was an active society, publishing a well-regarded journal from 1993 to 2004 and leading regular field trips for members.

Brow Head ruined building

The sketches, just over 50 of them, were made for the most part between 1980 and 1987 so besides their intrinsic artistic value, they also constitute an important record of the state of the site 30 years ago, allowing us a comparison with its current condition. My intention is to visit (or re-visit) a lot of the sites, with his sketches in hand and show our readers both how beautifully Brian captured the structures or artefacts at the time and whether there are any changes visible from then to now. I decided to start with the Signal Towers on Cape Clear and Brow Head, and a third tower on Rock Island that may or may not be contemporaneous.

Wolfe Tone front

Theobald Wolfe Tone – detail of the statue in Bantry town square

In 1796 the French navy, partly at the invitation of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, staged an unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, sailing into Bantry Bay. Several raids followed in 1798. Although all were quickly quashed, a panic about the possibility of a French invasion spread throughout Britain and Ireland. A series of Napoleonic-era fortifications and viewing towers were constructed around the coast in locations with panoramic views, and within sight of each other, to spot foreign shipping activity and raise the alarm. On the east coast, these mainly took the form of Martello Towers and were stocked with heavy armaments, but here in the south west defensible Signal Towers were built not to house artillery but as advanced-warning stations. Here and there they were complemented by batteries and other fortifications – but that’s a story for another day.

Cape Clear Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Signal towers were built around the coast to the same plan – tall square towers with first-floor entrances and machicolations. From a distance, they look like the medieval tower houses I have posted about on several occasions but up close they are shorter and the windows are bigger. Internal staircases and partitions were made of wood, not stone and have generally not survived, so the signal stations are essentially shells. in both the Cape Clear and Brow Head example, the exterior slate cladding has survived remarkably well.

Brow Head Detail - signal tower

Brow Head Signal Tower – detail from Brian’s sketch

In his excellent article for the Irish Times, Nick Hogan describes the towers, how they were staffed, the accommodation provided and how the signalling was done:

The signalling system, referred to as an optical telegraph, required that each signal station be visible to its counterparts on either side. Sending a message involved raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. The stations also communicated with ships.

Cape Clear Towers

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse, Cape ClearTop: Brian’s sketch of the Signal Tower and Lighthouse on Cape Clear Island, done in 1982; Below: how it looked in June, 2016, 34 years later

While many signal stations are lonely and isolated buildings glimpsed on distant headlands, abandoned since the mid-1800s, both the Brow Head and Cape Clear buildings had further phases of use. In Cape Clear a lighthouse was built in 1818 – a forerunner of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. It was so often shrouded in fog that it was abandoned in the 1840s. The buildings attached to the signal tower, built of brick and concrete, probably date to this period of occupation. The signal tower is built of stone, using techniques not far removed from medieval construction methods. The lighthouse provides a wonderful contrast, being built of cut granite blocks expertly measured, shaped and fitted. 

Cape Clear Deatil - Lighthouse

Cape Clear Lighthouse, detail from sketch

In June of 2016, when we visited, it looked exactly as it had to Brian and the Mizen field group – an indication, perhaps that somebody is looking after the site and that the few visitors who come (it’s quite a hike to get there) respect the heritage. [Edit: Since I wrote this, Brian has pointed out that in the Cape Clear Signal Tower there is a porch under the machicolation in his drawing that has since disappeared. The outlines of the porch can be clearly seen in the photographs of the signal tower.]

Cape Clear Lighthouse

Brow Head is easier to access, and as a result there is more graffiti in evidence, but the changes to the site since Brian’s sketch are more the result of time and climate than any damage by humans. This is a complex site with multiple periods of occupation. The signal tower is there, of course, looking exactly as it did in the 1980s. Beside it is a network of buildings dating from the the early years of the 20th century: this is what remains of the Marconi Telegraph Station. Read all about this in Robert’s piece on Marconi, In Search of Ghosts. Besides the Marconi Station a Second World War Look Out Post was occupied here in the 1940s – little remains of this small concrete building except the characteristic half-round shape and a section of wall.

