The Hawthorn Blog
Liveaboard life and general wanderings on the Irish Inland Waterways.
Piltown to Portlaw with the HBA
Our second weekend of boating south east Ireland's 'forgotten' navigations started where the last one finished at Piltown. We arrived mid Friday afternoon to find Ronnie bidding farewell to two local men who had called down to have a look and a chat, and, barely before the kettle had boiled, were joined by two more. The seemingly endless procession of callers at 72M over this summer has taken a bit of getting used to but Ronnie, as well as being a keen student of boating history, has an easy charm that sees many callers return. We watched and listened while Barry, one of the two latest callers, dug out numerous photos of 4B, the last barge to work the river Pil. An hour later Eddie, who had driven down from Dublin to crew, arrived, and a little later the rest of the motley gang that were going to be our company for the weekend joined us. Dominic and Ray don't hang about: Ireland were playing football and the match was on in the pub. Re-joining them a little later we, in common with the Irish and admirers of good football, suffered the pain of watching a dire draw. Game over, and with the rest of the fleet's crews joining us in the pub, it was time for Ronnie to make a little presentation: two T shirts reading 'Trust Me Scout, Trailblazers, The River Pil, 2011' had been organised and amidst applause (particularly when Ken stripped to a bare chest to put his on - something Bernie understandably refused to do) these were presented to Ken and Bernie. Of course nobody gave a hoot about being first, the T shirts were a fun way of acknowledging how well they handled being thrown in the deep end after having to pass Gerry to break trail the the previous weekend - something I doubt either of them would have considered or suggested given a choice. With the pub closed we returned to 72M where poor Jill had to suffer the banter of drunken men (had she had a cent for every apology offered on account of the language we would now be retired) before we all retired to sleep off Arthur Guinness's product and ready ourselves for the challenge of boating up the river Clodlagh to Portlaw later that morning.
We would have loved 'Hawthorn' to have remained in Carrick on Suir so we too could have banged about the bushes and rocks of these forgotten navigations: after all with the wheelhouse removed and sturdy portholes rather than bus windows, she would have been ideal though, in some respects, by not having her there we got the best of everything by joining Ronnie and having our dinghy to scoot about the fleet to take pictures and act as a support boat. The following morning, while waiting for the tide to float the barges, my prep simply involved checking there was enough petrol for the day in the outboard's tank and helping Ronnie to take down his cover. All that remained was to allocate boats to the locals milling about in the hope of a ride. Then, as soon as there was water between baseplates and the river bed, we were off. Ronnie led out and the others followed while I ran on ahead with the camera. As hoped, it was soon clear that going down river into the rising tide meant the barges steered more easily and Ronnie was able to pause long enough to saw off the large dead branch which had caused difficulties for the higher boats the previous weekend. Unfortunately the railway bridge could not be similarly modified. Arriving there someway ahead of the fleet I was surprised to be able to nearly touch the bridge structure when standing in the dinghy, this was going to be tight, even for Ronnie. Ronnie just made it but, had he not removed it a few seconds before, his short chimney would not have. Immediately behind Ronnie 'Aqualegia's' wheelhouse was clearly never going to fit and I was asked to run a rope round a riverside tree to secure her for the long wait now needed for the tide to rise and then fall. If Aqualegia was not going to get through the other boats, TMS and 68M, were also trapped.
The width of the stern on 72M was impressive. And the barge's isn't small either.
Now on his own, Ronnie continued downstream. Inevitably he did have a few 'moments' but long before high tide, 72M had left the Pil for the Suir. Running alongside in the dinghy I clambered aboard to see what the score was. There was a lot of boating experience amassed on 72M and the combined heads soon calculated there was more than enough tide left to make a serious charge at the Clodlagh, just a couple of miles and twenty minutes away. The other option of taking the later, rising, tide risked having to navigate in the dark, something none of us were keen to do if it could be avoided. This decision was greeted with joy by the guests on board whose ride was otherwise going to conclude at Fiddown. Having run through Fiddown bridge, and passing a vast house rumoured to be owned by a Russian oligarch, the broad entrance of the Clodlagh was soon visible. And the tide was still rising. Downing the dregs of my brew I took the dinghy to scout ahead. The lower reaches of the Clodlagh are much wider than the Pil though, as I was later to learn, this width did not mean there was more depth. Full of tide the initial mile was easy enough but, just upstream of the first tight bend, Ronnie's run soon came to a pause: not even 72M was going to squeeze under the low arches of Kearney's Bridge.
