The Splendour of Cobh

My favourite sea voyage was on the (alas now defunct) Swansea to Cork Ferry. I travelled this route very many times while living in Devon and Cornwall, and most enjoyed the last leg of the journey to Ireland, when the ship entered the Lee estuary and made its way upriver to Ringaskiddy. In all weathers I was out on deck to watch the slowly changing scenery that welcomed my arrival in to Cork, knowing that it was surely the best place in all the world to be going!

The excitement mounted when we steamed past the port town of Cobh, as the ferry terminal was then just around the corner. From afar I admired the way this settlement embraced the water with its long, colourful terraces lined up the steep hillside on which it was built, crowned atop by the magnificent Victorian edifice which I now know to be probably the finest architectural work of Edward Welby Pugin in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral.

I am almost ashamed to confess, then, that I had never called in on Cobh until last week – and the visit was a relevation. First, let me clear up some possible confusions: the name is pronounced ‘Cove’ – and the word in fact comes from the English, but has been Gaelicised to Cobh, (Irish An Cóbh), the location having allegedly been known since around 1750 as ‘The Cove of Cork’. The name was changed to ‘Queenstown’ after a visit from Queen Victoria in 1849, and was then changed back to Cobh after the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. Or – have I just contributed to the confusion? One thing is for sure: the strategic waterside location in the great natural harbour of Cork is the raison d’être of this grand town.

Yes, it’s all about the water, and the fact that it is located beside the “second largest natural harbour in the world by navigational area” (a claim also made, incidentally, by Halifax Harbour in Canada and Poole Harbour in the UK – the undisputed nomination for largest harbour is Port Jackson, Sydney, Australia). Cobh faces the wonderfully named Haulbowline Island and Spike Island, both of which have been established as defensive fortifications, and the former as an important naval dockyard since before Napoleonic times. Today, Cobh has the only dedicated cruise ship berth in Ireland.

Do you remember my telling of the story of Cessair and the first human footsteps on Irish soil in our own Bantry Bay? The story is recounted in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). The same book tells us about Neimheadh and his followers the Muintir Neimhidh  – People of Nemed – who arrived soon after Cessair around 2000 BC, but in Cork Harbour and settled the islands there: Neimheadh, like Cessair, shared his genealogy with Noah and is said to be buried in a mound on Great Island, overlooking present-day Cobh.

So why am I so impressed by Cobh? Perhaps it’s because – as an architect – I find the streetscapes so elegant, and quirky. For me it’s a cross between the horizontal graceful manners of Georgian Bath and the higgledy-piggledy uphill habitation of the steep lanes of Newlyn in Cornwall, where I lived for many years.

Above – Cobh yesterday and today, showing the elegance of the development of the town in the nineteenth century. Below – another side of Cobh: the steeply descending streets with some remarkable and picturesque terraces, crowned always by the glory of the Cathedral, which took half a century to build. Construction began in 1867.

Cobh is such an attractive town to walk around: it should be the jewel on County Cork’s tourist trail. This post is a fairly minimalist photographic essay of what caught my eye on the day we visited. There is a lot more to explore: we never made it to the Heritage Centre, nor to the Titanic Experience, which has brought particular fame to the place in recent times: it was the final embarkation point on the ship’s fateful maiden voyage. All for another day. But we did get up to Cobh’s Old Church Cemetery, high on the hill, where the victims of the Lusitania sinking were buried in mass graves in 1915: a poignant place.

But it was the architecture that had me absorbed: well proportioned and detailed buildings – often simple – that may be overlooked except for the way in which they come together into such a dignified whole. And – such an exploration of colour!

There’s much more to tell of the story of Cobh, and – certainly – so much more to see. I will follow up this post in the coming weeks; the magnificent Cathedral can justify an article on its own. Hopefully you will visit yourself if you have not already done so: your eyes will be opened . . . Look out for the small details!

 

Ways West!

