The Fiddle-Maker’s Ghost

ballycowan sunset

We were chasing ghosts on our whole journey, following in the wake of Angela and Tom Rolt who travelled the waterways of Ireland exactly 70 years ago – in 1946; their odyssey was described in Rolt’s book Green & Silver. I received this book as a prize for essay writing when I was at school in the early 1960s and it fanned my interest in canals but also in Ireland. I had always intended to explore the canals of Ireland and this year Finola and I did just that – to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Rolts’ voyage, and to mark my own seventieth birthday.

Robert at the feeder house

Top picture – ghostly reflections beside the Grand Canal at Ballycowan. Above – Robert photographing the impressive sluice house on the Royal Canal Feeder at Lough Owel: sadly, the house is empty and now deteriorating

The first ghosts we looked out for were the Rolts themselves. Would anyone have remembered them? Did they make enough of an impression – two eccentric English travellers intent on discovering a way of life in Ireland which had almost ended at that time? Their book is remembered today by canal enthusiasts; in fact there is a plaque given to anyone who completes the circumnavigation of the Royal Canal, the Shannon and the Grand Canal. It’s known as the Green & Silver Route. As the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland says, …with the closure of Ireland’s Royal Canal in 1961, Rolt’s Green and Silver offered successive generations of boaters the only opportunity to experience this journey by boat. His book offered a glimpse of what might be experienced if, and when, the canal was restored. Rolt was the first to document a successful transit of the route in Green & Silver, a book which had such a positive influence on the development of the Irish waterways… The book has gone into five editions, so the journey is certainly not forgotten. However, we did not meet anyone who had stories to tell about the Rolts; nothing seems to have passed down through the generations about them – perhaps this post might bring something out?

Left – the frontispiece of my copy of the Rolts’ book. Right – the Green & Silver Plaque, presented to boaters making a circumnavigation of the now restored route that the Rolts followed seventy years ago

But there are other ghosts in the pages of Green & Silver. The Rolts passed through Draper’s Bridge Lock on the Royal Canal:

…The canal bore a more and more disused appearance the farther we went westwards, and at Draper’s Bridge lock beyond Abbeyshrule it was obvious that the chamber was rarely filled. Clumps of yellow musk in full blossom were growing out of the chinks in the masonry and looked so beautiful that we were sorry to drown them. The lock-keeper insisted on presenting us with some magnificent new potatoes which he dug from his garden while we were locking through. He refused to accept payment but, noticing Angela’s camera, asked if she would take a picture of himself with the family. She gladly agreed and took a photograph of ‘himself’ with his handsome silver-haired wife and two small boys standing before the half-door of the lock cottage. I hope he was satisfied with the print we sent him…

keeper and family

Angela Rolt’s photograph of the lock-keeper’s family at Draper’s Bridge Lock, Co Longford, taken in 1946

The children in this photograph could well still be alive, in their seventies. Some of the lock cottages on the canals are still lived in by families who have connections with the canals through generations. We were hopeful that we might discover someone at the lock who could point us to these young faces, a lifetime away?

Draper's Bridge Lock House

Only ghosts, alas… The cottage is in ruins today. This is unusual, as most of the original lock cottages on the Royal Canal have been retained. There is no sign of why this one has not survived. The Rolts did not name the lock keeper in the book, but I have since discovered that he was Jack Keenaghan. A ghost now with a name, at least.

drapers bridge lock

Lock 39 on the Royal Canal, at Draper’s Bridge. Samuel Draper was Secretary to The Royal Canal Company during the construction of the canal

The Rolts were able to include part of the lower Shannon and Lough Derg in their voyage. They met up with a friend who lived at Kilgarvan, and I was intrigued by this description of a visit to Ballinderry:

…That afternoon our friend and I walked into the nearby village of Ballinderry where we visited Dick Stanley the local baker and proprietor of the village shop…

…In the intervals of baking bread and minding his shop, Dick Stanley makes violins. His art is entirely self taught, he uses the crudest of tools, and he finds and seasons his own materials. He showed us one instrument which he had recently completed and another which was in the course of construction. Though my companion had already told me something of his activities I had expected something which, though praiseworthy enough, bore all the evidence of amateur workmanship. Consequently, even if I had been told nothing I could scarcely have shown more surprise when Dick Stanley put own my hands the beautiful, perfectly finished violin that he had made. Had I not seen the same fine craftsmanship exhibited in the other instrument which was under construction, I doubt if I should have believed that he really had made it. The sound-board was cut from a pinewood beam salvaged from a ruined mill nearby, the body was of sycamore, the pegs of holly wood, while the bridge and frets were of black bog oak dug from the neighbouring bog. None of the instruments he had so far made were exactly the same. He had begun by copying an old fiddle, but he had discovered the improvement and differences in tone which were produced by subtly varying the shape and depth of the sound-box or the thickness of the sound-board. No doubt these critical dimensions are well known and have been standardised by commercial makers but Dick Stanley took nothing for granted. Like all true craftsmen he strove for perfection and expressed a dissatisfaction with his violins which was not false modesty. He admitted, however, that each instrument he had made had a better tone than its predecessor, and his latest one certainly sounded the mellow soul of sweetness as he ran the bow over it. Unfortunately, however, he could not give us an adequate idea of its capabilities because, strange to relate, he was no performer on the violin. He played the flute, using an old finger-stopped instrument with which he often obliged at local gatherings and it was his son who played his fiddles…

