‘Our Writer’s Corner’: Pat McNamara

‘Our Writer’s Corner’: Pat McNamara

Pat Mc Namara is a native of Portarlington. Writing as Lazarian Wordsmith he currently has two paperbacks and two Kindle Books available from Amazon.UK. In the Wicker Wood Where Secrets Are Buried, a crime novel and The Knowledge Seekers and The Land Of Cudhabeen, a collection of short stories and verse.

The Canal is from a new collection of stories with the title Polly’s Secrets, Streets of Birdsong and Buteo buteo. A kindle version is currently for sale on Amazon and a paperback is due out next month.

The Canal

 In 1772 the Grand Canal Company was founded to build a waterway which would link Dublin with the Shannon and capture midland trade. When completed the main line of the Grand Canal linking Robertstown, Edenderry, Dangan and Tullamore passed north of Portarlington. A branch line was constructed south-west through Rathangan, Monasterevin and Athy to the Barrrow.

On August 14th 1800 the Queens County Canal company was formed to link Monasterevin, Portarlington and Mountmellick to the branch canal. Up to then the branch canal and Barrow river met at Monasterevin and a river ferry system was in operation. The cost of carrying the canal over the river by bridge and of raising the canal to its present level was to paid for by the Queens County development bringing the estimated cost for the twenty foot wide by thirteen deep excavation to £90, 000.  The wages for the construction crew was two shillings a week with a ganger in charge of fifty men to get half a Crown. Construction costs were a shilling a yard through sand or gravel and three shillings through rock.

Mountmellick Canal Laois by John Hayes on Scribd

My memories of the canal are of a time when it was used by Odlum’s Mills to transport grain and flour between their Mills at Dublin, Sallins and Portarlington. The large black canal boats were power driven although I have some memories of seeing horses pulling canal boats, where the horse and a man walked along the tow path.

During the Emergency, when petrol was scarce, the canal was used to ferry turf from the bogs near the town to Dublin and to ferry the provisions for the town back down.

The canals also helped to build up the distribution and popularity of Guinness which from the turn of the century was transported from St. ,James’s Gate Brewery by canal because in those days the porter was not a good traveller over roads .Rural areas would have a better pint if the brew could be transported under gentle conditions. Canals were ideal, because the brew was cushioned against bumps or knocks or rolling about. The porter was carried in wooden barrels which were filled through a hole at the top which was then bunged with a wooden plug. The tap for drawing off the drink was inserted into the barrel in place of the wooden plug  which was knocked into the barrel.

These wooden barrels were returned to the brewery for cleaning which involved scouring out the inside of the barrel by flaying the wood with chains. Over a period of time this scouring increased the carrying capacity of the barrel. A new barrel would hold eighteen dozen half pint bottles, but a well washed barrel would hold twenty four dozen half pints. The boatmen knew this and would use selected barrels to draw off their “Tilly “. The result of this was that many farmers along the canal side exchanged vegetables or potatoes for porter with the “Tully Men “. The publican who received the barrel with the regulation amount of Porter in it could have no real complaint with the brewery.

We used to go and watch the sunburned red faced men move the boats through the lock, or moor and unload at the Canal side storage depot. The locks were to me an ingenious device for lifting the boats up from the lower canal level to the higher level. The boats entered the lock through the big wooden gates and when the gates were closed water was let in through trap-doors in the gates which the keeper opened to flood the chamber and lift the boat.

The incredible canal heritage of Laois

The sight of the boat and men raising silently and without effort past the granite kerb stones that formed the top of the chamber was like some magic trick in the circus When boats were travelling down through the lock coming in at high tide and moving away at the low level the magic never appeared as awesome or amazing.

We fished for perch, eels, roach and tench with bread, dough or worms on bamboo rods, nylon line and eel hooks. The canal at evening would be dotted by kids almost hidden in the bank-side vegetation holding rods over lily pools and watching intently for the sinking white dough ball to disappear. Then we knew the fish had the bait in his mouth and it was time for the strike. Over enthusiastic upward strikes, or over-estimation of the size of the fish, sometime led to flying fish as the quarry flew high in the air before landing on the bank or in the bushes.

Eels were a harder prey: they hid in holes in the underwater walls of the storage depot. We would open the waterside doors and drop the nylon line and the baited eel hooks down gently past the holes. A flash deep down in the water and a sustained tug-of war was the signal to slide a forked stick down the line to form a fulcrum to pull the eel out of its lair. After the capture we admired the eel and told stories of how previous eels, dead for hours or days, had wriggled on the pan when being fried.

Once in the late fifties the canal banks burst and because of the low water level and lack of food the usually elusive fish were easy to catch on rods or in corrals of rocks, into which we herded the fish before throwing them out onto the low banks. After a week or so of this type of fishing not even the cats in the town could face their fish supper.

In the warm Summer days we swam in the still waters, jumped from the bridges into the lower lock waters and once even boated-up the long stretch between Lanigan’s Lock and the Mill in a rowing boat. We were like Venicean Gondoliers, until one smart-alec overturned the boat and tossed us all into the water, just as an admiring crowd of young ladies had gathered on their way home from a football match in the canal side football field.

By the banks of the Barrow
Photo Credit

In late Summer, sun-browned we walked towards Lee Castle, to where the grove of hazel trees grew to collect shiny sun-browned nuts. These nuts were either cracked immediately between our back teeth, or opened by pairing and splitting by penknife, or taken home to store in drawers for Halloween.

Our stretch of the canal was bridged by two roads, the Monasterevin Road: a high humped back bridge, and the Station road: a wooden swing bridge. The swing bridge was at road level and was arranged to swing back over the canal bank to allow the boats pass. It was just above where the boats unloaded and the Mill wall formed the town side of the canal bank.

The run up to this bridge was a long straight stretch of road, but just before the bridge the road curved slightly to cross the canal, while a lane-way for watering cattle or drawing water ran straight and down beside the road to the water’s edge.

One gentleman Dan rode a bicycle home from the town on Saturday nights. Frequently in his sups he failed to make the turn and rode down the lane and ended up in the water. It became almost part of the night-watchman job at the Mill to pull Dan from the water and dry him out beside the boilers which dried the wheat. When we walked along the canal to the football match on Sunday we always came home, the long way by the wooden bridge, just to check if Dan’s bicycle was lying deep down in the clear water.

Incredible canal heritage in Portarlington

If Summer was a time of fun along the canal, a frosty winter was a delight. If the canal froze over we threw large rocks onto the ice to test its strength before skating or sliding along it. One year a flock of swans attempted to land in the canal while it was frozen and they too skidded all over the place just, we imagined, like swan lake. For a while afterwards the swans became land locked having no stretch of water to build up speed on before taking off and flying away.

In the sixties the canal became unused, fell into disrepair and was filled in to form a long straight narrow road from Lanigan’s Lock, under the iron Railway Bridge to meet the Ballymorris road at Blackhall Bridge, near the ruins of La Bergerie, which we called the haunted house, along the outskirts of the town.