“A Genius for Observation” – More from de La Tocnaye

In a previous post I introduced Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye, an escapee from his homeland at the time of the Revolution, arriving in London on 29 December 1792. He settled for a time in Britain, where in 1795 he published an account of his perambulations through England and Scotland. This was sufficiently well received to encourage him to obtain letters of introduction and travel to Ireland to undertake a similar exploration, leading to a further volume: Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande, published (in French) in Dublin in 1797.

Header – The Market Womens’ March to Versailles  – de La Tocnaye was on the ‘wrong’ side during the upheaval of the Revolution which lasted from 1792 to 1802: for his own safety he exiled himself from France throughout that period, and spent his time exploring the British Isles. Above – The main road going west out of Dublin in 1783, much as it must have been in de La Tocnaye’s time: the ruin of Maynooth Castle, from Alexander Taylor’s map of County Kildare

Jacques-Louis said immodestly of himself that he had . . . a genius for observation . . . and his writings are invaluable to us as an account of down-to-earth aspects of normal life in Ireland in the late eighteenth century, although – as I pointed out in my previous post – the 1917 translator (John Stevenson) has diluted some of the more colourful descriptions which might have been considered indelicate – or even uninteresting – to the readers of his day.

Here is a wonderful composite engraving – by Charles Turner Warren (1762 – 1823) showing the major tourism sites in Ireland which would have been familiar during de La Tocnaye’s lifetime. They include: Rock of Cashel, Swords Round Tower, High Cross at Monasterboice, Giant’s Causeway and the Mountains of Killarney. Grateful thanks for this to the excellent Ireland Illustrated project from NUI Galway

Last time around, we sampled Wicklow, Wexford and Cork City depicted through de La Tocnaye’s eyes. After these experiences our writer moved west and touched the fringes of our own part of Cork County before travelling up country. Today, as a preamble to what I hope will be an enlightening series of posts on de La Tocnaye, I will touch on the day-to-day practicalities of reaching – and journeying through – Ireland in the late 1790s using his own text (via Stevenson), with the briefest interventions from me. It’s fascinating stuff!

More early Irish tourism: this engraving by W H Bartlett – titled Arrivée à Killarney, par la route de Kenmare illustrates today’s very popular Ring of Kerry section of the Wild Atlantic Way, seen through nineteenth century eyes. Another from the Ireland Illustrated project, NUI Galway

Some words on the modes of travel of the day: Jacques-Louis’ adventures in getting from England to Ireland, which included a brief sojourn in Wales –

. . .  at Carmarthen the inhabitants use for salmon fishing a boat, or rather a basket, covered with horse skin. They sit in the middle and preserve equilibrium very cleverly, and, fishing over, they carry the boat home with them, where it serves as a cradle for the children. The cemeteries also attracted my attention. Instead of filling them with an incongruous assortment of tombstones with ridiculous inscriptions, the relations of the lost cultivate on their graves flowers and plants, coming often to care for them, so that the cemeteries are more like gardens than homes of the dead. People practising such a custom must be of gentle manners, and I was very sorry that I could not live for a while among them. But I was on my way to Ireland, and hurried on to Milford Haven, an ugly hole in which the anxious traveller may eat up to his last penny while waiting for a favourable breeze. Three or four times we set sail, and as many times were we forced by the waves to return to port. On the fourth endeavour we stopped at Deal, a little village at the mouth of the bay, and there we stuck for eight long days. In the ordinary course of affairs, how impatiently I should have chafed at the delay, in spite of the sight of the large and beautiful bay and singular country! But chance had settled that I should engage a place in the same boat as that which was to carry an amiable Scotch family, and an Irishman who had served a long time in France, and I found myself in such good company that I began to fear, rather than to desire, a favourable wind. We made the crossing at last, and rather rapidly, for we reached the Irish coast within twenty-four hours . . .

