Written by Helen Huish and pictures by Peter Huish
as publised in the March 2011 edition of Wilderness News.
In 1999 Wilderness boats joined with the Royal Canal Amenity Group members as the first English boats to cruise the Royal Canal. Those who took part in 10 days of fellowship, welcome and entertainment as they explored this beautiful waterway, between Dublin and the then limit of navigation at Abbyshrule will never forget their time in the Emerald Isle. As they left, they vowed to return when the Royal was reopened along its full length.
The wait was a long one, and the short notice of the official reopening meant that only Toad Hall was able to make the journey in September 2010. So great was that return journey, that, together with the RCAG, a return visit has been planned for August this year. There are currently 10 crews who have registered their commitment to this venture, and if anyone else is keen to join the group please contact Peter on [email protected]
We know that there will be a warm welcome, safe storage and an experience that cannot be described but will never be forgotten.
We travelled to Holyhead for the crossing to Dublin Port. Anglesey greeted us with torrential rain and we arrived in Dublin to be greeted with the same. We could have paid a 10 euro toll and used the new port tunnel to quickly escape the city, but, instead, we remembered our route, across and alongside the Liffey through the city, and joined the rush-hour crawl through streets and roads awash with rainwater to Pat Oconnor’s place at Castlewarden, just off the main dual carriageway road, near Naas. Here we received the typical Irish welcome and hospitality we remembered from our previous visits. Pat and Ann treated us right royally during our 2 day stay whilst we used the new Luas tram from the park and ride at “Red Cow” to explore old haunts in Dublin before stocking up with fuel and provisions and taking to the water at Mullingar.
Here it was quiet – a far cry from the day we last arrived to find the crowds so deep we had trouble getting off the boats!
With the trailer safely parked at Abbeyshrule, Peter was returned to Mullingar by Pat O’Connor and Noel Spaine, and we cruised out into the countryside to spend our first night afloat.
The next morning, as we entered the top lock at Coolnahay, the owner of the Lock cottage emerged with his accordion and we were treated to an impromptu serenade – we were back!
Being a Sunday, we expected to work some of the locks ourselves. It was hard work to open the paddles, but the gates swung easily. We stopped to enjoy the sunshine a few locks above Ballynacargy, tying to the end of the lock landing. Liam, from Waterways Ireland discovered us and promised his team would work us through the remaining locks the next day, clearing much of the ever-present weed as they went. They are a great bunch of guys, who see it as their job to see boaters safely on their way. They will always welcome you, especially if you let them know of your plans.
We awoke to find a kingfisher on the mooring rope and Waterways Ireland checking on our progress! We completed the descent of the flight the next morning, assisted by WI who were also busy collecting floating weed and adding it to a huge pile beside the lock at Ballynacargy,
The beautiful harbour and slipway at Ballynacargy, seemed unchanged from our previous visit, but there were no boats moored and hardly a soul to be seen.
The village shop afforded us an ample range of fresh supplies and the harbour had water and toilet emptying facilities that did not require a special access card. The petrol station on the main street is owned by an enthusiastic RCAG memberf!
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the very welcome sunshine before heading on to Abbeyshrule. Here, on our previous trip, we had nudged the culvert that had blocked further cruising. Now, it is difficult to see where the culvert was, as the old bridge has been brought back into use, and the new approach roads sympathetically aligned and edged with stone walls.
It was somewhat difficult to find a place to moor, since the RCAG rally fleet was moored up here, between the end of the Western Rally, held in August, and the start of the re-opening celebrations. It was also difficult to find water, until we found a tap in the yard where the WI lorry was kept. This also contained a “porta loo” so we took the opportunity to empty our toilet there!
Abbeyshrule is another lovely stopping place with good walks. The abbey and some paintings on the wall of the old forge testify to the bitter conflict between the English and Irish, echoes of which have travelled down the years and still remain in some quarters.
Evidence of the economic recession was also evident in an estate of houses, some occupied, others weather tight but uncompleted, and others just at foundation level. All mothballed and waiting for better times
The following day was soft, to say the least, so, with our vehicle stored nearby, we took to the road to explore the rest of the navigation down to Cloondara/Richmond Harbour where the official ceremony was scheduled to take place.
Abbeyshrule and the Rustic Inn —the culvert was approximately where the green hulled boat is moored.