Many of you will know that I was a frequent traveller between Cornwall and West Cork from the 1990s and onwards – until I happily met with Finola and we came and settled permanently here in Nead an Iolair just a few years ago. We have never looked back! But I have often wondered about the various ways in which that journey was made – not just in the last century, but three or four thousand years ago… For we do know that tin mined in Cornwall was brought across to the west of Ireland then, in order to manufacture Bronze – the ‘supermetal’ of those advanced times: it symbolized strength and gave wealth and status.

MV Julia, the car ferry which plied between Cork and Swansea: top picture – in her heyday, when she operated throughout the year. Above – Julia leaving Cork in 2012 after the closure of the Fastnet Line. Her name was changed to Wind Perfection and she became a floating dormitory for workers on the offshore wind farms in the North Sea

Not only tin was brought from Cornwall. A study carried out in 2015 by universities in Southampton and Bristol – (using laser ablation mass spectrometry) – concluded that many of the gold artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland and dating from the Bronze Age were manufactured from gold imported from Cornwall – even though there were rich supplies of gold being extracted in Ireland. Author Chris Standish suggests: 

…It is probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production…

Gold artefacts from Ireland: left – Tyrone Lunula, early Bronze Age; right – Gleninsheen gold gorget, late Bronze Age (photos courtesy National Museum of Ireland)

I would really like to know what type of boat was used all that time ago to bring that precious metal across the Irish Sea. Some have suggested that it would have been a forerunner of the currach – implying a small hide-covered boat. But metal was heavy – even if it was smelted into ingots before the journey: something larger than a currach must surely have been needed. My own not-too-distant memories of having survived a night crossing in the MV Julia, from Swansea to Cork, in a Force 9 storm – with the thudding of huge waves against the steel hull and ominous creakings and crashings coming from the car decks below – lead me to think that any craft that had to traverse those seas in all weathers had to be substantial and sturdy.

A traditional currach in Dingle, Co Kerry – without its covering skin of hide or canvas

I began to research types of craft that were used in the Bronze Age: examples have been found, some preserved underwater or in bogs. These included ‘log boats’ such as the 14 metre long Lurgan Canoe in the National Museum, which doesn’t seem ideally suited to cargo carrying – especially on open sea. The most likely candidate comes from the Mediterranean: the Uluburun Shipwreck, found underwater in Turkey in 1982.

The Uluburun was a cargo boat: we know this because much of its load was intact when the wreck was found. Amazingly, archeologists were able to pinpoint its route: the ship set sail from either a Cypriot or Syro-Palestinian port and was probably heading for a Mycenaean palace on mainland Greece. It was wrecked in the late 14th century BC. The boat was constructed of cedar planks with morticed and tenoned joints and carried a huge cargo: 500 copper ingots; one ton of tin (which when alloyed with the copper would make around 11 tons of bronze); around 150 Canaanite jars, some filled with glass beads, many others with olives and some with an ancient form of turpentine; 175 glass ingots; African blackwood (ebony); ivory; tortoise-shells; ostrich eggs; Cypriot pottery and oil-lamps; a trumpet; quartz, gold, faience, amber, weapons, tools, pan-balance weights and a gold scarab… The list goes on.

Underwater archaeology: it took ten years to excavate and recover the cargo of the Uluburun vessel

This was in the Mediterranean, not in the Irish Sea. But it’s perfectly possible that the marine technology of those times extended to the northern outposts of Bronze Age Europe. We have to be very clear in our minds that we are looking at a sophisticated society capable of metallurgy, communication and long-distance travel.

Coming back to my own journeys from Cornwall to Ireland, I mourn the passing of the Swansea Cork Ferry, in those days by far the best way to get me and my car to the west of Ireland: I have good memories of arriving in the Lee estuary at daybreak and, excited to be here, watching the sun rise as we sailed up through Cobh to Ringaskiddy. On other journeys I also came over by air: there was a wonderful flight in a small aircraft from Exeter going to Cork. The homespun Devon airport in those days was unsophisticated: on one occasion I lined up to have my luggage checked by security and was asked to take my concertina (a constant travelling companion) out of its case for inspection. I was then asked to play it – in front of the queue – and everything stopped so that the serenade could be heard! It was a small aeroplane – about a dozen seats in the cabin, with the pilot up front – no partition. As he started the engines his broad Cork accent came over the speakers: “…let’s see if we can get this thing off the ground…” He succeeded and – once in the air and cruising at a lowish altitude – got out packs of sandwiches and passed them around. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the outline of Cornwall (exactly as it’s shown in the atlas!) passing below us, to be replaced shortly by the distinctive – and similar – geography of south-west Ireland, soon followed by a sketchy and invariably bumpy landing on Cork’s runaway – especially in any sort of stiff breeze.

