The Hawthorn Blog
Liveaboard life and general wanderings on the Irish Inland Waterways.
Of Wading and Wigs
It seems like a lifetime ago since we first met the Heritage Boat Association (HBA) mob when we joined them for a few days on their Cruise in Company (CiC)around some of the less well known corners of Lough Ree last year. We were pretty much strangers to most of the HBA regulars but were made very welcome and encouraged to join in the fun and games until we parted company to join the Misfit Mariners as they headed north. For us that CiC, although very brief, was enough for us to sense that here were people with a similar outlook to ourselves and we happily signed up to membership on returning to the Grand Canal in the Autumn. Now, a year on and with many of the organisation’s members as friends (and customers!), we looked forward to another week of fun and frolics in Grange and Kilglass loughs. The 2010 HBA CiC was upon us.
There was a plan, albeit a very hazy and flexible one as befits HBA events, to gather at Richmond Harbour where the newly restored Royal Canal is accessed from the Shannon. The idea had been to take photos of the fleet in the empty harbour while it was still empty but the Powers that Be at Waterways Ireland were having none of it: emptying the harbour had taken some force and they were determined that it should stay empty until the ministers had left and the bunting been put away after the grand opening (don’t ask when it will be - the re-opening of this canal is one of the longest running laughs to be had on the Irish system). Our intention had been to meet the fleet here but, with many of the crews suffering protracted hangovers from the week long Shannon Rally the week before, it seemed that alcohol is just as effective as a summer gale when it comes to dispersing an armada. The fleet slowly assembled with the rear guard of the Jeffers on 4B who, like true buccaneers, had cleaned out the opposition’s trophy cabinets on their way to winning ‘Best Boat on the Rally’ and a host of other titles - a rare moment of glory for the ‘Heavy Metal’ brigade. Now, ballasted with cut glass booty and clutching sore heads, they joined the thirty odd boats assembled on the wharf at Carnadoe in readiness for a raid into the marshlands of Grange, Kilglass and beyond.
Having been this way just a few weeks previously, we opted to go straight up to the harbour outside the pub at Grange rather than join the main party intent on rafting off the tiny jetties at the head of Kilglass Lough. This decision was to have consequences: we had a prime mooring against the floating jetty and Hobbes could get on and off with ease and engage in his own raiding (with such success that he gained several pounds and the nickname ‘Dyson’) but anybody on a boat outside us could only make the shore by walking over Hawthorn which was an interesting and intimate experience. By arriving first I alsotook the role of Harbour Master which involved trying to organise boats of different construction and size in such a way as to get as many as possible into the small space available: a process made much harder by the random nature of their arrival and my not knowing the names of some boats and owners - not easy but the best radio practice I have had in ages. Later in the week I listened to Joe Treacy’s laconic radio work with great admiration as he put the fleet back onto the wall at Carnadoe with the ease of a master -some contrast to my stressed struggles. The remainder of the day was spent socialising and prepping light craft for what was to be the boating highlight of the CiC.
We had called in at Grange on our first ever run up the Shannon Navigation in July last year and thought little of the stream that flows under the road bridge and past the pub. It’s shallow, fast running water seemed to offer little in the way of boating fun beyond the possibility of shooting down it in a canoe. We had subsequently heard that, a mile upstream of the bridge, was a large lough, which in turn connected to more loughs through man made canals. This ‘forgotten’ waterway even had a name: ‘The Rockville Navigation’, and it was the HBA’s intention to spend a day exploring it that saw a number of dinghies and a few canoes assembled at what is known as a ‘twenty past’ start (in HBA parlance an early start is ‘twenty past’; a late one ‘twenty to’). Those of us committed to dragging craft up the knee deep first half mile paddled the deeper water to the bridge and then simply stepped out and began the drag. A few others, put off either by the physicality of this first section or with new dinghies they wished to remain unblemished, loaded their craft onto a trailer to be driven round to an access point straight onto the larger water beyond the shallows. We had company for the day in the form of Brenda and Greg Whelan and, while Brenda and Jill sat and chatted in the dry, Greg and I towed them upstream. We had anticipated an uneven rocky river bed and were surprised to find that it was smooth and the channel remarkably square sided. Thinking about this a little later it dawned on us that this connection would have been deep enough for much larger boats until the middle of the nineteenth century when the river level on the section of Shannon connected to the Rockville was lowered. Inflatable dinghies are very light and easily dragged and we soon reached a point where the motor could be lowered and run. Of course, being clear and rarely disturbed, the water was very weedy so the prop had to be lifted often but we made the lough at the top of the river in good time and paused for a ‘briefing’ after joining the boats trailed round. The plan was simple: it was now about midday so we would have a couple of hours exploring before regrouping for lunch back at the cars and trailer. Plans made on the CiC are renowned for being flexible and within a few minutes of our departing, it was clear that we were in a land beyond time.