Jacques-Louis described the salmon-fishing boats – or baskets – which he saw in Wales; here is a 1972 photograph of John and Will Davies of Cenarth – the last two legitimate coracle fishermen on the River Teifi. They are both using the single-arm method of propulsion – a means of gliding downstream in a controlled way. They carried their coracles and their fish home on their backs. Photo in the public domain from Wikipedia

One of the delights of de La Tocnaye’s writings is the information he furnishes us with on the incidentals of his journey, such as this on the ‘customs’ of the day;

. . . The customs officers claim tribute on both sides of the water, demanding from the passengers half a crown per head, for the permission to ship or disembark their luggage. One who refused to pay had his bag tumbled and turned over in a cruel manner. The price of the passage is exorbitant — a guinea and a half in the cabin — and the packet was far from being either comfortable or clean. I had chosen the route from motives of economy, and found the charges to mount to double those of the Holyhead route. We entered the river Suir, at the mouth of which is a strong castle seated on a rock jutting out into the sea. Mr Latin, who travelled in the boat, was kind enough to ask me to his house at Drumdouny, and so from the very first day I spent on Irish soil I had the good fortune to enjoy Irish kindness and hospitality . . .

Another traveller whose work we might explore in future posts was Arthur Young (1741 – 1820). In 1780 he published A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom: made in the years 1776, 1777, and 1778. This illustration of an Irish cabin is from that volume, and is drawn by Young

Hospitality was not always so straightforward:

. . . I had not taken the trouble to calculate distances very carefully in starting, and now, late in the evening, I found myself still eight miles from my destination — and eight miles Irish count for something. It was past eleven o’clock when I arrived at the house where I expected to be received. The doors were locked, and to my distress I found that the owner, who had invited me to his house, was not at home. Further, that there was no inn nearer than four miles distant, and that on the side of Dublin which I had left. To go back on my way was a hateful idea — I preferred rather to go ten miles forward than four back — and so I went on. At half-past twelve I found myself in a village, its name unknown to me. Everybody seemed to be asleep ; however, at the last, I found a cabin with a light in the window, the dwelling of some poor labourers who had returned late from the city. I entered, asked for hospitality, and had placed before me immediately what was in the house. For rest I passed the night on a three-legged stool, my back leaning against the wall. This for the first day of my travels was not a very agreeable beginning, but I had to take troubles as they came. There was no need to wake me in the morning. At dawn of day all the animals in the cottage, sleeping pell-mell with their masters, acquainted me with the fact that the sun was up, and I rose from my stool and left this unfortunate house of want. How profitable this night would have been to me had I been always the favoured child of fortune! I would advise parents to force their children thus to pass several nights in their youth; it would be more advantageous to them than years at school. Really to have compassion on the poor, and to have a real desire to help them requires that they should be approached; the careless rich, who have never seen the poor near at hand, think of them with disgust and turn away their eyes from the sight of poverty . . .

A superbly atmospheric drawing by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870) – an illustration for John Barrow’s A Tour Around Ireland, published in 1836. Barrow wrote: . . . I had often anticipated, but I had now the full experience of, the misery of an Irish car in a storm; and I can, without hesitation, pronounce it to be the most wretched of all possible modes of conveyance; I certainly never was before so exposed to such drenching rain: McIntosh’s cloak, and the water-proof boots, which I purchased last year at Tronyem, totally gave way to the merciless storm with which I was so piteously pelted . . . On entering any of the cottages to take shelter, at times when the wind and rain was so bad as to render it difficult to get the poor animal onwards, the general remark was, ‘Dear, dear, what a day to be out in!’ 

