Back to the Irish Canals

Our readers with good memories may remember a long-running series I penned five years ago, about the canals of Ireland. I revisited that series recently – for a Trasna na Tíre talk* – and realised that I had left it incomplete back in 2017! What better time to finish off the journey than now – when we can only travel outside our lockdown limits through virtual technology?

In 2016 Finola and I explored part of the Irish canal system, following in the footsteps of Tom and Angela Rolt who had voyaged the same way exactly 70 years before, in 1946. They were pioneers in their day, as boating for ‘pleasure’ on the canals was rare. In their book Green & Silver they also managed to capture, in words and photographs, the essence of a decaying transport system in Ireland immediately following WWII, and our travels tried to give an impression of the considerable transformation of inland waterways in Ireland since their time. We traversed, on road and on foot, their voyage around the Shannon Navigation, and the Grand and Royal Canals.

The upper photograph was taken by Angela Rolt in 1946: it shows the Rolt’s boat moored up in sleepy Robertstown (Grand Canal), receiving the attentions of a crowd of small children who had never seen a pleasure cruiser before. Below that is the photo of Robertstown we took in 2016, seventy years later. Our own travels in that year, however, omitted the Rolt’s journey through Dublin, when they had to pass across the Liffey and Dublin Port to get from the Grand Canal to the Royal Canal. The header is an extract from a 19th century map of the docks area in Dublin.

That’s the ‘Green & Silver’ route, above, which the Rolts travelled in 1946. Starting from Athlone they went anti-clockwise around the triangle formed by the Shannon Navigation, Grand Canal; and Royal Canal. This involved crossing the Liffey in Dublin

We have visited Dublin many times in recent years, and I managed to take photographs to complement those of the Rolts, in order to finally complete the ‘Green & Silver’ series today. First, however, let’s try to get an idea of the scale of Dublin Port by comparing aerial views, like by like, of that district and our own Rossbrin Cove in West Cork. The scale and area of each of these two photographs is exactly the same (1600 hectares): the demography (population and land use) couldn’t be more different.

. . . After tea we journeyed on through Landestown and Digby Bridge Locks to the Leinster aqueduct over the River Liffey. It was an attractive pound, the canal skirting a ridge of high ground on our right with a view over the valley to the left until it turned to cross the river. As there was little traffic about, we stopped for a few moments on the aqueduct, an impressive structure of four arches, to look down at the swift flowing peat-stained waters which we next should see, and enter, in the heart of Dublin . . .

Green & Silver by L T C Rolt, Chapter 6
Top – early print of the Leinster Aqueduct, Grand Canal; lower – the Rolts pause to admire the structure as they cross the Liffey on the aqueduct

. . . The day before we were due to leave our moorings at Grand Canal Dock I thought it as well to reconnoitre the entrance from the Liffey into the Royal Canal at Spencer Dock, North Wall. The channel into the tidal lock was barred by an enormous rolling lift bridge over which an endless procession of cars and lorries was rattling and thundering. To my eyes it appeared as though this formidable barrier was seldom or never moved. In any case it seemed optimistic to suppose that this ponderous mechanism would be operated, and the traffic along North Wall suspended, merely to allow the passage of our small craft. Looking up at the dock I saw yet another obstacle; a drawbridge this time operated by two steel beams high overhead which looked at this distance, with their long rods linking beams to bridge, like a pair of slender, long-beaked birds. This carried Sherriff Street, another busy thoroughfare, across the dock . . .

GREEN & SILVER BY L T C ROLT, CHAPTER 8
Top – Tom Rolt surveying the Scherzer style ‘rolling lift bridge’ located at the entrance to Spencer Dock, Royal Canal, in 1946. It was erected by the firm of Spencer & Co of Melksham, Wiltshire, in 1912. The bridge was worked by an electric motor – now removed. Lower – the bridge in the present day

. . . It looked as if our passage bade fair to dislocate the traffic of Dublin. I thereupon visited the engineers department of Corus Iompair Eireann at Westland Row Station where I tactfully suggested that if I came up to North Wall at low tide we might just be able to get under the bridge there, but I was received with helpful courtesy and matters were quickly arranged. Of course the bridge would be lifted, that was no trouble at all. And when did I wish to come up the river. To-morrow? High tide was at noon; if I would undertake to be at the bridge at that time it would be opened at once. Arrangements were made on the spot by telephone . . .

