Lá iontach inné for our Heritage week Open Day. In ainneoin an droch aimsir thainig go leor cuaitreoirí agus bhaineamar an taitneamh as an lá. Despite the rain, we had many visitors calling in and we really enjoyed showing them around as did they - especially the currach trips on the canal. Huge thanks to all who came from far and wide and to all our helpers on the day, some of whom travelled up from Arklow to help out. Well done to the Heritage Council for this fantastic week of heritage, culture and story telling! Here's to next years!!
The weather forecast has been threatening a code red for days now, as the sky casts a grey cloak across its horizon. Gusts of wind can be seen charging down the Cooleys, scattering the waves retreating from its path, racing and running in every which direction…. Carlingford Lough is not in a good mood today. We pass it by on our way to Newry, where a great canal was built over generations, to supply coal from County Tyrone to the homes and the wheels of industry in Dublin. Newry, known as Iúr Cinn Trá as Gaeilge - which means the yew tree at the head of the strand, became a very busy port after the loughs were enlarged to allow greater sea ships to dock here, but unfortunately the rest of the canal was allowed to almost fade away. But for volunteers who keep it open for the future generations, sections would have disappeared years ago. We slipped the currachs into the waters, sheltered by the mountains and forests all around, and off they flew, with the wind on their backs, they were headed for Newry. On turning the last bend, 20 plus fishermen sat silently by the banks contemplating I imagine, until two black currachs wolfed up through their favourite pool. ‘Live and let live…. there’s room for everyone,’ I’m sure they were thinking. The lock gates at Victoria Lock had 18ft carved at the water line, small diggers and machinery could be seen resting, but once the weekend passes, they will be busy again constructing a cycle route through the oak and cherry trees that shade this great canal. We passed the last of the yawls of Dundalk Bay on the way home, made from a larch tree that had fallen at Slane Castle, by a man whose foresight sawed the wood up and seasoned it in his attic for the next 10 years, before building this magnificent boat, working off measurements and plans from an old wreckage that lay in the mud in Dundalk Bay.
There was a push on last week to complete a second set of oars after finding that the newly planed oars from the week before had worked a treat, and with two 21ft currachs on the trailer, we set off up the road to Annagassan to catch the tide before it turned. Using a, by now, well-rehearsed routine of lifting the boats, in no time at all the currachs were sitting on the silky sand that is sheltered by the north wall which extends from the harbour. The abandoned jeeps and cars parked abruptly along the pier seem to look at us hinting that we were late for work as all the boats had left the port two hours before. But our plan was simple and our destination, I thought, was the orange buoy that marks safe entry for the trawlers return. A lot of work over the past year and a lot of mistakes now rectified were all converging and culminating into this very moment when the sun shone and the sea breeze had all but disappeared. The first currach slipped off the beach after two youngsters volunteered, smiling and slagging at my elderly posture as they went. I dare not enter their space today. Instead I just attempt to read their thoughts of postures a far. And then there it was, like a white swan’s first truly independent flight, the oars rolled together like the wings of changelings and the sound of laughter could be heard from a far. Quickly we slipped the second craft into the water and with oars out stretched; we made haste to follow the track across the ebbing tide in an attempt to keep this moment for ever to ourselves. This time last year was so much different: the crew was younger; the oars were so much heavier for their arms; the sea was unforgiving with North East winds so up the estuary we had to go with arguments, it felt, on every bend and turn, as oars clashed and tempers flew. It was only for the swimming dog’s antics alongside that occasionally helped change the mode. But this time was so different, by the time we had rounded the buoy and parked on the carpet of seaweed, the other lads had turned up. Now there were three rowers for each of the currachs and a passenger for crew change. The local men, we had met over the summer while doing sea trials with the leather boat, stood by the rails to see us off. “We made a few ourselves a while ago after a visit to the undertakers”, one of them remarked. I was totally confused. “For the wooden latts”, he added when he saw the bewilderment in my face, “they are already cut to the right size”. On returning to the currach, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into! The orange buoy, for the first time, had become a chain that was welcomingly broken and off over bay to Salterstown, the currachs shot, where a little pier juts out of the rocks. Our currach was still on trial and we found that with a passenger, it could pull to the left but the oars were great and it seemed to entertain a seal as we went. By the time we reached the other side, the lads were keen to slag our meandering ways and disorientated from their verbal grief, I crunched the last out of my neck to spot the seal again. But now it appeared in front of the boat and close to us as we rowed to a sudden stop. It began to talk, it was a round headed swimmer. I wasn’t sure at first but on looking over, the rocks were full of them getting a Sunday dip on the last weekend before November. Round to the beach we rowed and filled the faces, then before another word was said, we robbed the other currach for the return journey, leaving passenger behind, and then we beat up against the tide to watch with glee their slow and sluggish meanderings. Still a lot of work to do with the third set of oars, they have to be planed down, and the slipped canvas on the third boat needs sewing from last year. So is it worth it after nearly four hours of rowing? The answer would have to be “Yes! Every minute!”