I was delighted to find that de La Tocnaye travelled by canal in their heyday – or rather in the days when the Irish canal network was still being built: the Grand Canal took 47 years to construct, being finally completed in its entirety in 1804. (For more on Irish waterways see my Green & Silver posts here). One particular post includes an extract from a Trollope novel in which passenger travel on the Grand Canal is also described. Here is de La Tocnaye’s experience:

. . . As it was my intention to reach Dublin as quickly as possible, I took place in a coach to convey me to Gorey, where I expected to join the Cork mail. Unfortunately when this arrived every place was occupied, and I was left in this miserable village with no way of proceeding with my luggage except by hiring what they call a car. Their car is a species of low cart on wheels two feet in diameter, made out of one or two pieces of wood, attached to a great axle of wood or iron turning with them. This singular construction seems to be well fitted for carrying heavy loads, but not for the country work in which they are commonly employed. I take it to be a farmer’s invention. Having then made a bargain with a driver to take me six miles at the price of a post-chaise, I mounted beside my luggage. My man stopped at every public- house to drink or talk, leaving me in the middle of the road exposed to the rain. Two or three times I begged him, civilly, to proceed, but as he did not appear to pay the slightest attention to my requests, I commenced to repeat those eloquent compliments which one may learn about the docks and markets of London, and was pleased to see that I had, at last, impressed him, for I heard him say, when quitting some of his friends, ‘By, I’m sure he’s a gentleman for he swears most confoundedly.’ After this little lesson I had not the least trouble with my charioteer, but the rain, and some annoyances due to my position at the horse’s tail, put me in such bad humour that I vowed never again to expose myself to such discomfort. I stopped at Carlow, where there has been established recently a seminary for Catholic priests. This town is situated on the Barrow, which joins with the Grand Canal of Ireland. Wishing to see something of this waterway I went to Athy, from whence every day there is a service of public boats to Dublin. At the entrance to the village I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity — they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger. I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns. The canal boats are very comfortable, being indeed very like those of Holland, but the cost here is nearly double. The one in which I travelled carried a large number of political talkers of the type known in France as mouchards. Seeing that I was a foreigner, one of them spoke to me several times on delicate and difficult matters affecting the Government. Fearing false interpretations I responded in ambiguous terms, and in the end found it politic to feign sleep — a very good way of getting out of such difficulties. The canal is a magnificent piece of work, crossing immense tracts of moor, where ten or twelve feet of peat have had to be removed before reaching earth in which the waterway could be cut. Several aqueducts have been necessary, one of them of really prodigious length and height . . .

Above – I was unable to find any contemporary illustrations of passengers travelling on the Irish canals, but the above is a fine – if fanciful – illustration of a Packet  [passenger] Boat in London in 1801, just after the Grand Junction Canal was opened (courtesy the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries). Tailpiece – Whitworth Aqueduct carrying Ireland’s Royal Canal over the River Inny, Co Longford, photographed in 2016: the aqueduct was built between 1814 and 1817 at a cost of £5,000

Keep watching Roaringwater Journal for more snippets from de La Tocnaye’s travels!

Robert’s Favourite Posts

We had an unexpected – and unsolicited – accolade in the Irish Examiner last weekend! Tommy Barker wrote, in an article about Rossbrin (pictured above): “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website, http://www.roaringwaterjournal.com, by Rossbrin residents Robert Harris and Finola Finlay is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” Of course, we went straight to our bookshelves to dip into our copy of Praeger’s The Way That I Went – An Irishman In Ireland, first published in 1937. Here’s an extract:

…At the southern end of this land of great mountain promontories, in West Cork, you find yourself in a little-known and tourist-free region of much charm. You stay on Sherkin Island (Inis Oircín, little pig’s island) or Cape Clear Island, at Schull (Scoil, a school) or far out at Crookhaven: and you walk and boat and fish and lounge and bathe, and enjoy the glorious air and sea; towns and trams and telephones seem like bad dreams, or like fugitive glimpses of an earlier and inferior existence. A meandering railway penetrates to Schull, and roads are as good as you could expect them to be in so lonely a country. All is furzy heath and rocky knolls, little fields and white cottages and illimitable sea, foam-rimmed where it meets the land, its horizon broken only by the fantastic fragment of rock crowned by a tall lighthouse which is the famous Fastnet…

