Our first stop is Ardclough bridge.
This bridge was not called Ardclough Bridge until comparatively recently in its history.
It appeared in the earliest maps as Brunton’s bridge, perhaps for the Bruton family buried in Oughter Ard. But when it was built in 1775 it was called Henry Bridge and that is what the plaque still says.
Many of the canal bridge operated in the way that naming rights for sports stadiums operate today. If you pay enough money you get the Aviva stadium named after you. In this case Henry paid to have Henry Bridge named in his honour, so National heritage Week people would talk about him 238 years after it was built. It cost him in excess of £1,000. We know the so-called Rialto bridge at Kilmainham in 1769 cost £1,500,
He is not alone. The bridge to the West is called Ponsonby bridge after the all-powerful Ponsonby family who resided in Bishopscourt. The bridge to the east at Kearneystown is named for the Aylmer family who owned Lyons.
Bruton probably had plans to fund the Ardclough bridge but it proved too costly. Joseph Henry stepped in instead.
Joseph Henry was the owner of Straffan house and a demesne whose land stretched over as far as Tipperstown and Wheatfield. He was described more than once “as the richest commoner in Ireland,” but had a reputation for profligacy and laboured under a suspicion that he had backed the wrong side in the 1798 rebellion – he was the brother in law of Lord Edward Fitzgerald.
A fire destroyed his residence in Straffan, his career ended with financial difficulties and the wine-making Barton family bought Straffan in 1832 and promptly built the chateau-style house that is home to the K club today. All we have to remember Mr Henry today is this bridge and a curious caricature in the National Gallery.
The name Ardclough is a puzzle because here is no high stone, Ard Cloch, in the area.
Could it be Ard Clochar – the high convent, Oughterard on the hill top is associated with two female saints and was a nunnery?
Could it be the limestone deposits which were ultimately to make Ardclough famous once protruded above the soil?
It first features in Alexander Taylor’s Kildare map of 1783 as Aclagh. The map is on the community council website www.ardclough.info.
It did not feature in the earlier townland names from the Petty map and the surveys of the 1600s, many of which have disappeared.
This Aclagh was on the opposite side of the canal from where we are standing, a mile from here to the west. Taylor got many of his placenames wrong, or at least at variance with what the Ordnance Survey found a few decades later. There was a mass house there in Taylor’s time and a pilgrim’s path to Kill, the Boreen which was cut by the canal builders.
The masshouse became St Anne’s church in 1811. Its building, and that of a school next door, was largely funded by the local landlord Valentine Lawless of Lyons House.
Lawless was a larger than life character whose career ranged from being confined in the Tower of London, supping with Robert Emmett the night before Emmett returned to Dublin to organise his rebellion, to being awarded an English title in his later years for services to Her majesty’s realm. We will meet him further down the canal bank.
Val Lawless, uncle Val if you like, is crucial to the development of Ardclough from being just another townland to the name for the whole area, a vast area under the current Tidy Towns definition of the region within the speed limit signs. Having built the church he also developed a series of quarries there from 1804 on. These quarries made Ardclough one of two the economic centres in the area, our walk with finish at the other.
The stone was shipped off to build the Union workhouse, alter the hospital at Naas and many other fine buildings. It was in the sinkholes of the quarry that Mary Redmond would first start making clay models, she would become Irelands most important female sculptress of the 19th century, her most famous work is the Father Matthew statue in O’Connell Street.
The quarries staggered to a halt in 1879 and there were at least two short-lived attempts to restart operations before they flooded and so remain, a chalky landmark for fishermen and hikers. The economic impact on the area was devastating enough to be noted in the census returns for 1881
Ardclough, as the church and school, gave its name to the local social and political organisations, most famously the GAA club founded in 1924 and refounded in 1937, and which was to make the name of the place famous.
It was only in the 1970s that the name started appearing on the physical maps. But in the cultural landscape of North Kildare Ardclough had long played a leading role, a brass band that played before Thomas Clarke and Sean McDermott’s orations at Bodenstown, various drama societies whose predecessors have been staging plays for over a century, since poetess Nora J Murray’s time in Ardclough school, and branches of the LDF, Macra na Feirme, Macra na Tuaithe, the ICA, Cómhaltas Ceolteórí Éireann, a camogie club, community games, separate cumainn of each of the three main political parties, and a community development association and later community council.