Air Lingus Regional flights – operated by Stobart Air – now directly connect Cornwall with Cork. Photo – Trevor Hannant

It’s exciting that – just in time for Uillinn’s West meets West exhibition of Cornish artists, there is finally a direct link from within Cornwall to Cork! A new Air Lingus Regional flight – operated by Stobart Air started operating this month and it’s already popular: extra flights have been added to the planned timetable to cater for higher than expected demand. These flights leave from Newquay Airport and are very reasonably priced. I wish them every success… Back in the day, my journey from Newlyn to Skibbereen via the ferry took all day and a night: the new flight barely takes an hour.

Depart here for West Cork! Newquay Airport, in Cornwall

When the Swansea to Cork ferry stopped running the West of Ireland felt the loss: tourism numbers dropped significantly and businesses which relied on visitors suffered. Things have improved since then, particularly with the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. Hopefully the new air link will lead to increased business between the two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, hearkening back to historical times when close links were first forged. Meanwhile, please don’t forget to come along to West meets West and see the work of contemporary artists from Cornwall. The artists (some of whom will have flown over on the Newquay service!) will be speaking about their work at 12 noon on Saturday 3 June, and I will be giving a gallery talk on Saturday 10 June – also at 12 noon – about the many historic links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland. West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Travelling from Cornwall to Cork: Off to Skibbereen – painted by Newlyn Artist  (and Irishman) Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1901

Tracking the Trains: Railway Reminiscence

…Like all children, the boys of Ballydehob found the platelayers’ trollies irresistible. A lady in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote about her father (born in The Skames in 1900). Her father and some small boys recalled a ‘small hand-cart’ which was kept near the station and used by the platelayers. “When Mr Crocker, the station master, was not alert the small boys, led by Connie Sullivan, the acknowledged leader of the group because his father, Jack, worked on the railway, were able to steal off the cart. They would push it by hand towards Schull, getting the cart about one mile above the station. Then the boys would pile in and off they’d go down the hill past the station and up the hill on the far side until, caught by gravity, back would come the cart again at such breathtaking speed that it would rocket across the viaduct, then run back through the station. Mr Crocker would come out to see the speeding cart and sometimes shoot with a gun, always in the air and never to do any harm. He was a good chap, and we took advantage of him at the time…”

Last week I wrote about an exploration we had made of the old railway line that had served Ballydehob until 1947 – exactly 70 years ago. I was delighted – and excited – this week to discover a rare copy of a detailed history of the line in that Aladdin’s Cave of bookshops: The Time Traveller, in Skibbereen. The book The Schull & Skibbereen Railway was published  by The Oakwood Press in 1999, and has long been out of print. Although a modest volume, it is a monumental, detailed work which took half a century to write!

This is a view of Kilcoe Halt, taken in 1953 by the author of The Schull & Skibbereen Railway, James I C Boyd. At this time the line had recently closed, and the track had been taken up. The author’s wife and two daughters are in the photograph

The header picture shows the endpaper of the book – a postcard photo of Ballydehob taken from the east of the station around 1910, when the railway was still in use. The 12 arched viaduct – mentioned in the extract given in the first paragraph – can just be seen to the left: that account doesn’t really make geographic sense, but – remember – it’s a story, told from a distance both in time and place.