Yes – that’s our West Cork alright (above is a view of the Mizen taken from Mount Gabriel). We hope that, over five years of writing this journal, we have indeed given a good account of this wonderful place which we are privileged to call ‘home’. Certainly, there is nowhere we would rather be. But Roaringwater Journal has not just been about West Cork: we have covered a fair bit of Irish culture and history as well. Last week’s post set out the six most popular articles that we have written in terms of readership numbers; today we are both reviewing our own personal favourites (see Finola’s here) and there is lots to choose from: 466 posts to date! All of them are listed by category in the Navigation pages.

Foremost in my own mind in terms of personal satisfaction is the series I wrote last year: Green & Silver. There have been nine posts in all, starting with my review of a book which I first read in 1963, when I won it as an essay-writing prize at school. The book, Green & Silver, told the story of a journey around the Irish canal system in 1946 (the year I was born), undertaken by an English engineer and writer, L T C ‘Tom’ Rolt and his wife, Angela. When I wrote the review 70 years had passed since the Rolts made that journey. Finola and I conceived the idea of retracing the steps of the Rolts, although not by boat: we drove and walked. It was to be an exercise in tracking the passing of time. We would find the location of every photograph that Angela Rolt had taken in 1946, and take a new one, so that we could compare the changes that had occurred over seven decades. There were many: the canals themselves, which were then near-derelict in places have now been well restored, and the island of Ireland has today an amazing but probably under-appreciated asset: a cross-border system of navigable waterways which connects Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Belfast and Coleraine.

Canal port: Richmond Harbour, Co Longford. Upper picture taken by Angela Rolt in 1946; lower picture, the same view taken 70 years on

I have always had an obsession with wildlife, and one of my favourite posts summarises what wonderful natural things we have all around us here: The Wild  Side. We have written about the birds – choughs, eagles, sparrowhawks – and the little ones that come to our feeder and keep us entertained.

We will never forget our good friend Ferdia, who arrived on our doorstep on the day we moved into Nead an Iolair, and was a regular visitor (usually daily) over several years. Sadly, foxes don’t live for long in the wild, and he has now passed away. He was a very fine dog-fox and was undoubtedly the head of a large family. We hoped that one of his offspring might have taken his place on our terrace, but I suppose he just could never be replaced.

Of course, the pasture and coastline that surrounds us has fine creatures of the domesticated variety, too! (left and right below).

I have family roots in Cornwall and, during my time living here, I have become aware of many links between that westernmost peninsula of Britain and West Cork. In fact, those links go back into prehistory: in the Bronze Age – three and a half thousand years ago – copper was mined on the slopes of Mount Gabriel – a stone’s throw from where we live – and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to make the all-important ‘supermetal’ of Bronze. Another link which I was so pleased to find was that Cornwall’s Patron Saint – St Piran – was actually born and brought up on Cape Clear – the island we look out to across Roaringwater Bay. Read all about it here.

The little church at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall (now inundated by sand) marks the spot where St Ciarán from Cape Clear landed to start his mission. Because of a difference in the Irish and Cornish languages, he became known as St Piran over there. He lived to the age of 208!

Stirring up those links led to my life being taken over in the summer of this year by organising (together with Ann Davoren and the team at the West Cork Arts Centre) an exhibition of the work of three contemporary Cornish artists which was held in Uillinn, Skibbereen’s amazing new gallery. The exhibition ran with the title of West meets West and heralds future collaborations and visits to Cornwall by West Cork artists. This link opens the series of posts that report on all this.

My time here in West Cork – and in Ireland – has heightened my interest in all things medieval, particularly architecture. Finola has written a highly researched and detailed series on the Irish Romanesque style, and our travels to carry out this research have been enjoyable and instructive. I have taken a liking to High Crosses, most of them probably over a thousand years old. They are always found in the context of fascinating early ecclesiastical sites. If you want to know more, have a look at the posts: so far we have explored Moone (above), Durrow (below), Monasterboice, and Castledermot. There are many more to add to this list – and to keep us busy over the next few years.