Under this bridge was where many of the early meetings of the GAA and other organisations were held.
In 1937 a hall was built which later became the community centre and social centre of Ardclough. The primary school moved there in 1948. Mrs Buggy’s shop opened in 1992. The present Ardclough is firmly entrenched a hundred metres or so from here, a mile from where it was located on Taylor’s map. With the opening of the new school in September the heart of the community may be on the march again.
Before we leave I want you to have a look at the corner stones of the bridge and see the grooves that were worn by generations of horses tugging canal barges filed with heavy goods.
Horses plied this trail for longer than you might think. They converted all the canal fleet to diesel between 1911 and 1924 but during the emergency in the 1940s the horses made a return.
Our second stop is a straight stretch of the canal and a good place to take stock of the difficulties the canal builders faced. The building of this canal was the great engineering and technological feat of 1750s Ireland. They had been building canals in Ireland for 25 years, but the technology available to these builders made this an exciting time.
They had to bring the water along the high ground here where Lyons Hill, Boston and Oughterard meet the undulating flat plain of Kildare. Ireland, famously, is like a saucer, a flat middle with mountainy surrounds. This is where the lip fog the saucer begins. From the hilltop you can see Roscommon on a clear day. On the top of Lyons hill and important trigonometrical base station was placed which served generations of map-makers and surveyors in establishing the altitude of the clumps and hollows of the midlands. In theory the course of the Grand Canal is flat, and that is largely how it works out. The canal rises in steps, single, double and treble chamber locks all the way to Robertstown where it reaches its highest point in a place that, with great irony was already called Lowtown.
It then descends in steps to Shannon harbour where it meets the longest rive in Ireland.
The idea was conceived in good times, the Celtic Tiger of the 1730s. For a variety of reasons, the Irish exchequer was in surplus, England’s was in deficit, and the Irish parliament would be expected to had it over to the king, Instead it started looking for infrastructure projects to spend it on. Improving the roads was one way of doing it. Roads were impassible in winter, land transport was slow and expensive. Most goods travelled by water, and canals were the big ticket infrastructure projects across Europe at the time. The first small grants towards canal building were handed out in the 1730s. In 1751 the Irish parliament donated £7,000 towards canal building. The canals were also not just about, if the preamble to the 1751 act is to be believed they would make us all healthier:
the great tracts of bogs, and fenny, waste grounds, which incumber the mid-land parts of this kingdom, are not only lost and useless to the owners, unpassable and inaccessible in themselves, but a bar and hindrance to the inland commerce of the habitable remainder, a retreat and harbour for malefactors, and an occasion of a corrupt air, to the prejudice of the health and lives of the inhabitants of the territories adjacent.”
Between 1751 and 1787 the Irish parliament provided £800,000 for canal construction. The biggest project of them all was to be this one the Grand Canal, proposed to run 80 miles from Dublin to the Shannon. When it and the branch line to the Barrow were completed, it would change the transportation systems of 16 of the 32 counties of Ireland.. The figure we will remember now is 1756, the budget is £98,000, nothing can go wrong, right?
Our third stop gives us a good vantage of the first stretch of the canal to be built. It took seven years for the canal to reach Ardclough. It didn’t start in Dublin, however. Land in Dublin proved difficult and expensive to acquire.
Remember the budget of £98,000? By the time the first stretch of the canal was built, the spend reached £190,000. Getting the canal to Athy in 1791 cost £427,074,
Things had changed The Irish exchequer surplus had turned into a deficit. They needed to find someone else to pay the mounting cost of building the canal.
Politicians in the House of Commons in College Green had to be given brown paper bags to vote through more aid.
Dublin Corporation had to be convinced to take over the project, on the grounds that the canal would serve as a water supply if they would fit the bill – the river Morrel which runs from Blessington to Straffan as, in this grand plan, the water supply for the whole of Dublin would be moved along the rat-infested stillwater canal to the city.
Ten years after the project started the Dublin canal had still not been built. Water was unleashed from the Morrel into the canal at Sherlockstown, three bridges to the west from here. It was, literally a damp squib, the banks gave way at Hazlehatch.
They stopped the water and repaired the banks. When they tried again, the banks gave away again. This was proving a lot more difficult than they thought.