It is Chapter 18 of the book, entitled Miscellanea, which has given me the most pleasure to read, although this is not to decry any of the highly informative data and history contained in the rest of it. The book’s author, James I C Boyd, explains the context of the chapter:

…Over the half century during which I have formed close associations with West Cork, there have been many reminiscences, conversations and situations surrounding this subject which were noted down at the time in the hope of further attention. Some were legendary, others biased, a valuable few were personal but all gave me an insight as to the ethos of the local people in relation to their railway. Bearing in mind that during those fifty year the line has closed completely and many of my informants have passed away, their memories have been set down here… Such recollections do not fall neatly into the pattern of the previous pages, so form a chapter entitled Miscellanea…

Left – James Boyd and his family; right – from the 25″ 1901 Ordnance Survey Map: Ballydehob, with the station and the viaduct

Born in 1921, Boyd went to school in Colwall, Herefordshire. There he encountered two influences: the first was W H Auden, who taught him English, and the second was a miniature railway line which was attached to the school: the Downs Light Railway. This venture is the world’s oldest private miniature railway – which can carry human passengers. It has a track gauge of 912” (241 mm). Set up in 1925 for the principal purpose of education, the Downs Light Railway is today the only railway in the world to be operated solely by children aged between 7 and 13 years. These two significant experiences in his life set Boyd on his own track: to become a writer and a specialist in railway history. His opus includes over 20 highly detailed accounts of narrow-gauge lines in Britain, Ireland and The Isle of Man (including this definitive work on The Schull & Skibbereen Railway) and countless articles, photographs and other collected information.

A photograph which Boyd found in a collection by G R Thomson: it shows the ‘naming ceremony’ which took place in 1906 on the Schull Pier extension line of a new locomotive ordered from Peckett & Sons of Bristol. Father John O’Connor, the Parish Priest of Schull, broke a bottle of champagne over the engine and christened it GABRIEL – after the mountain, not the Archangel!

From Mrs P McCarthy of Schull – recorded in Miscellanea:

…You were asking me about the men who worked on the track, and who lived in the crossing houses? There were two sets of men: one between Skibbereen and Ballydehob and the other went from Ballydehob to here. Denis McCarthy (or ‘Foxey Din’ as we called him on account of his red hair), his son Mick (he went on the broad gauge when the S & S closed), and Batty Harrington. Sometimes Paddy O’Donovan would help them… From Ballydehob we had Connie O’Sullivan, Jackie Daly (who was the Foreman for the whole line) and Gerry McCarthy, who was known as ‘Vanderbilt’ from the careful way he had with money. Then at the Skibbereen workshops there was Charlie Murphy the chargehand / fitter and Willie Cottam, the carpenter… I don’t remember about all the gatehouses – Mrs Connor was in Kilcoe and Hollyhill was occupied by two men; they may have been gangers. When the railway closed, the occupants were given the first opportunity to buy…

The Company Offices in Skibbereen, taken by James I C Boyd in the 1950s, after closure

From Miscellanea – an anonymous contributor:

…In the long school holidays, mother used to send us children out with a large tin bath of the sort we used in front of the open fire in winter. On reaching Schull station we, and the bath, would ride the first train, to drop off at the best places and comb the fields for mushrooms, only stopping when the bath was full. Then, dragging the unwilling receptacle behind us, we would bring it to the road alongside the railway, and so back to Schull again on the returning train…

The line at Hollyhill, 1938: ‘Curly’ Hegarty is the driver. Photo by H C Casserly

From John Browne of Creagh:

…The Secretary of the Company [William Goggin] owned a bar at the corner of the main street [of Skibbereen] and that to the station – it was very convenient for those going by train… When the Directors wished to visit Skibbereen they ignored the Railway and used a converted Lancia armoured car, the property of one of their number. On alighting at the Skibbereen office, there would be fussing and genuflection akin to a royal visit…

…The curb-stone margin which divided the Railway from the highway in numerous places, was a considerable barrier. A party of my friends attended the Ballydehob Fair in an open car. On the return journey the driver was ‘very happy’, misjudged a bend and struck the kerb. The damaged vehicle had to be abandoned. The revellers walked back to Skibbereen, leaving the car to block the passage of the first Up train from Schull. However, the combined efforts of all the crew and passengers were needed to drag the wreck back on the road…

…Willie Salter of Castletownsend said that a pony and trap from Skibbereen often reached Ballydehob before the train; it was better that way if you were in a hurry. He would see passengers getting out near Crooked Bridge or Church Cross to give the train a push…

Sad days: James I C Boyd located and photographed this ‘Gloucester’ carriage from the S & S line in a field beside Bantry Bay in 1967. It had been sawn in half before final abandonment; is it still there today?