That’s quite enough for one post! It would be possible to write several on how we have been inspired by our explorations in search of material. Somehow, though, our hearts always come back to our very own piece of Irish soil: Nead an Iolair (Nest of the Eagles). Here it is, and here are the eagles flying over it! You’ll find more about them here.

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

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

Clonfert, St Brendan – and the Ghost of British Fascism

yew walk 2016

Clonfert, Yew Walk

The yew walk at Clonfert  – ‘a great cathedral of natural growth’ – which Tom and Angela Rolt found so impressive on their visit to Clonfert, Co Galway, in 1946, during their travels around the waterways of Ireland. Their photograph is above; 70 years later we followed in their footsteps and took the picture at the top of the page

We were following the Rolt’s journey described in the book Green & Silver – this post is the sixth instalment of the Travel by Water series. We would certainly have included Clonfert in our own itinerary, as we could not have missed the incredible 12th century doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, a high point of Hiberno Romanesque architecture – that deserves a future post of its own. The Rolts walked to Clonfert from their mooring on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour, a round journey of over a dozen miles; we drove to Clonfert and managed to get thoroughly lost in the maze of tiny roads in that part of rural County Galway.

st brendan's grave inscription

The twelfth century doorway to Clonfert Cathedral – a medieval architectural masterpiece – and the grave of St Brendan which it faces

…Close behind the cathedral and sheltering with it among the fine trees which make Clonfert an oasis in the bogland, stands the Bishops Palace, now a lay residence. Having been courteously granted permission to explore the grounds, we found Clonfert’s celebrated yew walk which is reputed to date back to early medieval times. The yews have attained unusual stature, and their interlacing branches curve outward and then upward towards the light to form a series of those ogee curved arches beloved of the Gothic revivalists of the Strawberry Hill period. As the main walk runs from east to west with two short transepts radiating from a central crossing, the effect is truly remarkable and represents nothing so much as a great cathedral of natural growth. Moreover, the light within was appropriately dim and religious, the dark foliage excluding most of the light from the overcast sky. We found the silent twilight of this great nave of ancient trees strangely impressive, more so, in fact than the man-made cathedral close by. In spite of the difficulty involved we decide to make this the subject of our pictorial record of Clonfert rather than the often-photographed west doorway… (LTC Rolt, Green & Silver, George Allen and Unwin 1949).

nuns walk sign

Tom Rolt, the navigator of canals, devotes several passages in his book to Saint Brendan ‘the navigator’ and his many voyages all over the world until …having completed ninety three years… Brendan set out fearfully and alone upon his last voyage while his body was brought home to Clonfert for burial… (Green & Silver): …There is much evidence to support the belief that Brendan reached America nearly a thousand years before Columbus, that Newfoundland was his first landfall, and that he sailed from thence down the coast to the Bahamas and the everglades of Florida… Rolt goes on to admire the conjectured boat which Brendan and his small party of monks would have used: …The hull of this vessel of AD 551 bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an ice-breaker boat which I saw re-timbered at the yard of an English canal company in AD 1943. She was massively built of oak, iron fastened to the ribs, with a high prow and a whaleboat stern equipped with a steering paddle (the rudder had not then been invented). She was decked fore and aft, while the mast stepped in the well amidships bore a single lug sail. Her timbers were possibly skin-covered as the wooden curraghs of Inishbofin are today covered with canvas. She had considerable freeboard, and she shipped no oars but depended on sail alone. In this small but stoutly built craft, of which the Galway Pookawn of to-day is probably the direct lineal descendant, Brendan set forth to sail into the sunset…

Fascinating and curious juxtapositions in the offerings left at St Brendan’s Tree in Clonfert

The Rolts did not mention St Brendan’s Tree, which we encountered on our way to the yew walk. We don’t know how ancient or how recent this manifestation might be. It’s a horse chestnut and it is festooned with all the offerings one would find at a holy well – and more! In addition to statues, rosaries, cards, coins and ribbons there were toys, musical intruments, shoes – and underwear. We were guided to the yew walk by a forester working nearby: we expressed curiosity at the tree, wanting to know its history and efficacy but his response was pragmatic: “I’m Church of Ireland myself and wouldn’t be knowing anything about this sort of goings-on”.