No way through.
I could though, and in a couple of minutes a rope had been taken round the middle arch and returned to 72M's bow in order to give Ronnie a break while the, just now turning, tide fell. Above us on the bridge were a few locals who, alerted by some advance publicity announcing the run, were waiting to see barges go up to Portlaw for the first time in living memory. Fortunately one of these was a fisherman familiar with the run ahead (there had been some scouting but most of the river above the bridge remained unknown) and he suggested there would be just enough water to make it to the intended mooring at the old quay opposite the now derelict Portlaw Canal. After waiting 45 minutes, it was time to go. Ronnie, with a help from both a little 'legging' from Morris Power and, and I hate to use this term, a bowthrust from the dinghy when the tide threatened to push the bow round, 72M arrived on the last navigable section.
The Clodlagh above Kearney's Bridge is a very different beast to the downstream river: climbing away from the Suir's valley, the banks now closing in were far rockier, the river narrower and trees hung far out over the water. Just how steep this section is became much clearer to me later but for now I was more than content to run ahead checking there were no obstacles too large to overcome. Whatever the local advice, navigating such a river with the tide falling away from under you is a hairy business and Ronnie was understandably cautious as he wound his way up and, given 72M occasionally ran over the river bed, this caution was wise. With the water levels rapidly diminishing the further upstream 72M progressed it was, quite literally, a little touch and go and Ronnie eventually came to rest on the pebbly river bed just a few feet short of the old quay. Not that it mattered: the surprised looks coming from the man feeding his horses in the adjacent field was evidence enough of the unusual nature of the venture. Seeing our predicament stuck out in the drying river he very kindly fetched a ladder so we could at least climb the still very square and true quay wall. The four locals lucky enough to be traveling with Ronnie bid their goodbyes, at which point we learnt that for the youngest, a lad of ten, this run was a birthday treat. Ever generous, Ronnie made sure he did not leave without a gift. Leonard, a slightly older gentleman, was so chuffed to have been part of the whole adventure he returned with a cans of cider and a bottle of whiskey for Ronnie (what else do you give a man who has everything?) - the impact of the HBA's jaunts on the local populace here really has been a joy to be part of. We were able to get the locals ashore in the dinghy but very soon after there was not even enough depth to float that - with the tide gone all that remained were a couple of inches of fresh water. The rubbing strakes on the bows of M boats make fine steps so we pulled the dinghy up against the 72M's bow, took the gang plank of its roof and dropped this the far side of the dinghy. By moving the borrowed ladder down the quay to line up with our crude bridge we could now get ashore. Which, for the rest of the fleet now anchored in the Suir just outside the Clodlagh, would have been a luxury.
The view from 72M's bow once the tide had departed Portlaw
I'm really not very good at sitting about when exciting options beckon so, after walking the dog and exploring the possibility of moving further upstream (of which more later) I thought it might be a good idea to go back to the Suir to see how the rest of the fleet was shaping up and to show them the photos of what lay upstream of them. A hundred yards or so downstream of Ronnie's stern, the rippling water slowed and stilled in a pool of water that extended out of sight round a corner. Surely all I had to do was drag the dinghy to it and I would be able to gently potter down? Foolish thoughts: just round the corner were more shallows, and beyond them yet more. And some were not just shallows but shingle and rock slopes falling so steeply the water dance downed them in rivulets. Large waterlogged logs were jammed together in the shallows (it was probably these that Ronnie had touched on the way up). Constantly convinced that the next obstacle would be the last one I dragged and poled on. I even had to drag the dinghy under Kearney's Bridge, and continued to do so downstream of it.
The river below Portlaw with the tide out. And again at Kearney's Bridge.
Only once I met the flooding tide half a mile from the Suir was I able to use the outboard. It was here I met Michael and a colleague aboard the Carrick Rescue RIB who were scouting ahead of 68M using a rather clever depth gauge to stay off the bottom (it was reading just 22 inches when I met them). The rest of the fleet were reversing Ronnie's tactic and using the tide to lift them gradually upriver. Having just come down it, I knew that this was going to take both time and energy and, having optimistically informed Jill I would be back in about an hour and a half when heading out, I cadged Gerry's phone to 'ring home': bugger dragging the dinghy back up river when the tide would do all the work for me.
Aqualegia awaits the tide's arrival at the junction of the Clodlagh and Suir.