…When we had taken our leave of this accomplished craftsman we adjourned to John Tierney’s bar close by, where, to the accompaniment of much village gossip and racy badinage, we fortified ourselves against our walk through the rough weather with pints of porter. Then back to Kilgarvan where we were once more royally entertained despite our protestations that we had surely outstayed our welcome. Never were storm-bound travellers so fortunate in their haven…

We determined that this self-taught fiddle maker was one ghost we were definitely going to track down. Sadly, no photograph of the man or his fiddles is included in the book; nevertheless we felt an exploration was worth making: it would be impossible that no-one in the village remembered the existence of such a craftsman. I even entertained the hope that someone might still have one of his fiddles – and give us a tune!

ballinderry

The ancient bridge at Ballinderry over the Ballyfinboy River, built c 1790

We arrived at the village and admired the old stone bridge over the Ballyfinboy River before walking up through the single street of the settlement. On the right was what had obviously once been the village shop and bar: Elsie Hogan’s. Attached to it was a fine stone residence, resplendent with red painted doors and window surrounds, although now fading.

hogan shopfront

The fallen shop sign was not a good omen. We peered through the windows and could see empty shelves and an old weighing machine. It felt desolate, but its abandonment – if it was abandoned – could only have been recent. Was this Dick Stanley’s shop? Or might we have been on the wrong track? We pressed on up the village street. There were other houses, and another pub – The Tavern. This also appeared deserted.

the tavern

No sign of life: the deserted village of Ballinderry was determined not to give up its ghosts

We walked the length of the village. We knocked on doors. We shouted: no shout echoed back. A car repair shop was locked up, in the middle of the afternoon. Houses were obviously occupied but, on that day, no-one was at home. We listened – silence. Yet, did we hear or did we imagine – far off, perhaps on the wind – the thin, ghostly sound of a fiddle being tuned up?

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Green & Silver

title

This book review has been a long time coming: I first read the book in 1963! I was still at school then, and I was given it as a prize for essay writing (although I have no memory of the essay). I chose Green & Silver because I was already familiar with the author – Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt, more usually known as L T C Rolt or ‘Tom’ Rolt. I had found in the local library his first book – Narrow Boat – written in the late 1930s when the author and his wife were living and travelling through England and Wales on board a converted canal boat. At that time the canals of Britain were still in commercial use, although water transport as a way of life was declining. I was smitten with the romanticism of the nomadic life of the canal boatmen – and of Tom Rolt – and Narrow Boat is beautifully illustrated with woodcuts by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, which enhance the experience of reading this classic book (which has never been out of print). Sir Compton Mackenzie wrote “it is an elegy of classic restraint unmarred by any trace of sentiment… Rolt’s pen is as sure as the brush of a Cotman… Narrow Boat will go on the shelf with White and Cobbett and Hudson.”

Woodcuts by Denys Watkins-Pitchford which illustrated the first edition of  Narrow Boat by L T C Rolt, published by Eyre + Spottiswoode, 1944

When choosing my essay prize, therefore, it seemed perfectly natural to go for another of Rolt’s books. A brief foray through book catalogues (remember – there was no internet in those days!) brought to light Green & Silver, first published in 1949. I established that it was an account of a journey by the same author through the canals of Ireland. It was the cover as much as anything else that attracted me to the book – it stood out as something quite unusual; I little knew that the content would have a profound effect on me, instilling an immediate yearning to visit the land across the Irish Sea, about which I knew very little.

Left – the bookplate pasted into my first edition of Green & Silver (it’s now in print again); right – the exuberant dust cover which attracted me to the book, painted by Evelyn Hunt

It was, however, to be a dozen years before I first visited Ireland (and then it was more a search for music than the canals), but Rolt’s works as a whole (he wrote more than 50 books) cemented in me an enduring interest in engineering, industrial archaeology, and, specifically, water transport. I spent my youthful leisure time campaigning to restore canals, physically digging them out of dereliction and even building lock gates with oak beams and elm boards using traditional techniques. Within a few years of reading Rolt I had acquired and restored my own boat and followed in his wake, spending a year travelling over the British canal system and writing a new book about their engineering and architecture.

canal port

Green & Silver is illustrated with photographs taken by Angela Rolt on the journey through Ireland. They are a valuable and evocative record of life just after the ‘Emergency’ years of the Second World War. Here is the Rolts’ borrowed boat – Le Coq – at Robertstown, on the Grand Canal: pleasure boating was virtually unheard of in rural Ireland in those days and the voyagers seemed much troubled by groups of children who gathered whenever they moored up, all demanding to see – and board – the ‘yacht’