Brendan made several voyages. Rolt continues the story: …It was upon Brendan’s return from his second voyage that he founded his monastery and college at Clonfert – Cluain Fearta Breannain or the meadow of Brendan’s Virtus. This was destined to become a great European University of three thousand students rivalled only by the similar institutions of Clonard and Bangor. Clear thinking was the liberal aim of education at this period… Fifteen years elapsed before Brendan once more set sail to Scotland, and Wales, visiting the great Welsh scholars Gildas the Wise and Cadoc of Llancarvan, and from thence to Brittany and the Cornwall of King Arthur… Where Brendan voyaged after this is uncertain, but rumour and legend associate the name of this indefatigable traveller with the Canary Islands, Teneriffe, Egypt, Palestine and the Isles of Greece. Yet the patron saint of seafarers returned to Ireland to die in the convent of his sister Brigh at Annaghduin…

Bishops Palace

Palace Interior

We found the Bishop’s Palace, which Rolt mentioned as being a ‘lay residence’ – presumably in good order – in 1946. 70 years later it is ruinous. We were intrigued and I determined to seek out its recent history. In doing so I chanced upon a whole section of Irish and British relationships which startled me, and seemed somehow to make entirely poignant the time span of 70 years which I have been observing in this series.

Discarded robin

A poignant moment – discarded robin and broken statue in Clonfert graveyard

I quote from an article in The Dublin Review, issue No 26, Spring 2007. This is an excellently written and comprehensive account of matters well beyond the remit of this little post, but I commend anyone who is interested in history – and the state of the world today – to read it. This extract continues the story of the Palace at Clonfert:

…In 1951, John Arthur Burdett Trench – obsessive huntsman since the age of eight, polo player and, in his mid sixties, possessor of a memory of having ridden home the winner of the Grand National at Fairyhouse at a time when English officers could still relax in the grandstand – sold Clonfert Palace near Eyrecourt in Co. Galway to an English family not long arrived in Ireland. The house had belonged to the Trenches for generations and had once been the residence of Church of Ireland bishops. It stood on the flood plain of the Shannon, a short walk from Clonfert Cathedral, hidden away behind its famous avenue of yew trees, an inconspicuous island of Ascendancy civility on the frontier of the vast bog. Like many other ancient mansions, its comforts and refinements had not survived the privations of the twentieth century and it was badly in need of restoration. Every day for months the new lady of the house would drive across the bogland roads from her temporary accommodation in Tipperary to supervise the installation of bathrooms, electricity and central heating, an Aga in the kitchen. Word spread that Clonfert Palace was being returned to its former glory and that there was work to be had from the new owners. They turned the ballroom into a drawing room and brought a carpenter from Banagher to build bookshelves that covered an entire wall. They filled the once-dilapidated rooms with fine furniture, replaced the broken sash cords on the windows, draped curtains made to measure in Dublin and hung paintings of their ancestors on the wall. They recruited a gardener, a housekeeper and a cook. Occasionally the lady’s husband would arrive in a large, exotic Buick driven by a French chauffeur.

