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

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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Travel by Water 2 – A Tale from Trollope

Drumnsa Bridge

If you travel by water on the Shannon, you can still take your boat up to the bridge at Drumsna, Co Lietrim (above). Just below the bridge is a stone wharf which is the present limit of navigation on that part of the river, a great loop which was bypassed in 1848 by a 2.6km canal. The towns of Drumsna and Jamestown were once thriving river ports but went to sleep once the canal was built. When Tom and Angela Rolt arrived in Drumsna in 1946 the quay there was in ruins, and they had to anchor their boat Le Coq in the shallows and row their small dinghy into the village.

Drumsna (Trollope)

drumnsa-2016

Upper picture – Drumsna in 1946, a photograph taken by Angela Rolt. Lower picture – the same scene in 2016; 70 years have passed but there have been few changes in the fabric of the village

The Rolts were interested in Drumsna because of its associations with Anthony Trollope, who readers will remember for his introduction of post boxes into Ireland. While working as a Post Office Surveyor he was stationed in Drumsna during the 1840s, before the Great Famine, and began his writing career with the novel The Macdermots of Ballycloran (published in 1847). It was not a success but he persevered and became one of the most prolific writers of all time, publishing no less than 47 novels and many more short stories and works of non-fiction during his lifetime. He died in London in 1882, aged 67.

1795 battle Drumsna

Drumsna was historically important as one of the crossing points of the Shannon: it was the site of a ford until the stone bridge was built, probably in the 18th century. This bridge, one of the oldest on the river, once had a blind eye arch where prisoners were jailed and, reportedly, a handball alley on the side where many a  famous championship was held. The plaque on the bridge today (above) remembers an uprising from 1795

Trollope was living in Ireland at the time when the canal system was thriving. He was certainly familiar with travelling by water on the canals, as we can see through this excerpt from his second novel, The Kellys and the O’Kellys (also inspired by his experience of life in Ireland and a success – it was published in 1848 and sold 140 copies). Trollope was 33 when he wrote this book and he must have had direct personal experience of the passenger boat services running out of Dublin on the Grand Canal:

…MR MARTIN KELLY RETURNS TO DUNMORE

We will now return to Martin Kelly…. Hstarted for home, by the Ballinasloe canal-boat, and reached that famous depot of the fleecy tribe without adventure. I will not attempt to describe the tedium of that horrid voyage, for it has been often described before; and to Martin, who was in no ways fastidious, it was not so unendurable as it must always be to those who have been accustomed to more rapid movement. Nor yet will I attempt to put on record the miserable resources of those, who, doomed to a twenty hours’ sojourn in one of these floating prisons, vainly endeavour to occupy or amuse their minds. But I will advise any who from ill-contrived arrangements, or unforeseen misfortune, may find themselves on board the Ballinasloe canal-boat, to entertain no such vain dream. The ‘vis inertiae’ of patient endurance, is the only weapon of any use in attempting to overcome the lengthened ennui of this most tedious transit. Reading is out of the question. I have tried it myself, and seen others try it, but in vain. The sense of the motion, almost imperceptible, but still perceptible; the noises above you; the smells around you; the diversified crowd, of which you are a part; at one moment the heat this crowd creates; at the next, the draught which a window just opened behind your ears lets in on you; the fumes of punch; the snores of the man under the table; the noisy anger of his neighbour, who reviles the attendant sylph; the would-be witticisms of a third, who makes continual amorous overtures to the same overtasked damsel, notwithstanding the publicity of his situation; the loud complaints of the old lady near the door, who cannot obtain the gratuitous kindness of a glass of water; and the baby-soothing lullabies of the young one, who is suckling her infant under your elbow. These things alike prevent one from reading, sleeping, or thinking. All one can do is to wait till the long night gradually wears itself away, and reflect that, Time and the Hour Run through the Longest Day.