Brow Head octagonal?

Finally, on Brow Head there is a mysterious building that Brian labels ’14 – ’18 Gun Emplacement. This building no longer exists, and the ruinous remains that litter the ground seem robust enough to fit this inscription. Or do they? So – a mystery, and obviously  more research needed on our part. If any of our readers can help – let us hear from you!

Brow Head Detail - gun emplacement

The last tower is on Rock Island. It is clearly visible from the Brow Head Signal Tower ( a requirement for the placement of signal towers) but, strangely, it is one of two very similar towers on Rock Island, and while they are similar to each other, they are quite different from the classic signal tower design. However, both the National Monuments site  and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage listings name them as Napoleonic-era Signal Towers, and perhaps that is indeed what they are.

Rock Island Tower

Brian’s sketch of the Rock Island Signal Tower

However, in discussion with Brian, he pointed out that most of the buildings on Rock Island were developed as part of a major Coast Guard installation around the same time as the Marconi Station, and we wonder if there might be a connection – that is, that these are Coast Guard-related Watch Towers, rather than Napoleonic-era Signal Towers. Once again – more research needed! [Edit: See comment from Navtell in comment section, below.]

Rock Island Signal Station

Rock Island Second TowerThe two towers on Rock Island: similar to each other but quite different from the classic Signal Tower on nearby Brow Head

This is only my first foray into Brian’s Sketchbook. Look out for more posts in the future and in the meantime, join with me in being grateful that a precious resource like this survived numerous moves and that we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Cape Clear Detail - Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Cloondara Mill

The Mill apartments

…Across the canal bridge there was a large corn mill which had seen better days but which I was pleased to see was still at work. Moreover it was not, as our few surviving [British] watermills are, relegated by the milling combine to grinding cattle meal. Cloondara Mill was grinding 100 per cent extraction flour for the village bakeries of the district. As we walked over the bridge a small water-turbine was churning merrily, driving the dynamo which provided electric light for the mill and the miller’s house. But the great undershot wheel which drove the mill from the waters of the Fallan River, a tributary of the Shannon, was still and silent. I knew why because, from somewhere in the dim recesses of the rambling stone building I could hear the chip chip of a mill-bill tapping away like some busy woodpecker. This Irish miller, like the English country millers who I have been fortunate enough to meet, was obviously proud of his mill and was delighted by our interest. Having assured himself that the stones being dressed were out of gear, he insisted upon opening the sluice for our benefit, setting the giant wheel revolving with a rumble and surge that wakened the mill and which, via a complex of wooden gearing, shafts and pulleys, set screens and sieves shaking and revolving to the very top of the building…

(L T C Rolt Green & Silver George Allen and Unwin, London 1949)

millstone dressing

…There were four pairs of stones, two sets of ‘Peaks’ for meal and two sets of French Burrs for wheat. The runner of one pair of Peaks had been swung off the bedstone, and the dresser sat on a sack, legs astraddle, as he tapped away at the worn furrows with his bill. I had expected to find that the language of the miller’s craft was different in Ireland, but this was not so. Thus the stirrup and shoe which feeds the grain into the eye of the runner stone and whose cheerful clink clack contrasts with the rumble of the stones, our miller, like his fellows in England, called the ‘damsel’. In an earlier book I described how the miller of Minshull Mill in Cheshire used apple wood to renew the teeth of the wooden mill gearing. Here beech wood was used for this purpose…

Header photograph: Cloondara Mill, Richmond Harbour, 2016; above, photographs from Windmills & Watermills (John Reynolds, Hugh Evelyn, London 1970) showing a miller and his bills, working much as Rolt described in his book

We spent some weeks in the summer exploring the waterways of Ireland, following in the wake of Tom and Angela Rolt who had made a pioneering voyage in 1946, when the canals were in a state of decline. In fact, the Rolt’s boat Le Coq was the last to make the complete journey through the Royal Canal, which became derelict and finally closed in 1961. When they passed through Richmond Harbour in County Longford – the junction of the Royal Canal with the River Shannon – they paused to visit the corn mill at Cloondara: this mill ceased operations in the 1950s, not long after the Rolts’ visit.