We were one of the last boats to leave the meeting place and as we came through a narrow cutting in the reeds connecting the first water to an even larger one, the faster craft could be seen disappearing into the reed beds a mile distant. This was the last we were to see of some of them for several hours as boats spread out in the maze of reed, trees and water. A possible circular route was marked on the maps we had been issued with and, after a brief consultation, we opted to attempt to make a clockwise exploration of it, though finding one of the channels was proving difficult. This was the perfect moment to learn that Greg worked for Ordnance Survey Ireland and, after a couple of minutes standing up to get some bearings, he declared that we would have to go back on ourselves for a few hundred yards to take the connecting cut between the two larger navigations most of the boats were using. We found a narrow overgrown waterway roughly where our cartographer guide thought it should be but it was tiny and we had grave doubts about getting far along it but, what the hell, we went up it all the same. Within a few yards the engine had to be stopped and we were dragging the dinghy along by clutching the overhanging vegetation which could be reached both sides of the boat. Then the fallen trees started and, reluctantly, we declared the ditch unnavigable. Other boats, seeing our attempt, had followed us and it took a lot longer to get out than in but we soon regrouped and it was decided that a canoe would make the attempt. After taking last letters to loved ones, wallets and cameras, we left them to it and set about the long traverse to the far end of the ditch. Unbeknown to us, a number of dinghies were simultaneously attempting to make a north - south passage of the same drain which was nearly as restricted their end as ours. They eventually had to concede defeat when, in the midst of a wild wood, a very low bridge carried a track across the ditch. It was at that bridge that Joe McCool, as befits a cultured exploring man, took out a primus stove and kettle in order to brew tea. While Joe waited for it to boil, a farmer pulled up in his pick up truck and, astonished to see a gang of people on his bridge, asked:
“What the hell are you doing?”
Joe’s reply: “Having a cup of tea”, must have been a shock but the coup de grace was still waiting:
“How did you get here?”
Joe, calmly pointing at the dinghy filled ditch behind him, simply stated: “By boat”.
At which the farmer shook his head, wound up his window and drove off without another word!
It was clear that the 2.30 picnic was not going to happen: boats were spread out in loughs, behind reed beds, on islands, up ditches, and the canoe attempting the ditch was being ported over fields. They did eventually reappear at the northern end which, quite possibly, makes them the first people to have ‘navigated’ that route in several decades. Getting hungry and needing to stretch our legs, we very happily took advantage of a rare piece of grassy bank for lunch before retracing our route back to the agreed meeting place. By now it was getting late in the afternoon but there was still time for more adventure: Lorna’s canoe had been filling with water all day with regular draining being required but Lorna remained determined to paddle it down the river to the harbour. Accompanied by one of the McCool lasses in the second seat and with ourselves and another dinghy as support vessels, she set off. Evident to those of us watching was that, as the canoe filled with water its stability declined. Finally, with gales of laughter and lots of rocking, it turfed them out. It was decided to tow it back the last mile. With the flow of the river working for us, we were able to stop the motor and drift back to the road bridge and home comforts - the silence and beauty of the little river topping out a truly great day. The Whelans were not just good company and skillful guides, they also take fine photographs, some of which I have used in the section above (you can tell which ones - they look ‘arty’). We were all a little weary following this excursion and made the most of the pub to relax in the evening. We spent the next day recovering, socialising and doing whatever we fancied. I fancied taking the dinghy back up Grange River for a spot of fishing and Matt Macfarlane, always up for something a bit different and awash with youthful energy, came with me. A couple of small perch were followed by Matt catching a nice pike, reward for his dragging the dinghy over the shallow section while I sat in it. Truth be told, we all needed a rest as the last day was one mad bender. If you should be interested in learning more about the Rockville Navigation, Brian Goggin has a couple of pieces about it on his website here .
