Dublin to Ballinasloe by canal

This is the text of “A Canal Boat Sketch”, which was published in Duffy’s Hibernian Sixpenny Magazine No 1 January 1862 [James Duffy, Dublin]. Myles na Gopaleen drew on this piece for his Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times over several days in October 1957. The magazine is available here.

A few weeks ago, when comfortably ensconced in a first-class carriage of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland, flying along, with the hope, if all went well, of reaching my destination, the town of Galway, in five- and-a-half hours after we had left the Broadstone Terminus behind, I was not a little amused by overhearing a series of lamentations carried on by two of my fellow-travellers (elderly, nice-looking ladies) on all the terrible innovations of this age of steam — the greatest and most dreadful of all of which seemed, according to their ideas, to be the introduction of railroads into Ireland; the fearful necessity of being obliged to endure being cooped up so entirely at the mercy of two men, who might be, perhaps were, at the very moment quite under the influence of some spirituous liquor, ie the engine-driver and guard of the train; the danger of crossing the Athlone suspension bridge over the Shannon — there might be some vessel passing under, and the train might arrive before its time, when there would not be time to stop it or to close the bridge perfectly; then, the frightfully rapid rate of driving.

“Oh! was not the dear old slow- going canal-boat so much more preferable to this terrible flying, at the imminent risk of one’s life?*’ One asked the question, to which the other replied a mournful affirmative; and mentally I recalled the long one-and-twenty hours of freezing in winter and suffocating in summer I had sometimes experienced in the cabin of that dear departed friend, and subscribed, in an aside, a most emphatic negative, white the old-world ladies went on descanting on its superiority. The agreeable company — the friendships for life formed there — the calling forth of the various amiable and unamiable characteristics of each traveller — the nice, homely, sociable dinners, when one had time to enjoy (?) what one paid for, not being obliged to hurry away from one’s scarcely tasted bowl of soup, with only a pair of scalded lips, when the shrill whistle of the engine summons one to continue the momentarily suspended flight; though that flight does bring one home to enjoy our dinner, with all the dear home faces beaming around the nicely roasted leg of mutton, the tender white-skinned chickens, which one has not had the pleasure of seeing undergoing the last agonies some two or three hours before, as I remember to have done once in the canal-boat long ago, on my first voyage to the “Ancient Citie of the Tribes”: it is so long that, being still obliged to bear the patronymic of my parents, I shall not here mention the number of years, though I was then only a school girl, going home for the vacation. The journey was pleasant enough to me then. In after years, when the world had grown less beautiful, I wondered why I found a night in the canal-boat so wearisome; and now I marvel much how it was at all endurable, now that I have experienced the delights of flying to my home, supported by the nice soft cushions, in a snug, warm railway carriage; and I have just thought I should write a short sketch of that canal voyage for the benefit of the uninitiated, and ask my readers, would they have joined with the “ayes” or the “noes” in that carriage?

We arrived at the harbour of Portobello at a little after one o’clock, having been recommended to be early in the field, and secure comfortable seats near one of the doors of the cabin: but, early as we were, we were too late for that; as in one corner was already established a comfortable-looking Englishman, who begged he might be allowed to keep his seat by this door, as from it he could have the best view of the country as we passed along; and opposite to him was a nice, mild, Iady-Iike woman, with spectacles on, while at the further end a silver-haired, venerable clergyman had taken his seat; and at the other side of the little fireplace was a door leading out to the captain’s cabin, a stairs going up to the deck. Here, by this door, my sister and I determined to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.

The cabin was a long, narrow apartment, along either side of which ran a bench, covered with red moreen, and hard enough to have been stuffed with paving stones, but I believe it was really with chopped hay, and capable of accommodating on each seat fifteen uncrinolined individuals, who might sit there comfortably enough on a cold winter’s day, with a roaring turf fire in the small grate, as I have done more than once, while the boat was being slowly forced through a sheet of ice, several inches in thickness. But this was a hot holiday before the time when St Swithin commences the performance of his kind (?) office for our sins; and this same paved bench was, when night closed around, to serve us thirty poor travellers in the stead of beds, whereon to stretch our weary limbs. Well, between the seats ran a narrow table of about a foot-and-a-half in width, which was now covered with the small parcels of the passengers — books, boxes, baskets, dressing- cases, and, oh, horror! a cage, containing a fine singing canary.