I hardly know why a journey in one of these boats should be much more intolerable than travelling either outside or inside a coach; for, either in or on the coach, one has less room for motion, and less opportunity of employment. I believe the misery of the canal-boat chiefly consists in a pre-conceived and erroneous idea of its capabilities. One prepares oneself for occupation–an attempt is made to achieve actual comfort–and both end in disappointment; the limbs become weary with endeavouring to fix themselves in a position of repose, and the mind is fatigued more by the search after, than the want of, occupation.

Martin, however, made no complaints, and felt no misery. He made great play at the eternal half-boiled leg of mutton, floating in a bloody sea of grease and gravy, which always comes on the table three hours after the departure from Porto Bello. He, and others equally gifted with the ‘dura ilia messorum’, swallowed huge collops of the raw animal, and vast heaps of yellow turnips, till the pity with which a stranger would at first be inclined to contemplate the consumer of such unsavoury food, is transferred to the victim who has to provide the meal at two shillings a head. Neither love nor drink – and Martin had, on the previous day, been much troubled with both – had affected his appetite; and he ate out his money with the true persevering prudence of a Connaught man, who firmly determines not to be done.

He was equally diligent at breakfast; and, at last, reached Ballinasloe, at ten o’clock the morning after he had left Dublin, in a flourishing condition. From thence he travelled, by Bianconi’s car, as far as Tuam, and when there he went at once to the hotel, to get a hack car to take him home to Dunmore…

Long distance travel within Ireland by inland waterways was the preferred form of transport in the first half of the 19th century. The alternative was the stage coach: this was no faster than canal travel because of the sometimes tortuous routes which roads took, and the conditions of the roads themselves, particularly in the winter. It must be significant that in the early years of stage coach travel only departure times were advertised: the journey would take as long as conditions permitted. Coaches were notoriously uncomfortable. At least the canal packet boats were relatively smooth and passengers had the opportunity to stretch their legs on deck. Everything changed, of course, with the coming of the railways as the century progressed.

Duchess Countess

The last days of the former express passenger boat Duchess Countess, photographed by Angela Rolt in the late 1940s. The Rolts initiated attempts to have the boat preserved, but these were unsuccessful

Rolt mentions passenger packet boats or ‘fly boats’ in England in his later book which was published in 1950. In The Inland Waterways of England, George Allen and Unwin, he describes:

…the miraculous preservation by sinking of the Bridgewater Canal passage boat Duchess Countess (a name recalling the titles of the Bridgewater family). This old boat was eventually raised and, still in substantially original condition even to her cabinwork, began a new lease of life as a houseboat. She was moved on to the Welsh section of the Shropshire Union Canal near Frankton Junction where she is still occupied at the time of writing although, owing to the deterioration of her hull, she has now been drawn out of the water. The Duchess Countess was the last packet boat in regular service. In the heyday of her career as a packet boat she proudly mounted a great curved knife-blade on her bow. This was of much more than symbolic significance, for it was so contrived that it would sever the towline of any boatman who failed to give way to her… …Very soon the Duchess Countess must inevitably disintegrate, and with her passing the last tangible link with these once extensive but little known canal passenger services will be irretrievably lost…

dc_on_water

dcountess_-_line_drawing_boat

Upper picture – a rare photograph of the Duchess Countess still in use  on the canals (courtesy British Waterways Archive – date unknown) and , lower picture – a modern line drawing of the boat. Both images show the blade on the prow which could slice through the towlines of any unfortunate boat which did not get out of the way in time!

Angela Rolt photographed the Duchess Countess on the canal bank and, fortunately, an early photograph of the boat in its working days is preserved. This shows the scythe-like blade on the prow and confirms that the express boat service had priority over all other traffic on the canals. I am not aware that any of the Irish passenger boats were so equipped but, using teams of horses which were frequently changed along the route, they were evidently able to keep up a continuous speed of around 10 miles per hour, which was no mean feat at the time.

trollope-irish-stamp

We will revisit passenger travel on the Irish Canals in a future post continuing this series…

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.