.Are things starting early or is it me that's getting old? The whooper swans arrived on Wednesday on a 3pm flight from Iceland, as winter there begins to take hold. The sheep are keen to greet them, leaping as they run, but the poor old swans are tired from flying and only want to be left alone. Two hours sleep from the sheep was granted in the grassy fields beneath the ancient tombs, but bleats soon warned of trouble, sighting a patrolling quad on its daily tour. The whooper swans take flight across the mound of Newgrange to seek sanctuary beyond the hill of Slane. Duck hunting will kick off shortly, and such sights will be but short glimmers through the winter's veil of darkness, or the echos of retreating trumpeters when the dampness of dawn begins to take its first airy breath. The moon has not yet turned its back, before the giggling otters are out splashing in the river and chasing one another over the arched bridge of the canal. No seals about for the past while, perhaps there is enough food at the entrance of the river. Our Wednesday evenings are still all about currachs, trying to tweek oarlocks for newly planned oars. The trailer seems harder on the boats than anything else but as Mark calmly remarks...'Its all about tender loving kindness'.
Well the leaves have finally relented after being brandished by the first bite of a newly empowered autumn, eager now to impress its dominance as we watch the summer’s sun retreat beyond the yellow horizon. Like an encroaching army of hungry ants, it breaks and leaves the landscape of green arteries and veins exposed to a hailing sky of pins and needles. The first frost briefly cloaks the valley and not unlike an owl’s talon, it comes out of nowhere, once the moon makes his decision to light up the night sky. Speckled patterns of yellow and orange suddenly appear only to highlight the seven shades of brown already appearing from beneath the undergrowth. The brookish dull river, swollen with rain, hastens on it pilgrimage now to see off safely the whittling eels, destined on their journey to
reach across the Atlantic to the Saragossa Sea. The river rushes have begun to twist and fall into waterlogged bundles, silhouetted only by the intensity of the green king nettles that still dominate the higher portion of land above. The yellow flowered Iris has withdrawn into the earth’s fertile margins withholding all her energy until next spring, so as to be the first to reclaim the most scenic locations, before intruding grasses or saplings even get a look in at the liquid pools filled with lilies beneath. The white tomb of Newgrange dominates the horizon above, occasionally dethroned by a fleeting rainbow or an occasional blood red moon or the arrival of the much anticipated sound of the trumpeting whooper swans. Our 5,000 year old monument….. How will it be seen 5,000 years from now? (Long after we’ve left for planet 9, which is soon to be found, they say, by the wise men, it seems, who plan future outposts like this mound once was, long before the time of metal came into being) The ploughing of dark brown furrows contrast harshly with the fallow corn stubs and cylindrical circular shapes of straw left behind for a quieter moment, when this frantic time in the farmer’s diary begins to wane. The brown back of the little grebe can only be seen when the water, shed from its diving back, joins the disturbed meandering of the river where it plays. A sudden bursting cloud of brown ducks leaving barley filled ponds spook a field of diligent curlews who shriek and cry with annoyance at a juvenile’s antics on a quad. Dare you taste the last blackberry of the season beneath, the by now, yellow leaves of ash, heavily strewn with waiting flocks of brown seeds for the favoured westerly Atlantic winds to release its offspring into the promised land of its birth. The dull swollen red berries of the whitethorn tree are last to give up their fruit, and but for the startling white breast of the dippers retreat, to remind you of but the purest little lilies by the lock gates this summer, you could almost forget what the meaning of real colour truly meant. My brown oak bark leathern currach looks so at home here, tucked between the two hazel trees that shaded it from the summer sun. I will sneak another trip or two before we must finally retreat to the dryness of the wood shed, But not before i gather the remaining hazel nuts from the trees still sheltered by the stately oaks that guard the entrance to Glenmore. The shades of brown are upon us now, the wind and rain are to look forward to, while cooling the by now exhausted raggy horned stags and just in time, before it’s Jack Frost’s turn to kick off the new season’s games of courtship and we are all off to the starting line again.
