Update July 2010: here is an account of a boat-trip on part of the Rockville Navigation.
Most people, when I’ve mentioned the Rockville to them, have asked if I meant the Rockingham canals at Lough Key. The Rockville network seems to have slipped below the waterways radar.
This account covers pretty well everything I know about the Rockville Navigation, but it is to be regarded as a draft: I hope that any reader who knows anything more about the system will leave a comment or otherwise provide information. In particular, I would like to have information about the building of the canal sections and about its use. Are there any records of boats carrying cargoes (turf or anything else) on the waterway?
The Shannon Guide for 1963 (produced and compiled for Irish Shell and BP Limited by Irish Editorial Services and Assignments, with John Weaving as Navigation Editor) shows most of the Rockville Navigation, extending to the north west above Grange in the Carnadoe Waters. The chart marks the bridge at Grange as the limit of navigation, but the text says:
Canoes (or the very energetic with light dinghies) can portage half a mile of the Grange River and explore a further six miles of river and a dozen small lakes.
The Pilot Book of the River Shannon (published by Bord Failte Eireann in conjunction with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland; no date given, but Ruth Delany says it was in 1956) has a section for canoeists including this information:
GRANGE (and the Smaller Lakes above) […] At the south end of Grange a river runs in from the west beside the ruins of an old quay, and becomes rapid and shallow for about a mile after the bridge. At very low water it may even be necessary to wade for part of this distance, but soon after the second bridge the river becomes deeper and quiet, passing through fields into Lough Nablahy (a mile and a half long) a pleasant little lake with much sand at its upper end. From here there is a chain of small lakes to be explored connected by stretches of river; there are little hills and woods to keep the journey interesting as lakes Clooncraff, Dooneen, Cloonahee and Nahincha are passed and others unnamed on the maps. The return journey is return journey is easy but watch out for the weir at the upper bridge.
Harry Rice (founder member of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland) includes the navigation on a series of charts he drew in 1960.He names the individual lakes but does not use the name Rockville. The charts can be seen on the Heritage Boat Association website’s photo gallery here.
Hugh Malet’s trip
Hugh Malet, in his In the Wake of the Gods (Chatto & Windus 1970), describes a trip on the Rockville Navigations. This is the only written description I have found, and Hugh is the first of these sources to apply the name Rockville Navigation to the system: he got the name from Peter Connellan of Strokestown, whom he met at Grange. Peter had taken a boat up the Grange River in winter to shoot geese, and he described the navigation as consisting of small lakes linked by canals. He lent Hugh and his wife Kay a skiff, to which they attached they attached their outboard, and they waded and paddled under two bridges and through two barbed-wire fences. Above the second bridge the water was deep enough for the outboard, and they spent the day on the navigation. Hugh uses the words “canal” and “cut” to describe the links between the lakes, which suggests that he was convinced that they were artificial rather than natural, although of course natural channels may have been improved (widened, deepened, straightened) to allow passage to boats. Certainly my own impression of the few channels I saw is that they looked artificial or at least improved.
Here is a rough sketch map. I hope to be able to provide a better version when the resident cartographer has more leisure.
Sketch map of the Rockville Navigation
Hugh and Kay Malet crossed Loughs Nablahy, Clooncraff (not mentioned, but he must have crossed it) and Dooneen (next after Clooncraff on my sketch), which Hugh said (correctly) was close to the site of Rockville House. They reached a “deep, round pool, small, but overhung with branching trees of great age which had the gaunt look of a petrified forest”: this was probably the small lake above the E of the word bridge on my sketch. They forced their way past a fallen willow into another canal:
In the heart of this cutting was a tall canal bridge with a small overgrown stone quay lying a little downstream of it. It seems probable that this natural chain of lakes was once used for carrying the turf down to Ballantyne’s Wharf for transhipping to the larger Shannon barges; behind the quay rose a tall pyramidal pile of it which had been newly cut to dry in the hot sun.
Hugh and Kay got as far as Lough Nahincha, which they described as “far the loveliest”, but turned back at that point. They were told later that there were two more lakes beyond it and two more to the south “which can still be navigated”. The first two may be Lough Laure and Rodeen Lough; the early OS maps mark the link to Rodeen as a canal, and mark steps at the bend. The only other stretch with the word canal on it is the straight stretch with the bridge over it. The two lakes to the south may have been Cloonahee and Lough Incha. It may have been possible to get from the Clooncraff River back to Clooncraff Lough. Some of the maps show a channel from Lough Incha to Lough Nablahy, but it may have been too small for navigation.
Forward to page 2 of 3 about the Rockville Navigation