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

O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist?

Fiery Rossa

The world was shocked this week by appalling acts of terror. Terrorism is rightly and universally condemned in modern Ireland – and yet this year we celebrated the centenary of the death of a man whom many, including his fellow patriots, denounced as a terrorist in his lifetime while others hailed as a hero.

Our American and Canadian readers might be surprised at how relevant his story is to their own countries.

Rossa Prisoner

I write of course of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of Skibbereen, the ‘Unrepentant Fenian’, whose state burial in 1915 was the occasion of a fiery speech by Patrick Pearse that is commonly seen as a catalyst to the 1916 Rising. In March Back in Time I introduced him and wrote about the awful background that turned him into a revolutionary – the death of his father from famine fever and his family’s eviction and departure from Ireland. To the end he refused to call the cataclysmic events of 1845 to 1850 a famine: there was no shortage of food, he pointed out, just a shortage of humanity. It fired in him a lifelong hatred of British rule which hardened through terrible treatment in prison and which he brought with him to exile in America, where he and his fellow Fenians were accorded a hero’s welcome.

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Fenian brotherhood Rossa joined in America in 1870 had organised several raids on Canadian communities during the 1860s and early 70s. All were unsuccessful, but resulted in loss of life and a worsening of relationships between Canada and America, seen as harbouring and tolerating Fenian activity. The raids involved hundreds of Fenians, many of them battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War. (For more on the Irish in the American Civil War – the numbers and the stories will amaze you – see Damian Shiels’ meticulously researched blog and website.)

According to this article on the Fenian Raids:

Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the “battle that made Canada.”

Fenian Raid on Canada

The Battle of Ridgeway, courtesy Library of Congess

Embracing this militaristic approach, Rossa became as notorious an extremist in America as in Ireland. He founded a newspaper, The United Irishman, to propagate his views and raise funds for his infamous skirmishing fund. This fund, in fact, was to pay for a bombing campaign carried out in Britain from 1881 to 1885, causing injuries and deaths (to civilians, including children) – and real terror.

One of the exhibits in Skibbereen this summer consisted of newpaper clippings from American newspapers about Rossa, amply testifying to his notoriety. The top right clipping consists of snippets about Well Known People – Rossa is listed alongside William Morris, Geronimo and the Csar Of Russia

In many ways O’Donovan Rossa encapsulates a central dissonance at the heart of Irish History: he was a passionate patriot who believed in armed struggle, while many of his contemporaries espoused a pacifist (see Michael Davitt as a prime example – he referred to Rossa as O’Donovan Assa) or parliamentary approach and saw Rossa’s campaign of violence as undermining their objectives. Now, in 21st Century Ireland, we are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with historical figures who are both important markers in the struggle for independence and echoes of a violent past many no longer wish to glorify.

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O'Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

In Skibbereen this summer Rossa was celebrated in several ways. We attended not just the March, but a play, two exhibitions, a lecture, and the grand opening of a refurbished park in Rossa’s honour by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. In Dublin his 1915 state funeral and graveside oration were given a full scale re-enactment, attended by the President, the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and many dignitaries.

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a re-enactment of Patric Pearse's oration at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a recital of Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa

To give you a flavour for how Rossa is revered as a hero watch this YouTube clip – the ultra-nationalist ballad features Pathé News footage of the actual funeral.

But not everyone felt that it was appropriate for the Irish government to underwrite such commemorations. This was expressed well by the historian, Carla King writing to the Irish Times. She summed up thus:

…while O’Donovan Rossa is a figure for whom we can feel some pity, his philosophy, with its commitment to mindless and counter-productive violence, launched a tradition of which we should be ashamed.

Another historian, Marie Coleman wrote:

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising. If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

Another exhibition opening - this one at the Skibbereen Library

Another exhibition opening – this one at the Skibbereen Library

Like many Irish people growing up in the 50s and 60s I was brought up on stories of the epic Fight for Irish Freedom, although in my family’s case it was also complicated by ancestry on both sides of the divide. In that narrative, Rossa was one in a long line of heroic freedom fighters. To dig a little deeper still into the story of O’Donovan Rossa, I went looking for signs of the man himself around Skibbereen and found them in some surprising places.  My next post will relate to Rossa’s time in Skibbereen and the legacy he left in this West Cork town.