Cloondara Richmond Harbour 1946

Richmond Harbour 2016

Upper photograph by Angela Rolt: Richmond Harbour in 1946 – the single boat is Le Coq. Lower photograph shows the same scene in 2016, seventy years later; the Royal Canal (which closed in 1961) has been fully restored, re-opening in 2010

We found Richmond Harbour to be a thriving small community; a boating centre which has benefitted from the restoration of its canal. Comparing the two pictures above – separated by a span of seventy years – the architecture of the place has hardly changed: only the buildings on the right seem to have been significantly updated, although they retain the structural form of their predecessors.

lock and mill

Forty Sixth Lock

The settlement retains its focus on the water, and there is evidence of some economic activity based around the canal harbour. I was particularly keen to see what had happened to the mill which Rolt describes in such detail; it remains, converted to an apartment complex. This seems to be an ambitious undertaking within such a small community: there are vacant apartments and signs that maintenance is falling behind in places, but it has to be a good thing that the project has respected and built on to the original industrial architecture. The impressive building is largely intact and continues to hold its original character, while some of the machinery has been retained to provide historical visual references.

apartment complex

This series has given me a fascinating project to research and record (there’s more to come!). I only wish the Rolts were still around – I would like to discover their own reactions to the evolution of Ireland’s waterways system in the years since they travelled here.

 

Grand Canal Hotels

rbtstown hotel through bridge

This view of the old hotel on the Grand Canal at Robertstown, Co Kildare, is our best effort to replicate the photo taken by Angela Rolt in 1946 for Green & Silver, Tom Rolt’s book about their Irish waterways adventures exactly seventy years ago:

robertstown

Angela Rolt’s 1946 photograph of the Canal Hotel at Robertstown. We could not get the same view (which must have been taken from their boat) as we were on dry land! By clever manipualtion of her lenses, Finola produced our own version (top picture)

…We had travelled less than a mile along the summit level before we saw ahead, framed by the arch of a bridge, the canal hotel at Robertstown. It is an almost exact replica of the Shannon Harbour hotel, but is in better repair being at the present time a Turf Board hostel for workers on the bogs. Robertstown itself, a whitewashed canal depot, a post office and a shop and ‘select bar’ or two strung along the canal waterfront beside the hotel, is a canal village… There was, for me at any rate, a fascination about Robertstown which I find difficult to define and which our photograph can scarcely convey. A particular atmosphere, melancholy, nostalgic yet captivating, always invests a waterfront no matter whether it is that of some old seaport town, some cliff-walled fishing cove or merely, as in this case, some inland village beside a still canal. It captivates because it is a doorway to the unknown and so appeals to our sense of adventure and that nomadic instinct which lies buried in all of us. It is nostalgic because it recalls memories of places visited and never perhaps to be revisited. It is melancholy because it is redolent with the unnumbered farewells which it has witnessed; a reminder that life, in the words of some poet whose name I cannot recall, is a perpetual farewell… (from Green & Silver, L T C Rolt, George Allen and Unwin, 1946)

canal port

canal in roberstown

The canal village of Robertstown: upper picture – Angela Rolt’s photograph of 1946 sums up the ‘melancholy and nostalgic’ character of the place then. The Rolts’ boat, Le Coq – is seen moored up on the quay: its journey created significant interest as in those days the appearance of a ‘pleasure craft’ was rare. A crowd of small children always materialized out of nowhere to gaze, ask questions and – sometimes – throw stones. Lower picture – Robertstown in 2016

Rolt was a prolific – and often romantic – writer: more than 500 publications are attributed to him, including articles and letters and forty significant books on canals, railways, engineering and philosophy: Green & Silver is the second of these. His summing up of Robertstown as ‘melancholy and nostalgic’ reflects the times in which he lived and travelled on the waterways. The heyday of canal transport was long gone, although the Grand Canal and Shannon were still in commercial use seventy years ago. Carrying then was in severe decline: it would only last another ten years or so and the Rolts’ transit of the Royal Canal was probably the last before the canal became impassable before being formally closed in 1961.