They sacked the engineer John Satterthwait and appointed a man to look after the trail, John Trail. He was to be given a commission of 5pc of all money spent on the canal project. You can imagine what happened next. The two first locks next to Dublin were well built, but the cost was high, £5,000.
When they turned the water on, the banks failed again.
Our fourth stop shows the locality, Everything was changing around here in the 1750s. Our biggest farmed estates were in decline, as in the case of the Aylmer estate at Lyons, or changing hands.
Arterial drainage meant that the new road to Kilcullen could be built in the valley, rather than hogging the hilltop as it once had. William Read had set up a stall near Oughterard to sell beer to troops en route to the Siege of Limerick, because that is the way the main road passed. Why is this significant? Read was the uncle of a Youngman who was to set up a brewery of his own in the 1750s, Arthur Guinness.
One of the great pieces of local folklore is that prisoners were brought from Kilmainham jail to dig the canal. The history of the canal is well documented, purely because the paper trail left by the logistical and financial problems getting it built, but this does not seem to feature in any of the documentary sources beyond an editorial in the freeman’s Journal proposing that it should be done. It may have happened. Folklore preserves details that historians ignore. As the great ballad collector Frank Harte used to say, winners write history, losers sing the songs about it.
But who DID build it? Something like 3,000 men came through here with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows, and dug this watercourse through the hillside. The local farmers say they would occasionally plough up pieces of glass and pottery and come across the debris of a great working camp. They worked through awful conditions, we know from contemporary diaries how cold and wet the winters of the 1750s were. We know the names of the engineers, but not the people who broke their backs building this beautiful watercourse. In Offaly they say the canal builders came north from Tipperary and brought them the hurling. But the suggestion is that local labour was employed wherever they built. In a cashless society, where people worked for the landlord not for a wage, but for what modern tax accountants would cal benefit in kind, use of a cabbage or potato patch, a project like this was a godsend.
In the 1810s, a problem arose with the Royal Canal west of Kilcock where the banks were breached. One remedy proposed by the magistrates was that no local people be use din rebuilding the canal banks. In the face of famine, for famine stalked the land in every singe one of those decades between the cataclysm of 1741 and 1845, people were prepared to break the banks of the canal in the hope that they would get ore work rebuilding it.
There is no record of this happening in Ardclough. But we can assume that canal building brought prosperity to an area that was undergoing rapid change. But we know that when the water was first released into the canal the banks gave way. The Elbridge racecourse was flooded in 1766. Canal bank breaches were too common for comfort until the problem was solved in the late 1760s. Whether this was the work of man or God we do not know.
Our fifth stop is a viewpoint to the thirteenth lock. Private enterprise took over running the canal in 1771. The idea was that £150,000 was to be raised. How desperate were they: a clause of the act establishing the company suggested the Act was that a proprietor’s interest in the Company was ” not subject to or to be affected by any of the laws to prevent the growth of popery, or subject to any discovery under the same.
The directors included the main payers among the land owners of north Kidlike, Tom Conolly of Castletown, Aylmer in Kilcock, Nathaniel Clements of Leixlip, Walter Hussey of Straffan, Morgan of Hazelhatch, Bishop Price of Celbridge, Sweetman of the Kill political family, Digby of Landenstown, Vesey of Lucan. A later director was Robert Emmett’s father and, of course, Uncle Val, Valentine Lawless of Lyons, the second lord Cloncurry.
A footnote there: When Robert Emmet’s rebellion took place a large number of people from Straffan and Ardclough took part, they are supposed to have brought home their wounded along the tow path of the canal that Emmet’s father held shares in.
The new canal investors consulted some key people: John Smeaton, Leading English engineer of the day, his nephew William Jessop. This was the man who was to complete the canal al the way to the Shannon, 48 years after the first sod had been turned.
The canal was regarded as a success but only in comparison with the disastrous Royal Canal which drained the finances of anyone involved. It never repaid the capital invested.
By 1803 the Grand Canal linked Dublin to Shannon harbour, 80 miles away, a journey of eighteen hours and 43 locks, and the Barrow Line to Athy 30 miles and nine locks, a total of 16 counties, branches to Nast, Mountmellick, Kilbeggan and Ballinasloe, with launching slips at Clondalkin, Lowtown, Edenderry and Tullamore.