This post is a short taster of the treasures that this volume holds. A fuller review – and more Miscellanea – will appear in future posts. To finish today, we were delighted to find this photo taken by the author just around the corner from us. Finola’s article, here, tells the story of this Lost Landmark.

Tracking the Trains

Ballydehob’s own railway was known, affectionately, as The Flying Snail. Way back in 2013 I wrote a piece about it. All our past posts are still online and can be found through the search facility on the header: if you want to have a look at this older piece, click here.

Header – this picturesque bridge lies to the west of the viaduct and crosses the small back road which leads down to the Quay; the early postcard above shows a little train negotiating the viaduct, probably fairly early in the life of the line; lower picture – autumn atmospherics, taken in 2016

This morning – a pale and rather cold First of April – I set out to see how much I could find remaining of the old railway line in Ballydehob. As an erstwhile amateur industrial archaeologist I can get very excited about a few stones piled up, or a depression in the ground, as long as I know it marks the last traces of a long-lost canal or railway line. Our little West Cork settlement in fact has a whole lot to interest the transport enthusiast, as I discovered on my walk.

Today’s washed-out view of the Quay with the 12 arched viaduct behind it. This was a lifeline for the town before the railway came, and its commercial use survived the demise of the trains. In its heyday, the Quay was busy with arrivals of sand, seaweed, coal and timber, together with produce from the islands, and – once a week until the 1930s – a visit from the Cork coastal trading boat which brought in supplies of everything else, from sugar to cement. Around the mid 1800s (pre railway era) copper ore from the local West Cork mines was shipped out from here to Swansea

While researching this post I was pleased to find some additional early photos of the line that were not available when I first wrote on the subject, and I am including them on this page, with grateful thanks and acknowledgement to De La Salle Publication via Durrus History, and also to Irish Postcards at WordPress.

Ballydehob has established a public footpath on the line of the railway within the village. Top picture – the track bed to the west of the viaduct: the narrow gauge line from Skibbereen continued from here to Schull. Lower picture – the track bed crossing the viaduct over the river. The railway station was situated beyond this, quite a little way out of town

Sadly, the track-bed footpath only runs for a few hundred yards before petering out, but it is possible by walking over the viaduct to get a feel for what it was like to travel in the rather frail looking rolling stock of the 3ft gauge line, which was technically termed a ‘tramway’. If only enough of the old line had been retained to create a long-distance foot-and-cycling path, we would now have another amenity for locals and visitors to add to the wealth (food, culture, landscape and history) that’s already on offer here in West Cork.

Top left – along the boreen which runs from Ballydehob village centre (turn by Levis’ pub and go past the school) towards Cappaghglass and Schull can be found old railway bridge abutments – top right, while in the fields nearby the railway embankment is clearly visible – lower picture. Artefacts for archaeologists to ponder over a few hundred years hence, perhaps

The last train ran on the line in January 1947, so there must be many people around today who remember it in use. I am always on the lookout for anecdotes about it, so please let me know if you have any yourself, or know of anyone else who might have. There seems to be little recorded about travel on West Cork’s railways at the turn of the 19th / 20th centuries, although the train  journey to ‘Skewbawn’ (Skibbereen) does get mentioned in The Irish RM story Poisson d’Avril by Somerville and Ross. It’s quoted in Finola’s post on the Rossbrin Loop, here.

Above: two views of Ballydehob Station in use. The upper one is dated 1904. The lower one is much later and – because of the bilingual station name board – probably dates from after the 1925 amalgamation of all the smaller lines into The Great Southern Railway

There are many more traces of the line to be found in Ballydehob and beyond: look out for another post coming soon!

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

The Town of Luan’s Ford

o'ferrall fry place

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

fry place bistro 2016

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

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

17th-century-bridge

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

Athlone Bridge

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

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

the lock athlone

birds on weir

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

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

lock in use athlone

athlone fry place

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

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

Waterfront Athlone

Athlone Waterfront

shannon commission