Soon, it became known that the family bringing Clonfert Palace back to life was Sir Oswald and Lady Diana Mosley and their two sons. On the fifteenth of February 1952, the Westmeath Independent carried a short item entitled ‘Distinguished Residents’, disclosing that the previous Friday the Mosley family had ‘moved into occupation’ of the palace. ‘Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley, who have a large staff, are charmed with Ireland, its people, the tempo of its life and its scenery,’ the paper related, dutifully informing readers in a final sentence that ‘Sir Oswald was the former leader of a political movement in England’…

Frightening reminders of a world in chaos – less than a lifetime ago. Left – a poster from 1939 (Oswald Mosley led the British Union of Fascists) and – right – Mussolini and Mosley meet in Italy in 1936 (image from http://www.panorama.it/)

After the war, the Mosleys were virtually outcasts from Britain. Neutral Ireland seemed to offer them a retreat and a measure of civility. The Dublin Review continues:

…Sir Oswald would take his breakfast in bed. The Irish Times and Financial Times would be delivered from Eyrecourt. Lady Mosley would give her orders for the day to Mrs Swan, the cook. When Sir Oswald surfaced he might go for a long walk along the Shannon, passing the barges hauling cargoes of porter, coal or flour. On return he would set to work in his study. Nicholas Mosley has written about his father’s attachment to ‘the hierarchical … classless patterns of life … in the semi-feudal grandeur’ of the estate where he grew up in Staffordshire; in Clonfert Mosley seems to have replicated this idyll. Just as his grandfather had produced wholemeal bread, Sir Oswald supervised the growing of vegetables and ploughed the paddock to plant lucerne, a clover-like plant used for fodder…

bishops palace from neswpaper

This newspaper photograph of the Bishop’s Palace at Clonfert could have been taken around the time of the Rolt’s visit (1946) or after restoration by the Mosleys

The ‘idyll’ did not last too long. The Dublin Review again:

…One foggy night a few weeks before Christmas 1954, while Diana was visiting London, the Mosleys’ neighbours the Blake-Kellys were woken just before two o’clock by the whinnying of a pony in their stables. From their window they could see flames and smoke billowing from the Palace next door. Mrs Blake-Kelly sent her son to bang on the Mosleys’ front door and within minutes Sir Oswald, Alexander and their servants were standing on the lawn watching the flames consume their house. A French maid, Mademoiselle Cerrecoundo, rushed back into the house to fetch some clothes and was trapped at an upstairs window. Sir Oswald, Alexander and the chauffeur, Monsieur Thevenon, held a blanket under the window and she leaped to safety, hurting her back and her hand. Monsieur Thevenon drove to the Garda station in Eyrecourt and from there fire brigades were summoned from Ballinasloe and Birr. It took an hour and a half for the engines to arrive and by then more than half the house was lost to the blaze. The firemen cut through the roof with their axes to create a barrier to the advancing flames…

The story does not quite end there: as if some sort of retribution of biblical proportions were needed, even the land was punished. The Dublin Review concludes:

…By morning, when the firemen had finished their work and stood gazing at the hole rent through the roof of the house, cold westerly winds were gathering strength. It was the beginning of the worst storm in the midlands for a hundred years. Rain, sleet and snow poured down on the smouldering ruins of Clonfert and the winds reached hurricane force, knocking trees across the roads and felling the electricity wires that had been strung only in the last few years. Within a few days thousands of acres of land by the Shannon were flooded. The army came to evacuate farmhouses which were under three or four feet of water and drive cattle to high ground. Stone outhouses were washed away, corn stooks submerged and the swollen bodies of cows and pigs that could not be saved were left bobbing in the water…

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I was born in 1946, just when Tom and Angela Rolt were planning their exploration of Ireland’s waterways, but also directly after the turbulence of an awful global war which caused the deaths of over seventy million people. One of the elements which led to that war was the rise of fascism in Europe. In my lifetime to date I have seen fascism largely invalidated and the creation of a European Union whose members have worked towards common and positive aims. For seventy years there has been ‘peace in Europe’. Now – in 2016 – I have reason to worry about our children’s future; some things which should have been buried forever in the pages of history seem to be stirring. I desperately hope my foreboding is misplaced.

brendan stamp