The Royal Canal

A docile giant with fringed hooves cropped tail, strong leather harness and long thick rope slowly pulled a wooden barge into the harbour. On the bank, a waiting crowd of paupers, priest and gentry cheered, celebrated and applauded its arrival. The barge was secured and, as the passengers disembarked, the drone of bagpipes was heard as a piper welcomed them ashore. It was 1807, the place was Piper’s Boreen and the Royal Canal, bringing freight and passengers, commerce and prosperity had reached Mullingar.
We grew up in Patrick Street in the 1950’s. The street led down to the valley where town met country and the canal flowed, a slow moving constant through our childhood, a playground on our doorstep. We often made our way down the valley, across the meadow and up the steep bank to the canal. Here we picked our spot carefully, avoiding the untidy nest of the mute swan, spread our blanket on the grassy verge, eased worms onto hooks and cast into the centre of the slow moving water where weeds wouldn’t catch or break the line. Spooked moorhens, caught unawares hopped along yellow water lilies before flying screeching into the dense reeds on the opposite bank. For hours we sat drowsily watching dragon flies, swoop and flit among the water irises and bulrushes and waited for the float to move as sly pike basked and glided through the weeds, too smart to be tempted or caught by worms. We ate Marietta biscuits and drank cold tea from a YR bottle sealed with a plug of tightly twisted newspaper. As the light began to fade we threaded long stalks through the gills of the bony perch or silver roach and proudly brought our bounty home.
On long endless summer days when the tar stuck to the soles of our shoes we swam in the Supply. This was a feeder tributary that brought water to the canal from Lough Owel where King Malachy drowned Turgeis, rolling him down Captain’s hill in a barrel. We changed behind hawthorn and bramble shrubs, ran, plunged in and screamed in shock. Lough Owel was a spring lake, its pristine water was always cold.
This section of the waterway was clear and the bottom was gravely and easy to walk on but, if you happened to stray outside the clearance, you imagined that the weeds that grazed your legs were trying to entangle you and splashed your way swallowing and spluttering back to safety. Swimming galas were held here when teenage boys and girls eyed each other, the boys diving and splashing full of bravado as the girls looked coyly on.
In 1813 Harbour quay took over from Piper’s Boreen. The quay had a dry dock, storage buildings and a bridge called Scanlan’s Bridge In the early nineteen hundreds Mary Walker, a telegraphist took the walkway from the Green Bridge onto the line and was murdered there. Her body was found between the railway track and the canal bank and the knife used to kill her in a tunnel which has long since been filled in. We took a shortcut to school along the canal line or sometimes passed over a footbridge called College Bridge on the way to mass. The canal’s commercial life stopped in 1955 but it still loops around the town, still bringing people and business. Leisure boats and canoes now navigate its water and its banks now form part of The Royal Canal Greenway enjoyed by another generation who walk, run, cycle and picnic along the banks of the Royal Canal.