Tigh na Cille… the house of hazel is where we began our journey again on Saturday beside the old mill and across the river from where the three abandoned wooden barges lie hidden at the entrance to the canal. The once grand lough gates allowed merchant traffic travel down into one of the most manicured river landscapes of the entire valley. Lord Beaupark was intrusted with overseeing the purse that had iron forged and wooden beams sawn into gates to complete this long and difficult section of waterway. His attempts to civilise the great forested embankments of the River Boyne, forced the engineers to stone face long sections of pathway from lough to lough, while incorporating little mills and folly like houses over re-routed streams for lough keepers and workers. The records talk of bullocks being commissioned to help float lough gates up river and large amounts of whiskey being paid to locals whose job it was to prevent works from being washed away during sudden floods. But the hooded men of the hazel forest seemed the greatest menace to the project, stealing or vandalising at every opportunity to prevent the empire expanding further inland with each and every year. The earliest drawing of a river currach was sketched here on these banks while fishing, and the Reilly family has memories of these ‘tubs’, as they called them, still being used in their day, as a ferry to re-unite brothers and sisters from across the river on Sundays. My favourite perch to stop awhile was curiously carved 5,000 years ago with a spot like the sun and rays of light carved as waves emanating from a stone dropped from outside our world to pulsate over the sky. Who knows what the little doodler was thinking of as he sat by the river each day to carve his mark, simply to say he was there. Passing by Slane Castle, the ocean blue water drew our attention to the new 15ft well that I can only presume is for the new distillery being built there. I wonder will it be as good a whiskey as the whiskey that kept men in payment for digging the trench of the Boyne canal. We finished beneath Newgrange between two fly fishing tourists, whose virtual presence in the river seemed but for a sudden moment to overlap ours.
I was privileged, this year, to have my 11 year old daughter as co-pilot. It was her first time to travel from the boundary of the pale towards the sea with us in our little leather currachs. With a method I learnt had years earlier from her brother, Ruarcan, when he perched himself on the rim of the boat and paddled from the rear like an open canoe, while I on the other end, sculled happily and easily down the Boyne. As he got older and stronger I found it harder to keep up with his energy and strength and in a relentless battle of wills to keep the boat straight he would spin me like a cork if I said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Caer found a far simpler method to temper my resolve and with a lot less energy involved she simply ducked me by lifting her weight forward and with a tip of her paddle from behind when I tried to remind her to paddle. After a few unexpected ducks I learnt to find other, more diplomatic ways to say the same thing. 15kms, 26kms and 18kms for three days, camping beneath some of the most magical locations I’ve ever known. To journey the Boyne in a vehicle is like changing channels on TV, dipping in and out of other people’s lives and experiences. But to travel the river in a leather wicker craft is the same as having hitched a ride with a time traveller.
Getting ready for the next part of our Newgrange Currach Project
William Wilde’s old map was quickly unfolded from the back of his book to find where we were on the river, by the bridges we climbed onto or rated its echo qualities from beneath. On reading his descriptions of brutal battles by men, long forgotten by history your respect for the rivers heritage becomes heightened by every mile.
Collecting river rush to attempt to weave a sail over the winter months
We have it easy, in comparison to the well laboured shoulders we now find ourselves standing upon. Snaking through the dredged remains of the upper Boyne, the south west winds and crossing sun are the only implements available to alert us of the direction we are pointing towards, the river constantly throwing us an event from its past to ponder as we paddle; Gaelic lords and Norman alliances, fairy God battles or great voyages yet unspoken of. The river turns and a new century unfolds, back and forth like mist filled layers of important notes to be held in trust for the ones who have not yet come to pass.
The river sucks you away from the present noise filled world, to see it as it was, and for the few of us, still is, when consumed by the rhythmic noise, that of your paddle, your companions and the river poets’ ripples, that Wilde captured so elegantly in stories. The apple falls not far from the tree, as Oscar Wilde was a progeny of a well-seasoned oak whose roots began their immersion by the grassy banks of the Boyne.
Source to Sea.... Yes! It is happening again - three currachs set off from the Beautiful Ballyboggan yesterday morning on what was a perfect August morning, warm, not too sunny and a gentle tail breeze. The first hour or two proved a bit difficult but as the river widened and the water began to gain momentum, so two did the six brave voyagers! The beautiful Donore Castle was their first stop, where they set up camp and rested for the night. Enjoy the photos below - and keep an eye out for an update tomorrow!
Well.....the boat is home again and as the house slowly became quieter and quieter, I poured myself that glass of whiskey that I had promised myself and as I drank it with glee, I thought of that red-headed rat in the harbour wall, crying her heart out as she realises that the fat-laden cow has left for good. There is so much to say about everything that was learnt from spending the last 3 months in Dundalk bay. This was one of the longest summer I'll ever remember, or at least since I was a child anyway. We managed to get out sailing in the skin-boat about thirty times......but with all of the usual elements of wind and tides put aside, nothing could happened without the help and support of people who, in their own very busy lives, took time out to help make the project work. Be it enthusiasm, knowledge or brawn, each piece of help linked one particle to another to pull, what sometimes felt like, answers out of the rabbit's arc. I learnt that you can repeatedly blind yourself with knowledge on a subject, so much so that the obvious becomes impossible to see, until someone else spots it out for you. That happened again and again this summer and it was because of this, that we had such a successful series of sea trials. Thanks to everyone for their good will and support. Thanks also to both Meath and Louth County Councils and to Indaver Ireland Ltd. In the next few weeks we will be posting up a report about all that has been learnt this summer.