bargehorse robertstown

Horse drawn commercial traffic on the Grand Canal in Robertstown is remembered there in this modern relief carving of a barge horse on the wall of the Garda station

My own journeys on the English canal system during the 1960s could similarly be described as ‘melancholy and nostalgic’ and I certainly shared Tom Rolt’s fascination for what I found. The era of water transport was over and in those days the canals were imbued with an air of neglect and decay, although better times were remembered by the local populations. As did the Rolts, I had difficulties in making a passage through some of the near derelict canals in the English midlands with my little boat (often bow-hauling from the bank was the only answer to the weed and rubbish-choked ‘navigations’); however – like them – I always succeeded. Today, in both Ireland and England the picture is very different: generations of pioneering enthusiasts and campaigners (I was one of them!) have succeeded in reawakening interest in our industrial history and realised the amenity asset of the waterways systems which have generally been brought back in a new incarnation as ‘cruiseways’.

faded elegance robertstown

The Canal Hotel at Robertstown: from a distance it retains its elegant façade but it’s all a sham, and the building is in urgent need of conservation

In both places there is still an architectural and industrial heritage to be acknowledged. A particular example in Ireland is the Grand Canal hotels. There were five constructed originally: Shannon Harbour, Tullamore, Robertstown, Portobello and James’ Street Harbour. All were of a pattern and impressive architecturally. Two have vanished.

portobello-grand-canal-hotel

The former Grand Canal Hotel at Portobello Harbour, Dublin, in the 1940s: it became a nursing home (Jack B Yeats spent his last years there) and is now a private college

rbstown hotel elevation

Robertstown Canal Hotel: a local civic amenity group has painted in the fenestration to improve the look of this significant building in the townscape, but the reality is masked decay and an uncertain future

The other remaining hotel building is at Shannon Harbour, where the Grand Canal meets the mighty river. In the heady days of canal prosperity …the company’s hotels were simply the posting houses of this water-road… (Rolt) …There was considerable interchange of passenger as well as goods traffic at Shannon Harbour. Travellers changed here from the Dublin passage boats into Bianconi’s ‘long cars’ which operated between Birr, Shannon Harbour and Athlone in connection with the boats. Alternatively they might board the paddle steamers The Lady Lansdowne or The Lady Burgoyne which plied between Killaloe pier head and Athlone, calling at a jetty on the river near the mouth of the canal. Smaller craft sailed from Killaloe pier head to the transatlantic port of Limerick, and so the Grand Canal became a link in the route between Dublin and America…

Shannon Harbour, Grand Canal Hotel

shannon harbour view with hotel

Upper picture – Angela Rolt’s view of Shannon Harbour and the intact hotel. Lower picture – the same view in 2016, showing the hotel in a state of near dereliction

The Shannon Harbour hotel today is but a shell: the roof has fallen, the windows are empty sockets. But, like the building at Robertstown, it is a scheduled historic monument. The structure has been stabilised with steel props and there is talk – rumour, at least – of some future project. Even in its distressed state the hotel has a ‘grand’ air: certainly a prominent presence in the minimalist architecture of this small settlement which had a bustling past.

Shannon Harbour canal hotel: a stabilised shell today, recognised as historically and architecturally important for Ireland

It’s hard to imagine what the future could hold for such a monument of a different age, especially in this rural hinterland of County Offaly. Meanwhile, our own adventures continue – we still have some way to go yet to catch up with Tom and Angela Rolts’ voyages. This is the seventh instalment of the Travel by Water series. All the posts to date are available to view by clicking on the blue link.