GREEN & SILVER BY L T C ROLT, CHAPTER 8
Upper – Angela Rolt’s photograph of the Sherriff Street lift bridge at Spencer Dock, Royal Canal, in 1946; centre – the lift bridge today (courtesy  William Murphy aka Infomatique). Lower – the overhead beam lift bridge mechanism is a principle often found on canal navigations: here is a more vernacular example on the Barrow Navigation (from Ireland of the Welcomes, 1971)

. . . Next morning we crossed the waters of the outer basin and entered the tidal lock. Actually there are three locks of different sizes here, side by side, and we entered the smallest of them which was on our port side. The lower gates opened, we paid a final farewell to the Grand Canal, and were soon dancing over the little waves of the Liffey mouth. It was our one brief taste of salt water. Having made sure that no steamers were on the move to or from the quays, we headed straight across the channel and came up the river close to the North Wall side. We swung straight in and got our lines onto the quay wall precisely at the time appointed. Everything went like clockwork. The bridgeman clambered up into his overhead cabin, men appeared from nowhere armed with red flag to stop the traffic and in a few moments, with a rumble of machinery, the bridge opened remarkable swiftly. We passed through into the tidal lock, and the bridge as quickly closed behind us. While the lock was filling, I paid my dues, two pounds for the ninety-two miles and forty-seven locks to Richmond Harbour. This done, the Sherriff Street Bridge drew up with similar despatch and we sailed through to begin our journey on the Royal Canal. Probably very few of the thousands who pass over the North Wall Bridge or board the steamer for Liverpool or Glasgow at the nearby quay suspect that this is the gateway of a forgotten water road which leads through the heart of Ireland . . .

GREEN & SILVER BY L T C ROLT, CHAPTER 8

Grand Canal Dock, Dublin – photographs which we took in 2014 (above). The decline which was apparent then continues to this day. Currently there is a plan to sell much of the land for redevelopment. It goes without saying that navigable water will need to be retained to allow access from the Grand Canal itself to the Liffey. Below – another context for the Port of Dublin in the 1950s!

The Heinkel Kabine ‘bubble car’ was designed by the same company which produced German long-range heavy bombers during the Second World War: this famous micro-car was manufactured for a short time between 1956 and 1958 under licence in Dundalk’s Great Northern Railway Ireland (GNRI) works. More than 6,000 were manufactured here.

The beauty of the rural Royal Canal: Chaigneau Bridge, Ballybranigan, Co Longford in 2016

The previous series of Roaringwater Journal posts on Irish waterways can be found (in reverse order) here.

*Robert’s Trasna na Tíre talk can be reached on this link.

Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

It rises on a remote mountain-top in the wilds of Mullaghmesha townland and falls 500 metres from there to the Atlantic, over a length of 34 kilometres. I think it’s time to establish exactly where the river ends, and the ocean begins. As you can see from the photo above, the lower reaches are wide and shallow, and the estuarial waters are dotted with islands and islets, some of which are only revealed at the ebb of the tide.

Below Skibbereen, the river is fully tidal – and its character is constantly changing. The history of the waterway has also seen an evolution, from a busy highway carrying lighters filled with cargoes to the wharves in the town (in the 19th century there were five of them – and a Customs House), to the present day where it is a tranquil scene, only busy – in normal times – with the skiffs and light craft based at the Rowing Club (above): that establishment has produced some celebrated champions!

Oldcourt (above) was the transhipment point where laden ships from distant shores would leave their loads into the shallow draft barges that would take them upstream into the town. Today it is still a busy hub where vessels are stored, built and repaired – and also left to decay. The disorder of the place has a picturesque informality, and there is medieval history also: a rickety tower house stump stands guard over the apparent chaos. We have written about the boatyard (and the castle – and a ketch named Ilen) in a previous post.

You can cross a bywater of the Ilen by bridges at Inishbeg (above) and Ringarogy. Exploration of those two islands will reveal a number of view points over the main channel of the river to the north. The marked aerial map below shows the lie of the land, while the photos following show the wide views of the river in both directions from Inishbeg.