A Grand Job!

uillinn name

Here’s a riddle: what’s the connection between rusty steel and the President of Ireland? The answer – Skibbereen! Skibbereen on a summer afternoon in June, in fact…

Welcome, President!

Welcome, President!

This week the President was in West Cork and on Thursday he came to Skibbereen. Before I lived in Ireland I was pretty ignorant as to the role the President plays in the life of the Republic. It’s not a political position – nothing like the American President, for example: although officially ‘head of state’ the Irish President has no powers – the executive running of the country is entirely in the hands of the government. Instead, the President of Ireland – Uachtarán na hÉireann – acts mainly in a ceremonial capacity and is very visible in civic life. There are always buildings to be opened, institutions to be founded, statues to be unveiled, speeches to be made, important visitors to be hosted… 

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen's new Arts Centre

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen’s new Arts Centre

Presidents can either be chosen by popular consensus or elected by a vote of all Irish citizens. Michael D Higgins was elected in October 2011 and his tenancy will run for seven years. Following this he can serve a further term if he and the people so wish. A Limerick man, Michael D (as he is usually known) is well liked: he’s had an impressive career in public life – academic, lecturer, professor, politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster. He served as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and was President of the Labour Party for many years. He is the first Irish President to have made a state visit to the UK.

His first appointment in Skibbereen was to open Uillinn – West Cork’s new Arts Centre: that’s where the rusty steel comes in – partly… Regular readers of this blog will know all about this building. It was controversial while under construction, mainly because of the Cor-Ten steel cladding to its prominent five storey tower. Cor-Ten or ‘weathering steel’ is a material consisting of alloys which encourage a rust-like patination on exposure to weather, forming a fully protective coating over a number of years. In fact, the weathering process takes about as long as one term of office of an Irish President! I know many people disagree (although I think some are coming round…), but I find the ‘rusty’ finish very attractive, and I like the fact that the appearance keeps on changing in an organic way.

I was impressed with Michael D’s speech: he’s an enthusiast for all the arts and emphasised how important this modern building is – not just for Skibbereen but for the whole of West Cork. The site – right in the centre of town – had been a bakery for generations, and the President pointed out the analogy between the essentials of bread, fundamental food for the body, and the arts – food for the soul.

'Presidential Salute' in the O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

‘Presidential Salute’ in the O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

Next item on the afternoon’s agenda was a visit to the park: the President was to unveil a new memorial to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – a local hero who had links with Skibbereen. Finola has mentioned him previously and is currently working on a post about him: July this year marks the centenary of his death. O’Donovan Rossa fought for Ireland’s freedom, just as Michael Davitt did (I wrote about him last week). The President gave a passionate speech emphasising the debt that the Ireland of today owes to those campaigners of yesterday, and I was pleased to hear him mention Davitt specifically.

Ready for the unveiling...

Ready for the unveiling…

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen's O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen’s O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

I think the new memorial is a great piece of modern commemorative art: it’s rusty steel again! Five columns are placed in the centre of a garden, each telling something of the hero’s story. You have to work to see all the images: they are made by perforating the ‘weathering steel’ sheets. It’s very effective because it can’t be ignored – you just have to stop and work it all out. I commend the artist – but nowhere can I find any mention of who that is! I’m still searching…

President Higgins speaks out with passion about freedom fighter Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

President Higgins speaks out with passion about Ireland’s freedom fighter Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Michael D is a fluent speaker in Irish. He slipped easily between English and Irish while giving his orations – and made it sound so simple! The sun almost shone, the crowds were in good spirits, and the Band played. The rusty steel was looking good. All in all, the visit of Ireland’s President to Skibbereen was a grand job

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