Friday 1 October 2021

Across the river

Maybe it's because we're the last farmlet in Co Carlow but I am endlessly fascinated by frontiers, borders and what lies beyond. In our case, it's a six acre field of Wexford cows. Most of the time you can tip-toe across the rocks of the R. Aughnabriskey, which marks the county boundary here, without getting wet feet. Don't try it during a wet Winter, though; the stream can be a roaring torrent 2m deep, ready to sweep you off your feet to an undignified battering death.

I was enticed to read at piece on RTE Brainstorm How Ireland's county boundaries define us, which was a bit rambling and unsatisfying given that title. But Dr Siobhán Doyle, a cultural historian from TUDublin, did have some interesting views on cases where the traditional county borders, frequently defined by rivers, have been modified subsequently to consolidate urban development. There are four cases, I am familiar with, two cited by Dr Doyle:

  • On foot of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Carlow town [and County] annexed a 50 hectare triangular chunk of Kilkenny across the Barrow Bridge which includes Carlow Town Park and playground [map above]. The boundaries are two straight lines are right angles: clearly drawn boldly upon on a map in the late 19thC rather than surveyed on the ground.  It is certainly not obvious at eye-level where Carlow ends and Graiguecullen, Co Laois begins. The boundary clips a corner of Killeshin CoI parish church leaving half the graveyard in another county. There is a huge flap periodically "widespread shock and outrage" when another Boundary Commission announces that the whole of Graiguecullen will be transferred to Das Grossekarlowreich to simplify the administration of what is clearly the same urban district. These petty local loyalties are greatly exacerbated by the existence of the GAA which encourages tribal flag-wagging in order to sell more county-colour jerseys.
  • 50km down stream, 30 hectares of the Kilkenny=West bank of the Barrow were assigned to the "Urban" District of New Ross and thus to Co Wexford. New Ross for many years competed for the least attractive town in Ireland prize and having the derelict asbestos-roofed Albatross fertiliser factory in this Rosbercon exclave did nothing to enhance the view. The site was cleared in 2018 - people are brightening up the other side of town with floral displays and colourful murals.
  • Still further South, the same 1898 Act transferred Ferrybank, including the railway station, North of the mighty River Suir from Kilkenny to Waterford. Again, more recently Boundary Commissions have advised rationalising the county border to weight domestic and commercial common ground, rather than the geological accident of where the R Suir heads off to the sea. As with Carlow, Waterford was founded and grew to commercial greatness because it could act as a gatekeeper for river traffic in days before there were reliable roads let alone railways to transport goods and people. You really should check out Dr Doyle's article if only for the paint war on the cliff above the railway station. 
  • Further North, in the heart of the Midlands, Athlone sits astride the Shannon, which is here the border between Counties Westmeath [East] and Roscommon [West].  As above, the 1898 Act formalised the addition of the railway station and the big church of St Peter and Paul and the army barracks into Co Westmeath. This is a much bigger area than that added to Carlow or Ross, somewhere between 200 and 250 hectares. You can see below that was rather an ambitious "urban" transfer because swathes of New Westmeath are still manifestly agricultural fields even 120 years after 1898:
For me the most intriguing aspect of this map is the straight blue line which joins the two ends of the triangle of annexation. Zooming in on Google Maps confirms the suspicion that it is a canal: taking an efficient direct line while the Shannon takes a lazy eastward bight. The existence of this artificial water way was a complete surprise to me . . . and to The Beloved who spent all her school days in Athlone.

But the Athlone canal had not escaped the attention of Brian Goggin at Irish Waterways History.  Mr Goggin was an enthusiast who acted as a one man compendium of knowledge: the kind of chap who'd do really well at Mastermind. His website seems to be a clearing house of information and a regular port of call for fellow navigation enthusiasts.  Mr Goggin died last year and is clearly much lamented by his family, friends and correspondents.

The Athlone Canal was started in 1757 at the behest of the Commissioners of Inland Navigation. It was designed with a single lock rising 4.5 feet = 1.4m. The whole scheme was by-passed and rendered obsolete when the present weir and lock was constructed in the actual river during the 1840s. In Easter week 1989, we were moored above the "new" lock waiting our turn to descend when the sky darkened and a ferocious blast of horizontal sleety-snow swept the river. By the time we'd negotiated the lock and were on our way South to Portumna, the snow was forgotten and the sun burst out from behind the clouds. In Ireland we have weather, not climate!

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