(Upper) looking upstream from Inishbeg, and (lower) a close view of The Glebe Burial Ground, also seen from across the main river at Inishbeg.

Downstream from Inishbeg: at the east end of the island we found an unusual large rock which appears to have a worked surface and a possible cup-mark. Below that rock is the lonely ruin of a structure which must have had a remarkable aspect over the whole width of the river. It would be easy to suppose that this ruin could have been part of a defence system, but there is no mention in the archaeological records of this, or of the rock. For now, they remain enigmas – but perhaps there is an alert reader out there who can shed some light?

Ringarogy has fewer accessible viewpoints than Inishbeg, but the long causeway and some prospects from high land indicate how the lower course of the river is punctuated with small, barren landfalls (above).

I have made up my mind that the Ilen proper must ‘end’ at Turk Head – the pier, above, is looking towards the main channel of the river. It is also a small but substantially built harbour – partly hewn out of the low cliffs – which can shelter a few light fishing craft.

But the reality of the downstream ‘end’ of the river seems to be defined on the 6″ OS map above, which dates from the early 19th century and shows the townland names and boundaries as they were recognised at that time. There, a clear line is drawn between the island of Inishleigh to the north, and Spanish Island to the south. To the east of that line, apparently, is the Ilen, while to the west is the edge of Roaringwater bay, which leads into the ocean, but first skirting a myriad of rocks and small islands, only some of which have names.

There may be traditions – unknown to me – that define where the river mouth lies. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. If you are a seafarer carrying goods bound for Skibbereen you will have to negotiate your way safely through a fairly convoluted channel before entering a contrasting world of wide, calm water and rich, smooth meadowlands: Sweet Ilen.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4

Sweet Ilen – Part 2

Last week our first exploration of Sweet Ilen – our West Cork river – began in Skibbereen town from whence we travelled north, as far as Ballyhilty Bridge. Today, we return to the town and unearth some further history on the way downstream.

On the aerial view of the Ilen flowing south-west from Skibbereen (above) I have marked some significant locations. Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge is the first crossing point and the limit of navigation for large craft. The Old Quay shown to the north of Deelish House was the offloading point for ships arriving from the south; barges or lighters carried the goods further into the town. The narrow gauge Schull & Skibbereen Tramway (as it was originally named) left Skibbereen Station and followed the Ilen as far as Newcourt Halt, alongside the main road.

The Ilen Valley Railway, which brought the regular gauge railway into Skibbereen from Bandon and Cork, shared its station at Skibbereen from 1886 with the 3ft gauge line going to Schull. This picture (above) of Skibb Station in 1960 (courtesy Roger Joanes) shows the main line on the right and the remains of the narrow gauge terminus on the left.

The header picture shows Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge as it is today. The upper picture above, with an enlarged section of it underneath is fascinating for our study: it was taken in around 1893 by Robert French for the Lawrence Collection and is reproduced here with the permission of the National Library of Ireland. It shows the bridge – which was built in 1822 – with the road to Skibbereen running to the left, as it does today. But it also shows the tracks of the tramway on the left hand side of the road. Also in the main picture is a white building below the Abbeystrewery Graveyard. That marks the point at which the entrance to the graveyard adjoins the road, and is in fact a level-crossing keeper’s cottage, now gone.

Marked on this extract from the OS 25″ survey (late nineteenth century) is New Bridge on the right, the Graveyard with its level-crossing and the quay above Deelish House

The first halt on the tramway travelling from Skibbereen was at Newcourt. Here is a ‘sylvan scene’ of a train at that halt in 1939 (courtesy of W A Camwell, taken from the invaluable volume The Schull & Skibbereen Railway by James I C Boyd, published in 1999 following over 40 years of research):

If that doesn’t bring a nostalgic tear to your eye – for those apparently idyllic days of leisurely rural life in Ireland – I don’t know what will. But the little railway had its ups and downs (before vanishing altogether in 1947). Its association with the Ilen River was there at the beginning: the very first locomotive was named ‘Ilen’ and here it is (below), having just pulled a passenger train into Schull Station, probably in the 1880s (photo from the collection of Mrs E McCarthy):

Why is it so strangely shaped? Because the line was conceived as a tramway or ‘light railway’ to comply with the conditions of The Tramways of Ireland Act 1862, which allowed tramways to be built along public roads, thereby reducing costs. Because of this, locomotives were treated in the same way as city trams – where very low slung bodywork supposedly prevented serious injury if they struck pedestrians or animals sharing the roads – something that could be echoed on West Cork’s boreens where donkeys and cows were quite likely to be encountered.

