Sunday, March 26, 2017

Out of Town: Clashganny Lock, Co Carlow

Most people living in Ireland today are a couple of generations removed from when the rivers and canals of Ireland were still significant parts of the commercial transport system, writes Brian Byrne.

Built in the late 18th century, they were very important for transporting heavy goods and agricultural produce between the ports and important towns, and while Kilcullen itself was never part of the system, it came close to us at Corbally Harbour, a few kilometres west of the road to Naas, between Rosetown and Two Mile House.

But if you want to get a feel for what it might have been like along the canals and navigable rivers back in the heydays of the 1800s, before the railways, and later the trucks, took away all the commercial business, an hour's drive down to Clashganny Lock in Co Carlow on a pleasant spring day is well worth the spin.

There's an easy walk along the towpath between Clashganny and Ballykeenan Lock, partly on the river, and partly on one of the many parallel canal sections which were built along Ireland's second longest river to bypass shallows and rapids.

The towpath is overhung by trees from the steep north slope of the river valley, and is a very tranquil stretch, the soft gurgling noises of the river mixing with the local birds singing their welcome to spring this weekend.

The whole Barrow is a mecca for river canoeists, so you will likely be sharing the Clashganny car park with families for whom this is a favourite leisure activity. The lock itself is one of no less than 23 built on the waterway in Victorian times. They have all been refurbished by the Inland Waterways Association, and there's a navigable waterway from Waterford to Dublin on the river and via the Barrow Line link to the Grand Canal at Lowtown.

On the right kind of afternoon at Clashganny, you can walk, or sit and watch the kayakers, fishermen, the odd boat, and the walkers and cyclists who can enjoy this and many sections of the Barrow Way. It doesn't require special hiking gear, or much preparation, though a picnic lunch would be a good idea.

Sitting or walking, you can ponder on how busy this piece of waterway was right up to the mid-1950s, when almost 90,000 tons of goods a year were still being transported on the river, Athy and Carlow being important inland ports on the system.

The lock-keepers cottages at each lock are now not lived in, but once housed the holders of important jobs handed down through generations of families. They would have been busy social places in the evenings, when boatmen would tie up for the night. Singing, story-telling, and no doubt the occasional drop of drink were normal. From the work point of view, the horses which towed the barges would have to be looked after too.

If that short stretch of the Barrow Way is a quiet place today, consider that even in the 1950s, there were still six barges a day passing through on average, even though by then the whole system was in rapid decline.

For the afternoon walker, a turn off the river into the woods on the slope just after Ballykeenan Lock brings one up onto a gently climbing trail that's part of the Clashganny Lock Loop. Along this shaded path you find yourself high above the river, with wild trees, flowers and ferns. It's dry and soft underfoot, and there are occasional surprises, like a tree that somehow got itself into a 'u' shape, and a couple of streams.

Towards the end of the walk, heading back down to river level again, there's a 'mass rock', with a table made of hewn granite, the local stone. That might bring back memories of our history lessons on the Penal times, when Catholic masses were forbidden and had to be celebrated in secret places.

The Loop takes just about 1.5 hours if you keep going along its 3.5kms. But there's certainly the makings of a longer and more leisurely afternoon. On the way home, you could have tea at the nearby Clashganny House restaurant, or do as we did, and stop off at the really excellent Step House Hotel in Borris for refreshment.

All in all, it will give those new to the Barrow Way an opportunity to find out more why it is one of Ireland's tourism gems, and maybe spend a little longer on parts of it, on water, bike, or just plain walking.

To get there from Kilcullen, drive down the M9 to just past Carlow, then go through Leighlinbridge and Bagnelstown into Borris. The turn down to Clashganny is a few kilometres out on the Borris to Graiguenamanagh Road.

The woods part of the loop is not suitable for buggies. And families with very small children should consider that there is a lot of unprotected deep and sometimes fast-running water. Other than those caveats, this is one of the better ways to unwind on a weekend afternoon.

ED NOTE: This is one of a series of occasional pieces not about Kilcullen itself, but to where we can go for a day or more out of town. It can take in anywhere in Ireland, really.