IWN of June/July 1971
[originally published in the Ditchcrawler column of Irish Yachting & Motorboating]
To the good citizens of Robertstown of course, it is the most ordinary thing in the world to dress up in full Georgian costume some chill May evening to give a one-mile ride to an English Shadow-Cabinet Minister in evening dress, in a horse-drawn barge.
The evening in question, the rain stopped falling just in time and had commenced rising again from the surrounding bog, when Barbara Castle – as gemutlich a Yorkshire woman as you could hope to meet especially if you’re a canal buff and admire the way she purloined a million and a half a year ago to restore the British Waterways – stepped daintily aboard Robertstown’s new barge Emily at Healy’s Bridge (easily identified by the inscription “Bonynge Bridge” in stone on the arch).
Avoiding the eye of a merhorse which had sprung a leak in the nose, and the full frontal nudity of Neptune and one of his sea-bedfellows, who adorned the bows, and hotly pursued by the redoubtable Father Murphy (scenario, inspiration and continuity – a dynamo if there ever was one) Mrs Castle grabbed a bouquet, dived into the saloon and apparently, having been passed hand-over-hand over the heads of the hard-drinking nobs below, emerged in the bow to find a pipe-and-fiddle outfit in full fling.
With that and at least three hurrahs, the horse took the strain and managed somehow not to look shamefaced at the sound of a diesel tuning up down below.
I must say the barge, cruising well above the level of the surrounding bog land and with various cocktail-party types adorning the decks, did look a splendid sight as it approached Robertstown, where a detachment of Gardaí were regarding their well-polished boots and the populace were tearing to and fro with hot joints, the new ovens in the canal hotel having given up the ghost at the thought of a VIP banquet.
Natural black velvet
Mr Noel Lemass delivered himself of some sentiments into a microphone, hinting broadly that his Board of Works is to take over the canals from CIE (which we all seemed to know already) and helpfully telling us some more or less accurate things about the navigation.
The escorting cruisers tooted and Mrs Castle did her admirable stuff clearly meaning every word, which is more than can be said of some of the Irish politicians present, and then broke a bottle of champagne against the merhorse at the second swing, thus in one stroke giving Emily her name and enriching a pint of the black stuff that is made from the canal water a few locks down towards Dublin.
The chances of stumbling across that particular batch of black velvet are long I suppose, but I for one am drinking as much as my friends can afford in the hope of finding the unique blend mixed that soft evening in Robertstown, by a Shadow Minister in the Celtic twilight. [photos]
While lingering in that pleasant corner of Ireland, two bits of good news came my way. One is a happy-ending to a story that began in 1871 when the first Murphy was appointed lock-keeper at Lowtown (so named because it’s the highest point on the Grand Canal). Three generations followed him at the post but with the death in October last year of the last Murphy, it looked as though there would be no centenary to celebrate. Now CIE, after some doubts, have done the right thing and confirmed Mrs Conroy, nee Murphy and sister of the last incumbent, as lock-keeper. She has been standing in through her brother’s illness and since his death, and who knows but what her young son Jimmy may keep the Murphy blood at Lowtown lock for another hundred years? Lowtown
The other bit of good news comes as if in answer to my musings that Robertstown’s Muintir na Tíre, that has done so much for the canal, has not been accorded the recognition by the Inland Waterways Association that it deserves. Now there has been a meeting to form a Naas/Robertstown branch of the IWAI, with Father Pat Dowling and John Farrington in the van, and representatives from Carlow, Athy, Rathangan and Lowtown to encourage them in their ideas about re-opening the Naas Branch.
Dr Tim O’Driscoll indeed may have inadvertently let Bord Failte in for a little financial assistance in getting the Naas Branch of the canal navigable again. Speaking at the Robertstown banquet of the countless places of interest on the canal that “do not necessarily suggest themselves to those travelling by road” he went on to mention Kilbeggan and Naas, both of which he said could be reached by spur canals.
Passing over the implication that Naas does not suggest itself to motorists (although there is a little boreen that takes you there from B’law C’lee you know, TJ) one is startled to hear that the Kilbeggan and Naas Branches are navigable. Given a spade to dig through the cattle crossing on the Kilbeggan line, where they tell me one of the bridges is also under threat, and a courteous “Please may we have our lock gates back?” to CIE from Naas, I suppose you might do it in a canoe. Will you open your cheque-book as wide as your mouth now, Dr O’D?