. . . To comply with regulations sheet-steel skirting was taken down to a level approximately 3 inches above the rails; the rolling and pitching of the engine probably produced shrieks of protest as it scraped the rails . . . An impressively tall chimney was surmounted by a ‘chip-pan’ spark-arrester . . .

James I C Boyd 1999
Tram Engine Ilen at Skibbereen in 1906 – photo by H Fayle

It’s a shame, but this unique piece of machinery failed because it lacked sufficient sustained power to climb the relatively steep inclines on the tramway, and its later replacements were more conventional engines (such as the one pictured at Newcourt) fitted with cow-catchers.

OS 25″ survey extract, late nineteenth century. It shows the tramway diverging from the road just north of the entrance gate to Newcourt: there was evidently an ornamental avenue along that stretch of road leading to the gate, with arches over. Also on this map is located Newcourt Post Office (by the tramway halt), Mohanagh Dispensary and various landscape features belonging to the demesne

The Ilen River is broad and magnificent as it passes by Newcourt. You do see large boats on that stretch sometimes, but also many skiffs and small craft from the Skibbereen Rowing Club. The grand house – New Court – is gone now, but the ‘designed landscape’ can be traced through the survival of ruined towers, gazebos and water-gates.

Ilen River frontage on the Newcourt Demense: from upper – the base of an ornamental tower fronts the constructed river wall; Mohanagh Dispensary ruin and another tower; prospect towards Skibbereen from the estate; substantial pillars which were part of a water gate on the south of the site – in the distance is the boatyard at Oldcourt

Finola has written previously about Newcourt, and there tells the story of another ‘water-gate’ which will be seen today by anyone travelling towards Skibbereen from the main road. We now return to Skibbereen ourselves to finish off this second episode of the series. This (below) was the bridge which took the road into the town over the Ilen prior to the present one: built in 1877, it was condemned as unsafe for heavy loads in 1953, but it took another ten years to replace it.

Above is Kennedy Bridge, Skibbereen, that was opened with due ceremony on Monday 15 June 1964 and named in honour of American President John F Kennedy. It has a centre span of 22 metres and two side spans each of 8 metres. First to cross the bridge on that day was Richard Burchill of Tragumna on a horse and cart! Information about these events – and much more – can be seen in the excellent displays in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre: formerly the town’s gasworks buildings and sited appropriately enough alongside the Ilen River!

Look out next time for more adventures exploring the further northern reaches of the Ilen!

Here is the first episode in this series: Sweet Ilen

Sweet Ilen

I wanted to explore the Ilen River: that’s pronounced eye-len, and it comes from the Gaelic An Aighlinn. ‘Aighlinn’ is an Irish name, the equivalent of Eileen in English, but it is also said to have a meaning when it relates to water: ‘the way that moonlight reflects on water . . .‘ We’ll keep a lookout for the moonlight, but our first expedition was carried out on a glorious late November day, absolutely calm and with clear, deep blue skies: the morning reflections were perfect.

The header and the picture above are both taken in Skibbereen, as good a place as any to begin our wanderings. The town is built on the river and was once a water transport hub: in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the town where there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House. Unfortunately, low bridges now prevent navigation.

This aerial photograph dates from a few years ago, but it’s useful to show how Skibbereen has developed along the south bank of the river. At the Town Wharf, or Levis’ Quay, you can still see old stone steps leading down to the water’s edge, once a hive of activity with lighters loading and unloading. The nineteenth century brought engineering advances, with railway connection to Dunmanway, Bandon and Cork. The station – marked above as the ‘Ilen Valley Railway Terminus’ opened in 1877. Later, the Baltimore Extension Line continued south over a smart new steel bridge, built in 1892.

