Wednesday 17 October 2018

Walk of the week: Maganey bridge to Carlow town, Barrow Way, Co Carlow

Christopher Somerville

The stroll from Maganey Bridge down the River Barrow to Carlow town is only five miles long, but it takes in three counties. Starting off in Co Kildare, within a couple of miles you cross the River Lerr's side stream and find yourself in north Carlow.

Across the Barrow, meanwhile, the level fields and woods of easternmost Laois continue to unroll. The Barrow herself forms the backbone and guardian spirit of this borderlands walk, especially if you are lucky enough to have Joe MacDonald for a walking companion.

Joe could yarn for Ireland. His tales come tumbling out, like jigsaw pieces from a box. As a seven-year-old boy in the '40s, he moved with his family to the lock-keeper's cottage below Maganey Bridge (his mother Mary MacDonald kept Maganey lock), and grew up there with the Barrow and its many moods and activities as the backdrop to his young life.

Walking with us on this soft afternoon, pausing at the lock cottage and the gushing lock basins, ruminating at weirs and side streams, Joe's narrative flowed on like the broad Barrow he so clearly loves with heart and soul.

"Floods! There'd be three or four bad ones every winter. On St Patrick's Day, 1947 we were marooned for nine days, with our boat washed away. Talk about a lighthouse in a storm! You'd hear the waves slapping against the house walls as a boat went by. We had a big old wet battery radio, but Dad said we couldn't listen to the match; the batteries had to be saved for the news and the weather.

"A lot of the traffic down from Dublin was in the form of Guinness. There was a fellow in Carlow who'd make little wooden dowels; the Guinness bargemen would tap up into the barrels and draw off half a bucket, put the dowel in, and no-one would know. A bucket of eels for a bucket of porter, that was the going rate -- we'd trap the eels in 14-foot nets.

"Bargemen were the most tremendous cooks. You'd go out to the boat and they'd have eels or a big pike on the cooker and they'd make white sauce, the like of which I'd never seen before. Everything in the boat was neat, scrubbed white -- absolutely clean."

The poet Eugene Watters lived and wrote in Maganey lock cottage after the MacDonalds left it. "He was happy here," affirms the wall plaque, quoting Watters' wife Rita Kelly. "It was lovely," murmured Joe, rather wistfully, as he peered in the window. "Sitting round that fireplace, all warm in the winter...

"We'd some high old times, especially with my sisters. Coming home from a dance, they'd be flying down the trackline -- that's what we called the towpath -- at 3am on their bicycles, and my mother's big worry was what if some feller should shine a lamp off the bridge and dazzle them so they'd ride into the river!"

The Barrow is a peaceful waterway these days, the haunt of Polish fishermen. Her curves are graceful, her complexion dimpled. It was a pure pleasure to stroll by her side through afternoon sunshine dappled by overhanging alders and willows, as Joe spun his web of reminiscence. Barges stuck on the weirs, drowning and rescues, boats flooded into the treetops, hare-brained escapades, acting the eejit.

Boys would risk their lives swimming underwater through the tiny, pitch-dark culvert under the River Griese below Maganey lock cottage. "I looked in," said Joe, "that was enough!"

Near Carlow town, we passed the sites of the old 'mud fields', vast settling grounds for the lime sludge that was a by-product of the sugar refining process. Carlow's sugar factory was one of the biggest; Joe worked there for 34 years until its closure a few years ago. Now all that remains is the lime-burning tower, a rusty funnel encircled by railed galleries, still reaching into the wide Carlow sky.

Gone is the riverside bacon factory too, from whose windows illicitly 'borrowed' pigs did literally fly, right into the arms of waiting accomplices.

Modernisation put an end to the factories, as it did to the river traffic. But while Joe MacDonald continues to lead walkers along the banks of the Barrow, those fishy and watery stories remain as fresh as if minted only yesterday.

Irish Independent

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