Just the run to the bridge took well over an hour: letting the boats drift on up seemed the easiest approach and there were times when they were carried along at over 2mph. They would come to a halt, only to go again a few minutes later. Knowing where the deeper water was I messed about using the dinghy as a bow thruster (at times the built in units on 'Aqualegia' and 'TMS' were only stirring mud) as their arrival at the three arched problem waiting around the corner approached. 68M went through the larger central arch without a glance, as if to prove a point that 'Aqualegia', a slightly smaller craft, could manage equally as well with as little room, Beth slid through the smaller outer arch. TMS followed Gerry through without once looking likely to bounce off the forbidding walls. All pretty impressive with a following tide. The lower river conquered the boats immediately ran out of water just a few yards upstream. The last mile of river was clearly going to be some challenge.
68M makes it through the larger central arch. Aqualegia takes the smaller portside option
Only by now the light was fading. Being hungry, tired and having promised to be back with the tide. I pottered on up ahead of the barges. After all, Carrick River rescue's RIB was not only with the boats but one of their own guys was on 68M: if help were needed they were much better qualified and equipped than I will ever be. Returning to tell tale of incoming barges, and to eat a rather fine stew Ronnie had grafted over for hours earlier, I overshot the tide by fifteen minutes: so steep is this section that I once again dragged the dinghy over the pebbled shallows astern of 72M. I arrived back to see three large men in bare feet - the rest of Ronnie's crew had been checking out Portlaw's pubs only to find some prat had buggered off with half their bridge when they returned. An hour and a half later, in the pitch dark somewhere about ten, lights could be seen approaching. It was certainly a dramatic entrance as 68M was lit up with a seemingly endless LED rope light twisting round and over her structure, and her siren was wailing. The fleet was again complete, and with 72M now afloat, the quay was finally colonised. The HBA had arrived in Portlaw.
The distant pub having been decreed to distant, crews settled in to wait to see just what the falling tides left as a departing present. On 72M the conversations got so weird I was convinced I was once again in a crowded college study, so I retired both exhausted and convinced that Ronnie might only be half joking that the same crew of friends would never again be assembled. 72M was leaning a little at this point. Lying in the darkness listening to the occasional creaks of the settling hull was a strange experience, made all the stranger when, with the tide gone, the boat was lying at such an angle I kept sliding out of bed. It seemed the tide's present to Ronnie was a twisted lie.
Sunday morning started early as there was a slim chance of yet more adventure. On our walk into Portlaw the previous day Jill and I crossed over the bridge that spans both the river and the canal. The river at this point was broad and shallow and its bed was pebbled, the bank was on private land next to the Presbyterian Church, and there was room to turn. It looked a perfect mooring. Visitors to see 72M just outside the village when it arrived included the very man now going through the gate into the house next to the bridge. Thinking there would be no harm in asking if the fleet could moor to it, I was soon introduced to the landowner. Permission was granted, as it had been for a fleet of Carrick boats sometime in the past. Sadly that this must have been a considerable time ago was confirmed by myself and Gerry Burke on the Sunday morning when a trip in the dinghy revealed a chain saw and a couple of hours would be needed to make it happen. With the tide already well up we did not have two hours so that was that. We also suspected a high spring tide would be needed, a suspicion supported by this being upstream of the canal which we presumed would have been built as short as possible.
Our weekend over. All that remained was to wish every one all the best for the week and to return to Graignamanagh.
The upstream view of Portlaw bridge - the canal is in the left side arch As can be seen here.
A few thoughts which I would welcome any comments on.
Does anyone know when Kearney's Bridge was built? Would the working boats serving Portlaw have had to deal with it? Its presence halfway up the river makes what would be a reasonably simple navigation pretty tricky. Though, of course, working boats would have had much less air-draft than most of the HBA fleet...
Since posting this blog Joe Sullivan has very kindly spent some time analyzing early maps of the Portlaw area. Having done so he suspects that the bridge carrying the Old Bog road over the river was probably built sometime in the 1820s.
Locals visiting Ronnie have also advised that the Clodiagh should be given a wide berth when in spate as it is ferocious in flood. My respect for the bargemen working this river is growing all the time. Many thanks to Joe for sharing his research.
My spelling of the Clodlagh is taken from the OS map of the area. Others, academic historians included, seem to favour Clodiagh and a number of different options have appeared on Irish boating forums over the last few days.
Portlaw Town is an important industrial heritage site. As ever, Brian Goggin has posted a detailed and informative article on his website Irish Waterways History
The photos of 68M and Aqualegia passing through Kearney's Bridge were taken by Michael of Carrick Rescue.