The journey took 18 hours, something like a flight to Hong Kong nowadays, and was just as comfortable if this section from Anthony Trollope’s 1848 novel The Kelly’s and the O’Kelly’s can be considered as authoritative:
I will not attempt to describe the tedium of that horrid voyage, for it has been often described before; and to Martin, who was in no ways fastidious, it was not so unendurable as it must always be to those who have been accustomed to more rapid movement. Nor yet will I attempt to put on record the miserable resources of those, who, doomed to a twenty hours’ sojourn in one of these floating prisons, vainly endeavour to occupy or amuse their minds. But I will advise any, who from ill-contrived arrangements, or unforeseen misfortune, may find themselves on board the Ballinasloe canal-boat, to entertain no such vain dream. The vis inertiae of patient endurance, is the only weapon of any use in attempting to overcome the lengthened ennui of this most tedious transit. Reading is out of the question. I have tried it myself, and seen others try it, but in vain. The sense of the motion, almost imperceptible, but still perceptible; the noises above you; the smells around you; the diversified crowd, of which you are a part; at one moment the heat this crowd creates; at the next, the draught which a window just opened behind your ears lets in on you; the fumes of punch; the snores of the man under the table; the noisy anger of his neighbour, who reviles the attendant sylph; the would-be witticisms of a third, who makes continual amorous overtures to the same overtasked damsel, notwithstanding the publicity of his situation; the loud complaints of the old lady near the door, who cannot obtain the gratuitous kindness of a glass of water; and the baby-soothing lullabies of the young one, who is suckling her infant under your elbow. These things alike prevent one from reading, sleeping, or thinking. All one can do is to wait till the long night gradually wears itself away, and reflect that, Time and the hour run through the longest day.
I hardly know why a journey in one of these boats should be much more intolerable than travelling either outside or inside a coach; for, either in or on the coach, one has less room for motion, and less opportunity of employment. I believe the misery of the canal-boat chiefly consists in a pre-conceived and erroneous idea of its capabilities. One prepares oneself for occupation an attempt is made to achieve actual comfort and both end in disappointment; the limbs become weary with endeavouring to fix themselves in a position of repose, and the mind is fatigued more by the search after, than the want of, occupation.
Food is described as an
eternal half-boiled leg of mutton, floating in a bloody sea of grease and gravy, which always comes on the table three hours after the departure from Porto Bello. He, and others equally gifted with the dura ilia messorum, swallowed huge collops of the raw animal, and vast heaps of yellow turnips, till the pity with which a stranger would at first be inclined to contemplate the consumer of such unsavoury food, is transferred to the victim who has to provide the meal at two shillings a head.
Canal passenger traffic peaked at 120,615 in 1846 but somebody had already invented the railway. The last passenger boat passed in 1852. For a time the canal began to make money. Freight traffic peaked at 379.045 tons in 1865 when an average of 90 barges a day passed through Ardclough. Share holders were paid a dividend in the 1930s.
just as it was beginning to function efficiently as a means of transferring goods and passengers.
A key development was the arrival of the fly boat, pulled by galloping horses. Its inventor, a Scotsman, found that a boat of light displacement could travel on her own bow wave, at seven and half miles and hour.
It must have been some sight.
Our sixth stop is at the thirteenth lock, a good place to see the remnants of the grandiose plans for the Grand Canal.
Sadly, like many projects in Irish history, it was under capitalised.
The original plans had to be abandoned and scaled back. Construction stopped when they ran out of money, as frequently happened.
They started constructing the Grand Canal to Thomas Omer’s grand plan.
Parts of it are 20 feet (6.1 m) wide, compared with the later 14 feet (4.3 m) wide plan, to facilitative boats of 40 tons rather than, as originally planned 170 tons. The lock was reduced in size in1783, twenty years after it was built, a year before the first passenger boat passed through Ardclough.
The lock is a 137 feet (42 m) double lock built with Pozzuolona mortar,
There is a ghost story here. Boatman’s tradition is that the canal was dug through a graveyard. Arthur Griffith wrote a song called the Thirteenth lock which plays on the superstition. The graveyard at Clonaghlis is close to the canal, but as far as we know, the canal did not pass through it.
The canal gave rise to something more interesting. By the 1820s the curious collections of buildings that is now known as the Village at Lyons had been built. They include a mill that members of the Shackleton family would operate, a hotel run by John Barry, and a police barracks. There was a repair shop that would provide employment until the 20th century. The lockyard was a hive of activity up to recent memory.