After the boat had commenced its motion, and when all the passengers had taken their seats, we ascended on deck to enjoy the fresh air, and admire the splendid action of the three spanking steeds ambling along the hank (the towing-path is, I believe, the technical term) and which, fastened to our mode of conveyance by a tolerably thick rope, propelled it through the dark waters at the rapid rate of about three miles an hour. Several of the inmates of the down-stairs region had also turned out on deck, amongst them was a timid-hearted youth, who taking me under his guidance, introduced me to the second cabin, the company of which seemed preparing to be very merry and jovial, with the aid of a piper and a fiddler, who were already plying their art, and trying in vain to silence the squalling of some three or four unfortunate infants whose lungs had not yet got accustomed to the fumes of tobacco smoke with which this second saloon was half filled.

One of the babies and its mother particularly attracted the attention of my companion; it was a fat, obstreperous urchin of about two years of age, struggling, and nearly overpowering the fragile being who tried to hold it. Half-clad, pale and worn, her large violet eyes filling with tears, spoke volumes for the sadness of the life with which their expression was eloquent too, as she turned them sadly to her nearest neighbour, a dark, sallow man, who was trying, in broken English, to make her understand that he would conquer the wild spirit of her lovely boy if she would entrust him to his care.

The tobacco fumes being too strong for my lungs also, we only paused for the moment while Mr Blake explained the Italian’s kindly intentions to the wearied mother, and saw a grateful smile for a moment light up her lovely face. Then, we reascended to the deck, and in doing so, must needs pass through the kitchen, where Mr B drew my attention to the two large pots steaming away on the fire, and watched over by the helmsman (who did not need neglect his own particular duty at the moment, the fire being close by his station) in the absence of the grinning cuisinier, who was at present engaged leaning over the rail, and, as appeared to me, regarding the loveliness of his countenance, as reflected in the cool, tranquil depths beneath, but alas! on closer inspection, I found him more usefully employed in expediting the death throes of three or four animals of the feathered kind, which Mr B assured me, were the fowl destined for our dinner at five o’clock; and to my eager question of would there be anything beside, he replied by pointing to the one pot, which already contained a fine leg of mutton, and in which the still bleeding chickens were soon to be its companions. By the way, I wonder did that able inventor of ways and means for cheap, expeditious, and easily accomplished cookery, M Soyer, ever discover, that long before his day, or the terrible Crimean campaign, we, poor uncultivated Irish, had practised the art of cooking a variety of comestibles in one vessel, without anyone, in eating, being able to find out that there was a mighty great lack of saucepans on board of the Grand Canal Co’s vessels.

At five o’clock it was announced that the contents of the two “bilers” were spread on the ample board below, and on our again adjourning to the saloon, there were my acquaintances of the bloody heads, looking plump, and tolerably white, on a dish in the centre of the table, but with them, any further intimacy I entirely eschewed. At the foot was a large dish of bacon and cabbage, while at the head, a splendid leg of mutton, smothered in carrots, parsnips, and turnips, stood its ground, nor did it stand there long. Whether its flavour was improved by the mixture of juices emanated in boiling, from its several companions, or whether the salubrious breezes blowing from the canal, had sharpened the appetites and teeth of the company, I know not, but judging from the appearance of the dishes when leaving the table, I should say none of them but Mr B and myself had discovered the secret of the chickens.

The dinner hour was well-timed to take place, when for several miles we glided peacefully along, our progress uninterrupted by any bumping up or down, or knocking against the sides of those terrible locks, at the first of which my sister had nearly fainted from real fright, and had to be supported into the air by a gallant captain of a line regiment, who was accompanying a stern-looking father to Shan non Harbour, and who at first was much engaged in cursing his hard fate at having allowed himself to be trepanned into such “an infernal hole”, much to the horror of the mild lady in spectacles, who evidently seemed to consider him a Jonah, and I fear wished him in the same comfortable quarters where the disobedient prophet found himself located.

This lady and I were fast progressing in friendship until when after the dinner cloth was removed, and hot water and glasses, with the other appendages, appeared, I declared my intention of having a small share from Mr B’s tumbler, declining the kindly offer of the Reverend Father Maguire, who being a follower of Father Matthew, but not being able, for his health’s sake, utterly to abstain from all spirituous drinks, had supplied himself with a small phial of the essence of peppermint, which he proceeded to mix in a tumbler of hot water, and drank, after offering each of us a glass of it, as composedly as did his companions their more favorite beverage — whiskey.

Our return to the deck, from this mixture of odours, was indeed delightful; the air seemed fresher, and the delicious perfume of the heather, wafted towards us on the evening breeze, was sweeter than it had ever seemed before.