From Skibbereen there is plenty of the river to explore both south (to the estuary) and north. It’s our ambition – when travel restrictions ease – to find the source of the river on Mullaghmesha Mountain, which we could see in the far distance beyond Castle Donovan on our walk last week. That might have to wait anyway, as climbing that mountain is not recommended in the winter months because of rough conditions underfoot, but keep watching – we will get there!

The dancing of a mountain stream may be as entrancing as a ballet, but the quiet of an age-old river is like the slow turning of pages in a well-loved book . . .

Robert Gibbings – TILL I END MY SONG

One of our great heroes is Cork-born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings. He was an explorer of rivers, making books of Cork’s River Lee, the Welsh Wye and – most famously – Sweet Thames Run Softly. In homage to him I’m calling these posts Sweet Ilen: I don’t think he will mind. Sadly, I haven’t his artistic talents but I’ll do my best with words and photographs.

The upper picture looks from the West Cork Hotel upstream towards the town: the Town Wharf is just around the corner; the steps in the foreground mark the beginning of the Ilen River Blueway – you will embark here if you take a kayak trip down to Baltimore. Leaving Skibbereen behind, we soon realised that the Ilen is a secretive waterway: much of its course is hidden away and runs in quiet backwaters distant from habitation and modern life. It’s only at the crossing points like the one above, near Hollybrook, that the river briefly reveals itself to us, although anglers have private pathways known only to themselves: we caught tantalising glimpses of their occupancy through the tree cover on some remoter banks.

A well-placed seat with a view (upper picture) on the angler’s path below Ballyhilty Bridge. Close by (lower picture) is a small farm accommodation bridge which is also giving anglers access to the further bank. Ballyhilty bridge itself is a real discovery. It’s easy to drive over it without realising the substantial structure which carries the road:

The only description I could find of this substantial structure is a record in the Archaeology Ireland National Monuments site which describes it as ‘a hump back three-arch road bridge over the Ilen River in the townland of Gortnamucklagh’. The parallel entry in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes it as ‘bridge 1760 – 1800’, and says no more. But I think it worthy of detailed consideration: it’s a massive, dressed stone structure which has been reinforced with iron plates. The central opening is raised to a height which would almost lead us to think that it was once a navigation arch, although there are no records to support this. On the west side are some flood relief culverts of unusual construction:

The form of these remind me of a bridge we encountered on the Fastnet Trails close to Toormore in 2018: here’s the post. At that time I pondered on how old the Toormore structure was likely to be. I’m asking myself the same question on this one. The early OS map might give us a clue:

This is from the late 19th century 25″ map: you can see the railway line on the west heading out of Skibbereen towards Drimoleague, where it met with the Cork, Bandon and Bantry lines. But on the east side of the river is a very large estate: Hollybrook, in the townland of Maulbrack. Hollybrook House has a long history, encompassing families such as The O’Donovan, Bechers and Townsends. Nowhere can I find a date for the original house (now replaced), but I have found this:

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, John Beecher held two substantial properties in fee at Maulbrack. They were purchased in 1703 by Henry Beecher from the trustees for forfeited estates . . .

NUI GALWAY – CONNACHT AND MUNSTER LANDED ESTATES DATABASE

These properties were therefore in existence before 1703: it would be reasonable to assume their date could be well before this. I would suggest that the bridge at Ballyhilty was built in the 1600s, to ensure good access to the estate at Maulbrack. This would make it a truly historic structure, worthy of prominent commentary and protection.

On such idyllic days for exploration it’s not always easy to remind ourselves of the power of this river: it’s no humble stream. Here’s a screenshot of a drone video by Garry Minihane Photography which shows this same stretch – at Ballyhilty – in full flood: the adjacent roads are set just high enough to be clear of all but the fiercest of deluges! Skibbereen is in the distance.

I’m thinking that the journey so far is sufficient for this week’s post; next time we will travel further north, penetrating even more into the uplands of the Ilen as we set our path towards the source. It’s not a huge river, only 34 km in total. It’s instructive for us that our West Cork terrain is quite small scale: within that 30-odd kilometres we have the contrast of a mountain stream falling from the high places and gathering enough tributaries to feed the tidal reaches which we also have yet to discover on our coasts.

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus:

“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!