It was so good to see the canal in water, instead of the previous reed beds and dry sections. There is a new visitor centre at Ballybrannigan harbour, near Ballymahon, with a shower and kitchen that can be used by visiting boaters. The information boards and leaflets provide a great insight into the environmental work that is being undertaken. Here we had our first sight of Flat No. 3, the barge we had last seen being restored in the workshops.
In 1999, Peter had stood in the bed of the harbour here and said ‘next time I am here, the canal will be in water’. Some thought he was mad, but his face lit up when he saw his belief rewarded! We could not wait for the rest of the fleet to join us for the ceremonial cruise into Richmond harbour.
Near Killashee, we found a posse of WI people checking the new, automated, lifting bridge, that we were later to pass under as a flotilla. At first sight it seemed an elaborate structure, but seems to be based on a design used on many Shannon bridges. The innovation is in the automatic operation, based on sensors that detect the approach and departure of boats. Popular opinion doubts that automatic operation will ever be continuous or fault free, but help, in the shape of a WI van is only a phone call away!
Next day we cruised the short distance to Ballybrannigan Harbour, mooring up in the company of two priests from Northern Ireland. In later discussion it transpired they had cruised the Forth and Clyde canal, starting from, and returning to Northern Ireland!!
Preparations for the start of the cruise were underway as we arrived, a few boats were already there, the others were scheduled to arrive in the morning. Flags and bunting were being erected, and some last minute cleaning and maintenance was being done on Flat No. 3.
We were given our sign, “Wilderness Boats UK”, it said , and cruising orders, ready for the convoy start the following morning. We felt well prepared…………
Our arrival at Killashee for an official ceremony and meeting with the boats that had come up from the Shannon, was a bustling affair. The drizzle could not dampen spirits. Here we met up with old friends from the previous trip and, suddenly, the thirteen years disappeared and it was as if we had seen them all the day before.
Peter found he was expected to give a speech! Following the customary sandwiches and cakes, we discovered we all had to pass through the lock, ready for a good start the next day. Eventually we settled down for a good night’s sleep, in preparation for what we knew was going to be a hectic weekend.
The day of the entry to Richmond Harbour dawned bright and sunny – sadly, it did not last for the entry into the harbour! We all negotiated the spectacular lifting bridge across the canal. This was the last of the many costly and impressive measures employed to overcome the previous impediments to cruising. Beautiful harbours, complicated road junctions – all impressive and a far cry from the cost cutting approach so evident here! Sadly, because of the day-tripping nature of local boating and, we suspect a fear of being overwhelmed by Shannon boats, there was a conspicuous lack of water and toilet emptying facilities.
The parade into Richmond Harbour, let by Flat No. 3, was incredible and the welcome was warm and enthusiastic. They were especially glad to have us back, but sorry that more Wildernii were unable to join in the celebration. The official reception was sumptuous and a chance to talk to boaters and officials alike. Apart from waterways campaigners Ruth Delaney and Ian Bath, the VIPs included past Taisoch, (prime minister) Albert Reynolds, and John McKeown, the WI engineer who began the restoration work more than 30 years ago, and has supervised it ever since.
There was a free barbecue that night, but we were at the rally dinner with traditional Irish music and Noel Spaine (above) and the rest of us singing the Old Triangle. It was very moving and we could almost hear Keith Hadden’s enthusiastic participation, such a feature of every evening on our last visit.
Every boat was individually welcomed and presented with a commemorative cut crystal bell as a souvenir of the occasion. What memories it recalled, and what a privilege to be part of the festivities to celebrate this remarkable achievement. It is an achievement that could never have come to fruition without the remarkable community spirit harnessed by the RCAG. The Longford Branch is the only remaining stretch to be brought into water. Waterways Ireland and the government have pledged support. However, it will require commitment and persistence in the current economic climate.
The next challenge for the RCAG is to maintain that community spirit now that the major work is complete and harness it for the future maintenance work. We also encouraged them to continue with annual festivals along the canal to build on the fundraising efforts to date and to channel efforts into maintenance and economic growth, such as has happened along the Shannon Erne waterway. This coming year is the beginning of that process, and once again Wilderness Boats will be offering their support.
It was with a mixture of sadness and joy that we retraced our steps to Abbeyshrule, in preparation for the journey home. We were sad to be leaving this beautiful island after just two short weeks but felt great joy at seeing the dream come true and knowing that our Irish friends are looking forward to our return.