Oh! it was pleasant, sitting on that low seat, looking into the calm, dark water, through which we moved so silently and placidly along, with the clear, broad sky above, and the dark Bog of Allen stretching far away on either hand, with its patches of orange moss lichen, shining out here and there, like the gold setting of a bog-oak ornament, and beyond the bog, in the distance, might be seen green fields, dotted with cattle, and blending beautifully away with the blue hills of the Queen’s County; and, as the evening advanced, the landscape assumed almost an Italian character — though my saying so mightily amused the afore-mentioned gallant captain, who, of course, had been in Italy, until we were joined by Father Maguire, who to my great joy, agreed with me. “Yes,” he said, “I have seldom seen those clouds of peculiarly lovely rose and gold, in a northern sky, shedding their rich glow over all the earth around us — I could almost fancy myself in Italy; this quiet moving through the still waters, and the intense repose and coloring of the landscape — see yonder group; can anything be more perfect than the attitudes there? The man indolently leaning against the dark turf clamp, scarcely turns his eyes toward us, while the bare-footed girl with her gown pinned up, pauses in her work of filling the turf-kish, with her hand raised to shade her eyes for the better viewing of the party on board; and like his master, the sleepy horse stands unheedingly, with turned-back ears and half-closed eyes, while the shaggy yellow dog flies barking at the heels of our scarcely more lively steeds — it is truly a beauteous landscape.”

But its beauty and the explanation thereof were alike wasted on all our companions save the knitting lady, and even she began to gather up her balls and move toward the cabin, where the tea-urn awaited us. Immediately after the disappearance of this beverage, the cabin-boy again entered, bearing two large candelabra, which he fastened by straps to the ceiling, and then proceeded to provide each passenger with a pillow. Who was it? some great tragic author, who, when his natural genius failed him, was wont to aid his creative powers by supping off underdone pork. He had never experienced a night’s repose on a pillow in a canal boat, or he would surely ever after have spared his digestive organs at the expense of the less serious suffering of a large amount of crick in the neck. They were little hard rolly-poIlies about two inches in height, and the covering and stuffing were of the same materials used in the benches on which we all sat ourselves down with our pillows — one before each passenger, on the table whereon he was expected to place his weary head and be as comfortable as possible, now with both the doors carefully closed, the six windows ditto, and hermetically sealed with large wooden shutters slided out over them.

I cannot answer for the sensations of my companions; but I remember a strange kind of numbness in my head when, after a few hours’ restless slumbering, in which I had been several times held up by the chin to look at London, and obliged to walk several miles, bearing on my head a heavy pail of water, to be hung for a murder I, of course, had not committed; at the end I started up with a cry and escaped the hangman’s hands, thereby disturbing the knitting lady, who took up her pins and went on as if she had never left off.

I still feel the hot steaming air with which the apartment was filled, in which the long-wicked candles burned dim and dismal, and the walls, my clothes, everything seemed imbrued with the breaths of our still sleeping companions. There was close by me a window, and, noiselessly as possible, I slid back a small piece, thereby rousing the light-sleeping mistress of the canary, who sharply requested it should be closed again; her dear little bird would be ruined by the night air. She was safe in a snug comer herself: the other lady smiled despairingly, and signed to me to obey, which 1 reluctantly did by closing the glass; but the shutter proved rambunctious, and for no effort of mine would again move out of is groove; but my shaking of it at length aroused Mr Blake, who sat by me, and, in starting suddenly back, was kind enough to test the skin of his cranium by running it through a pane of glass. Oh! was there not a commotion? Nearly all the sleepers were awakened; some by the crash of the glass, others by the exclamation of despair from the mistress of the dear little bird. Some rejoiced over the catastrophe, whilst others were loud in their complaints and forebodings of all the rheumatics and sore throats which were to follow; and, in the midst of it, some of us, my sister and I included, made our escape to the deck.

There we found that the beautiful sunset of the previous evening had not foretold truly, when we hoped from it a continuance of dry weather. There was now a light, drizzling mist; yet we preferred remaining out until our lungs had gotten slightly purified. But, in order to do this, it was necessary to have an additional muffling. We had not thought of fetching in our cloaks when last on deck; but we remembered to have left them on the seat, where we vainly sought them now; but, after some looking about, my sister spied a red plaid shawl she recognised peeping out from under the large tarpaulin which protected the luggage from the weather, and she seized the corner to pull it out; but it would not come for the gentle force, so she was constrained to try again more fiercely, and more fiercely was she resisted by a hoarse growl from within, which speedily sent her to the farthest side of the deck. However, we reflected that there had been no ferocious animal visible on board, and thought we might together proceed to the attack, which we did, and were now received by a growl of a more tangible form, in the shape of a hearty “d — you!” accompanied by the appearance of a heavy booted foot in a not very friendly attitude. Our amazement was not much diminished at being informed by one of the boatmen that it belonged to the captain, who had gone to sleep under the tarpaulin. This man assisted us in our efforts to awake the captain to a sense of the true owner of his blanket, but only received a larger supply of growls and curses; and so failing of success, we were even obliged to take refuge again in the long oven below — there to see the rest of the night passed more tolerably, as Mrs Holt and I entered into a partnership of our pillows, and placing them on the seat, one on top of the other, with a large cloak of hers above them, we slept very comfortably, with our foreheads in rather close proximity, to the evident horror of my knitting friend, and, with my legs stretched along behind my sister, it was not a bad arrangement. She had taken possession, and made herself very snug in the comer vacated by the Englishman, who had gone on deck to see the country, and came in shivering at eight o’clock to breakfast, not at all in love with our Irish mists; though his enjoyment thereof had caused him to escape the delightful music with which the sleepers in the cabin had been regaled by that sweet minstrel in the cage, the canary, for the two preceding hours.