Tom and Angela Rolt faced many challenges in their journey – well documented in the book. They set out to navigate the Shannon, starting at Athlone, to the entrance of the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour; along that canal to Dublin, then up the Royal Canal to rejoin the Shannon at Tarmonbarry and exploring the river northwards as far as Lough Allen, also taking in the River Boyle. The final part of the journey to Athlone crossed Lough Ree. The ‘Emergency’ years and their aftermath saw restrictions on the availability of fuel: this affected the Rolts’ plans, although they did complete their journey. They encountered commercial traffic on the Grand Canal – some horse drawn – and a little on the Royal Canal, which became derelict shortly after their travels. Le Coq was probably the last boat to complete the circular journey in the twentieth century: after significant efforts by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (founded in 1954) the Royal Canal has been fully restored to navigation and reopened in 2010.

navigable waterways

From Green & Silver: a map of the navigable waterways of Ireland at the time of the book’s publication in 1949

This book is full of descriptive detail and observation of the ways of life and the people that Tom Rolt encountered: every page fascinates. It’s hard to pick out any one section to exemplify the writing style, but here is an extract describing a visit to a corn mill at Cloondara in County Longford close to Richmond Harbour, the junction of the Royal Canal with the River Shannon (the mill ceased operations in the 1950s, not long after Rolt’s visit):

…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…

Cloondara

Angela Rolt’s photograph of Le Coq moored at Richmond Harbour, Cloondara – ‘derelict warehouses and empty cottages’

…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…

grand canal boat

guiness

keeper and family

More of Angela Rolt’s photographs from the book: top – Peter Farrell’s working boat on the Grand Canal; centre – the Beirne family outside their inn at Battlebridge, close to the entrance of the abandoned Lough Allen Canal. Le Coq was the first boat to visit Battlebridge in seven years! Bottom – the Lock Keeper and his family at Draper’s Bridge, Royal Canal. The Rolts were always impressed with the generosity of the lock-keepers, particularly on this little-used waterway: they were constantly plied with milk, potatoes and scallions – ‘enough to sink the boat’…

Rolt was at heart an engineer: on leaving school at 16 he took a job learning about steam traction, before starting an apprenticeship at the Kerr Stuart locomotive works in Stoke-on Trent. Railways were in his blood as much as canals were. Thus he couldn’t leave Ireland without a journey on the West Clare Railway – then one of the last surviving narrow gauge railways in Ireland – and the subject of a song written and – famously – sung by Percy French, which includes the refrain:

…Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?
Do you think that we’ll be there before the night?
Ye’ve been so long in startin’
That ye couldn’t say for certain’
Still ye might now, Michael
So ye might!

The Rolts’ journey on the line from Ennis is well documented in Green & Silver:

…We consigned the bulk of our luggage direct to Limerick to await our arrival there next day, and booked a first class ticket to Kilrush. We might as well enjoy this protracted journey in the maximum of comfort and seclusion. The little train, the only one of the day, was standing in the bay, and we settled ourselves into a compartment that was a period piece in itself. The seats were covered with black American cloth well studded with buttons. Braided arm rests (were they ever used?) were looped over the door pillars, and the captions of the ancient and faded photographs over the seat backs were hand written in painstaking copper-plate. To do justice to such an interior I should, I felt, be wearing a deer-stalker and an ulster…

The West Clare Railway: left – a photograph by Angela Rolt from Green & Silver showing L T C Rolt in a first class carriage on their journey from Athlone and – right – a stamp issued by the Railway Company for the ‘conveyance of single post letters by railway’

L T C Rolt was heavily involved in a movement in Britain to ‘save’ the declining canal system and in May 1946 the Inland Waterways Association was founded with Robert Aickman as chairman, Charles Hadfield (the canal historian) as vice-chairman and Rolt as secretary. Since that time the IWA has successfully campaigned to secure the restoration of many threatened waterways, and even to build some new ones in Britain. Sadly, within 5 years, Rolt had fallen out with the IWA over ideology, and was expelled from its membership. But Rolt moved on and campaigned to prevent the closure of the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in Wales. He was involved in its resurrection as the first ‘preserved’ railway line in the world. His name is commemorated on one of the restored locomotives operating on the line: fittingly this engine began life working for Bord na Móna, the company in Ireland created by the Turf Development Act of 1946. The company is still responsible today for the mechanised harvesting of peat and uses narrow gauge railways: formerly steam driven, the lines now use diesel traction. The Tom Rolt (formerly nicknamed Irish Pete) was one of three 3 ft (914 mm) gauge 0-4-0WT well tank locomotives built by Andrew Barclay Sons + Co, an engineering workshop founded in 1840 in Kilmarnock, Scotland.

Tom Rolt Loco

Tom Rolt, the former Bord na Móna locomotive now reconstructed and operating on the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway in Wales, at Tywyn Wharf (photograph courtesy Optimist on the run)

Following in the footsteps of L T C Rolt I wrote my own book on canals and it was published in 1969. The publishers, Hugh Evelyn of London, asked Rolt if he would write an introduction to the book. In the event he was unable to do so, passing the job on to Charles Hadfield. I was sorry not to have a ‘hero’ of mine endorsing the volume, but in my preface I mention my indebtedness to him for introducing me to the world of navigable waterways. Tom Rolt died in 1974 and he won’t know that I am also indebted to him for introducing me to Ireland, now my home.