canal fest robertstown

The Town of Luan’s Ford

o'ferrall fry place

…One of the shops we visited was O’Ferrall’s, whose frontage dates from the days when shop-fitting was not merely a business but an art, as the picture we took of it, with ‘himself’ in the doorway, clearly reveals. Old Mr O’Ferrall was a tall gaunt figure. His hawk-like features had an aristocratic cast which was somehow enhanced by a long coat of archaic cut and a high stand-up collar. He had, we discovered, a great sense of the past, and as we sat together in the confined space of the small wooden cubicle to which, as in most Irish bars, women must retire in order to drink with propriety, he talked of the history of Athlone. Like that of most Irish towns, it has been stormy… (Green & Silver L T C Rolt 1946)

fry place bistro 2016

Top picture – Angela Rolts’ photograph of O’Ferrall’s shop and bar, Fry Place, Athlone – taken in June 1946 just before the Rolts embarked on their journey around the Irish waterways which they describe and illustrate in their book Green & Silver. Lower picture – the same view, Fry Place, Athlone – taken in 2016 – now a highly regarded bistro. The new shop frontage pays due respect to its predecessor in terms of overall proportion and despite the loss of the ornate bow windows. It’s interesting, too, that – seventy years on – the premises is still a local meeting place and purveyor of good food and drink

This is the fifth instalment of the Travel By Water series… When we retraced the steps of Tom and Angela Rolt – seventy years after they made their voyage of discovery around the Irish canals and waterways – we visited the town of Athlone for the first time. We were impressed enough to determine that we would return for a more detailed exploration of this midlands settlement, historically a strategically important crossing point of the Shannon – a formidable barrier intersected with her great lakes – the largest river in Britain and Ireland.

17th-century-bridge

At one time (some histories say as early as the Bronze Age) this river crossing just below Lough Ree would have been a wide ford – Luan’s Ford. In the 11th century, Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobar, King of Connacht, had built a wooden bridge which survived, with various restorations, until 1566, when the first stone bridge was constructed (depicted above in a print now in the Aidan Heavey Public Library, Athlone). It could well be this medieval bridge that is commemorated in the ceilidh dance The Bridge of Athlone. The present bridge was opened in 1844.

Athlone Bridge

Athlone’s Victorian bridge today. Note the flat ‘navigation arch’ on the left (west side of the river): this replaces an earlier movable section of the bridge which allowed taller boats to pass through

The Shannon Navigation is now managed by the cross border authority Waterways Ireland. This body also manages the navigable canals, rivers and lakes throughout the island of Ireland, and does a very good job of it. Such an undertaking would probably have never been foreseen by the Rolts 70 years ago when some of the canals had been derelict for many years, and others were in poor condition. The Rolts’ borrowed boat Le Coq was based in Athlone and was probably the last craft to fully circumnavigate the circular route encompassing the Royal Canal, the Shannon and the Grand Canal in the 20th century: the Royal Canal fell into disuse shortly after the Rolts’ journey and was formally closed in 1961. Today the Royal Canal is completely restored to navigation (it was reopened in 2010).

the lock athlone

birds on weir

Upper picture – Athlone Lock today – some of the original Victorian lock machinery has been retained and is in working order although the main operations are electrically powered. Middle picture – upstream of Athlone the river widens dramatically as it approaches Lough Ree. Lower pictures – distinctive livery of the lock machinery in Athlone: note the commemoration of Thomas Rhodes, the engineer of the navigation improvements

We were fortunate to find some early photographs of Athlone and the river: these significantly predate the time of the Rolts’ journey but are worth showing for historical interest.

lock in use athlone

athlone fry place

Upper picture – probably early 20th century – the lock at Athlone: note the commercial craft in the lock, one of them a steamer, and the lifting span on the bridge in the distance. Lower picture – Fry Place, Athlone, courtesy of The Leftbank Bistro: this probably dates from the late Victorian period and shows O’Ferrall’s on the left (see above) and a matching shopfront to the right

Compare Angela Rolt’s photograph of Athlone’s waterfront in 1946 (below) with my 2016 picture underneath it. Architecturally there is very little change to the buildings she recorded. Obviously, there has been considerable alteration to the town elsewhere in the last 70 years but the river itself has remained a constant.

Waterfront Athlone

Athlone Waterfront

shannon commission