When it commenced its matutinal hymn, Father Maguire had mildly suggested a covering over the cage as a silencer; which suggestion was received in such bad part by its gentle mistress, that his reverence was fain to take refuge under the mists above, from whence he now returned, with his kindly face bearing a very solemn expression, which diffused itself over every face round the table, when he told as that, in his brief absence, he had been called upon to hear the last confession of one of the second cabin’s passengers, a most interesting young woman, who had suddenly burst a blood vessel, and now lay sleeping the deep slumber which no sound of earth would ever disturb, in the captain’s little cabin. He added, that she had a child with her, a fine boy of two years old, who clung steadfastly to an Italian man, who, all the other passengers said, had been most kind and attentive to the dying mother all the journey. Then Mr Blake and I recognised the pale and beautiful woman whose worn features and weary eye had attracted us in the second cabin when we visited it. In after years, I heard the story of her life. Carefully and tenderly nurtured in her youth, to die alone amongst strangers in the after-cabin of a canal- boat, tortured and smothered all that last night of her sad life with the noise of bagpipes and fiddles, the air filled with tobacco smoke and whiskey! The good priest ended his short account of the mother’s death by a petition for a subscription for the little orphan she had left, which was warmly responded to by all on board.

The breakfast passed over silently, with only a few complaints of the nonfreshness of the eggs, and with a slight exclamation of horror from the young officer, when, in passing through a lock, a bumping of the boat against its side sent a scalding cup of tea, which he was handing my sister, streaming down over his trousers. I should like to ask him now which is pleasantest, that warm bathing of his knees or the scalding of the lips in a cup of coffee at Mullingar? But I have never seen him since. He left us about two hours after at Shannon Harbour, where he changed into the fly, or fast boat, for conveyance across that noble river, and on to Ballinasloe; and a delightful change it was, notwithstanding the five minutes of terror we endured while one of the horses, which was new to the work, proving restive, and displaying a strong inclination to kick a passage for itself and companions through the frail wooden bridge over which they were passing, and which I conceived to be the sole barrier between us and eternity.

I understand it did once happen that, in crossing the Shannon during a strong gale of wind, the boat got separated from its conveying steeds, and being blown over and away down the stream, all on board of her who could not swim perished in the blue waters. But we got safely across, and in two hours more were landed, with thankful hearts, at Ballinasloe, where we bid adieu to our companions, shaking hands, and hoping we should ere long meet again, and renew our acquaintance of the night, Many of them I have since met and recognised, but been recognised by none — not even my kind friend and pillow-sharer, Mrs Holt.

By having a carriage to meet us at Ballinasloe, we escaped the long wearisome drive on Bianconi s car, which started from the point of the boat’s arrival as soon after that as possible; that is, when the walls of luggage had been built up and securely fastened by ropes, which took some time to do, and often had to be repeated on the road. Then, the giving way of the sustaining cords caused a very disagreeable lurching of the said wall to take place; thereby sometimes endangering the limbs of one or two gentlemen of an aspiring nature, who wished to exalt themselves above their neighbours by seating themselves on top of the luggage, and resting their feet on the shoulders of those below.

But I am not on Bianconi’s car to-day; that would occupy some seven or eight hours longer, along a dusty, and generally bleak and ugly road, which we traversed in our lighter vehicle in half the time, and alighted at our home in a little more than five-and-twenty hours after our departure from Portobello. Five-and-twenty, and five-and-a-half! Oh, noisy and unpicturesque, “long may you reign”; as we Galwegians say, and far may your kingdom be extended, you sociable, comfortable iron road! And for comfort and safety, though not for cheapness, you, Midland Great Western of Ireland, are certainly the King of Railroads.

Note: a quick search of the British Newspaper Archive, from 1 January 1800 [well before the Ballinasloe Line was built] to 31 December 1850, has produced no account of any accident like that described in the third-last pararaph. I would be glad to hear from anyone who can cast light on the matter.