The week’s weather had not been the best but Saturday was dry and bright: just perfect for a hog roast and quayside party on the grass below Carnadoe bridge. Damien, who had organised the hog roast at the Shannon Harbour Rally back in June, had started its cooking early and a number of other volunteers, were busy helping prep salads and side dishes. All week the HBA safety team had been training and encouraging the association’s younger members to think and act safely and a brief gathering on the grass saw all 21 of them rewarded with a life-belt shaped badge to attach to their lifejackets - a fine return on all the effort put in by both the committee and the kids themselves. This was followed by a mass swim off the boats with me being called into action to test load 4B’s man overboard electric winch. This was to prove a successful and popular device as it gave access to the roof of the Jeffer’s wheelhouse - the highest point for launching ‘bombs’. Others made themost of the warm weather to indulge in cocktails and suitably summery drinks though these were to prove rather civilised when compared with later versions concocted by the ‘Jamestown Jester’, Cormac, and Gerry Burke - all I shall add about these is that they were served from buckets! (no wonder the photo is a little out of focus - it seemed crystal clear when I took it). Several boats had been raided for furniture and a vast table was assembled next to the barbecue where Damien and helpers were completing the cooking of the pig. Everybody had contributed something and nobody needed to go hungry (there was enough for brunch to be served the following day). The locals in the area had been sought out and invited and the owner of the Grange pub, who had seen a lot of business over the previous few days, dropped in with a case of wine. Then, as the light faded, musicians assembled and things really began to swing with PJ Norris leading from the front as he had all week in the pub sessions. Later, once it was properly dark, Chinese Lanterns were handed round and a happy half hour was spent lighting and releasing them. They would be hopeless on a windy night but in the stillness of that evening and the darkness of such a remote spot, their flight was quite magical. The drink was flowing and the craic was mighty: if you had a party piece, a song, or anything to offer, now was the time to perform. At some point a ‘Two Sisters’ double act appeared with Linda and Lorna singing and dancing while disguised in blonde wigs, sunglasses and silk shawls. This much requested performance was very funny but funnier still by many accounts, was the moment when two surprised men (they happened to be the nearest) had the wigs, shawls and glasses put on them. I was one of these and simply sat smoking my pipe while the wardrobe apartment worked away. Under pressure to do our own ‘sisters act’ I rather let down my fellow drag artist, Paul Martin: I am not nearly as musical as Paul, neither do I dance as well. Later, when many had gone to bed, I finally played the whistle in public which was an interesting experience as I made all the cock ups I had always been told I would the first time I played for others. Having a go is the important thing and everybody was most encouraging though I have to admit I was relieved when other, proper, musicians, struggled to get my whistle to play well in the by now cold and damp air. A walk up the lane with the dog (his belly swollen with stolen pork) in the wee hours brought what had been the most extraordinary night to a close. I slept well.
Sunday was ‘The Day After’. Few people were up early, most appeared with sunglasses and eyes shaded. Some boats left, others stayed, everybody went about gently. We stayed and chatted, discussing work and loosely planning when we might do it. It had been the most extraordinary few days and it was nice to unwind slowly while thinking about the week ahead and the run up over the Shannon Erne Waterway we needed to make before family arrived near Enniskillen the following Saturday.