A September day on Ireland's River Barrow. Words by author Mim Scala, photographs by James Burke, guide and boatman: John O’Neill

The author, Mim Scala. Photo: James Burke

Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow It is the 26th September 2002, at 8 a.m. the mist is clearing on the Barrow and a great orb rises over the Blackstairs, it looks more like a giant moon than the sun; it will stay this way until the haze softens and the warm September rays drive the last mists away. I am at the river between the railway viaduct and Slyguff lock. John O’Neill, a three-generation river man on the Barrow, drives his truck down to the Slyguff Marina, actually a man- made pond dug out of a field, large enough to accommodate five or six river craft and a dozen or so local dinghies. John backs his trailer into the water with a precision gained from years of experience and soon the sixteen-foot aluminium dingy slides effortlessly into the water. The sun is up now and a more beautiful crisp September morning you could not wish for. There is real heat in the sun and not a breath of wind. James arrives on time, shouldering a packed lunch and ubiquitous camera bag. Like too many people who live locally James has never done more than a walk with the kids along the towpath. This is to be his first voyage down the Goodly Barrow. James takes a few photos of John and I as we load up the fishing rods, one fly and one spinning rod each. We are in the boat,a quick pull on the rip cord and the 14 HP Yamaha purrs into life and gently takes us across the marina.

John O'Neill with Barrow pike. Photo: James Burke

We have to duck our heads to clear the bridge, and we are out and on the Barrow, smooth as glass and mirror sharp reflections of sky and landscape are rippled only by our wake. John wastes no time, his black Flying C is already in the water ten yards behind the boat, trawling about a foot beneath the surface, hoping to anger a late season salmon into attacking it. I follow suit and now two spinners flicker in the clear water behind us. Already the sheer joy of being in a boat on such a lovely day has got the better of James, grinning from ear to ear as the photo opportunities glide past. We are heading for the first of six locks that we will encounter between Bagenalstown and Graignamangh, past the stand of tall sallies (Willow Salix) and the paddocks of Paddy Hughes’s racing stables. Above the purr of the Yamaha the first weir makes its presence felt by singing to us in that soft way that thin water over stones does. We pass the pair of swans and their adopted gosling who have grown quite large over the last few months, the ugly duckling in reverse. John noses the dinghy on to Slyguff weir; it is the oldest on the Barrow Navigation.

Valerian Bridge and Black Castle, Leighlinbridge. Photo: James Burke

In 1537 a law was passed entitled "An act for the Weares upon the Barrow and other waters in the country of Kilkenny" This stated that from time immemorial "boates, scowts, wherries, clarens, cottes, and other vessels" had been navigating the river Barrow, but that in recent times "divers wilful persons" had obstructed the navigation with fishing weirs. The Act stated that a ‘Kings Gap’ or flash lock had to be left in these weirs to allow boats to pass through. We step from our boat on to the ancient stones. Surprisingly the soft wet moss on them is not slippery. There are a few trout rising in the fast water on the down side, John and I take up stations along the top of the weir using the fading clumps of Moses’ reeds as cover. The trout are rising to an invisible fly, but we persevere for half an hour while James, still grinning, clicks away. I try four of the smallest flies in my box over a persistent riser, he wants none of them, the trout just keeps studiously rising to suck at something I can’t see, inches behind my passing fly. John is having the same trouble further down the weir.

We must move on, there is a lot of river to see. We are cruising again, just a short way to Slyguff Lock; John has it open in a jiffy with his big iron key. A miracle of engineering as the huge doors swing effortlessly wide to allow our small craft in to the cut stone chamber, silently the oak doors close, then to the sound of iron ratchets the sluice gates down stream rise and we sink down as the water ebbs from the lock. The rays of the sun streaking through the trees make great bars of light strike down on James and myself as we watch the silhouette of John winding at the ratchets. It’s cold down here in the water floored dungeon, the huge door glides open and we are on the big river again. Its new, the scene has changed, we are in an over grown cut. John jumps back into the boat and off we go. Both spinners whirl in the water behind us. The first fish of the day is a Jack pike, it took John’s lure in a flash of excitement. James clicks away and Mr. Jack is put back, we watch him swim to the bottom of the clear water, and sulk for having been caught. On we go towards Balleyellen Lock . This a bit surrealistic as we nose the dinghy out of a canopy of trees the huge white site of the Balleyellen Limeworks looms out of the greenery. John catches his second pike of the day, bigger this time, the pretty fish with his winter markings is put back. James is still grinning and why wouldn’t he, to be slowly moving along this fabulous river on a crisp September day is one of the great joys of a Carlow man. John cuts the engine. ‘I have a salmon on’ he says, quite nonchalantly. The fish does not show itself at first, angry to have been caught it yanks away at John’s line from the deepest hole it can find. John keeps a steady strain on the fish; he is hardly able to restrain his pleasure and satisfaction at catching a late season Barrow salmon.

James takes advantage of the light and grabs a couple of action shots. It is very exciting in the boat as the fish is brought to the net. It is not a big fish, but nice at seven pounds, with just a hint of red on its silver scales. ‘Where there’s one, there’s two’ says John and he turns the boat to trawl past the same spot. I get the strike this time, my rod bends, the check on my reel gives a bit of a screech, John cuts the engine and I play my fish. After five minutes and tantalisingly close to the boat I lose him, the line goes slack and so does my face . ‘Those sheaths are harder to set going up stream than coming down’ says John, wisely, in an attempt to cheer me up. The day is so great that even losing a salmon can’t impinge on my enjoyment. The dingy bumps past the limeworks mill race intake and a sunken boat and into the dungeon of Balleyellen Lock. John made quick work of this one and we were soon working our spinners on a lovely stretch of water that brought us into view of Goresbridge. Goresbridge is a wonderful piece of stonemasonry, a reflection on the time when this was a trading centre for limestone and flagstones. As we approach the bridge the river is at the optimum level to reflect the cut stone arches as perfect stone circles.

James is on to this and is clicking away. John and I are wondering why the Barrow fish have ignored our spinning baits for the last mile or two. It’s time for a nice pint in one of the Goresbridge pubs and a snack by the river. We have been travelling for four hours, it seems like ten minutes and there is still so much to see, so off we go again. As usual John has his bait in the water and working immediately. Within minutes we are out of sight of the town, travelling on a river that would have changed little since pre-Christian times. The same heron stands stock still in the reeds, the same kingfisher streaks blue and green before your eyes, and the same salmon leaps like a bar of silver splashing back to make our hearts race. We make several passes over the fish in the hope of inducing a take, but salmon doesn’t like our offerings, we move on. We pass the imposing Georgian Barrowmount House on a bend in the river and imagine the fishing and hunting parties cavorting on the riverside lawns two hundred years ago. We push on at a steady trawling pace, we have all the time in the world, past the Pre-Christian settlement that is now Doninga House and the domain of the master horse trainer, Paddy Mullins. The river narrows a little now and the trees grow tall and the crows are circling. Mount Leinster gives us a glimpse of her summit as we cruise into the cut for lower Ballyellen Lock. Balleyellen lock is in perfect condition, I volunteer to open this one, it will drop us about six feet on to the next stretch. To test the craftsmanship of the lock I decide to operate it alone and with one hand. No problem, the ratchets and sluice gates wind with ease and as for the huge lock gates their perfect balance allows me to swing them open with the slightest pressure. Once again the scenery changes dramatically, we travel through the lock on to fast turbulent water, it looks a bit scary but in fact is benign and the current sweeps us round a bend into smooth water with the occasional rocky outcrop protruding like bald giants’ heads from the mirror reflections. Cows munch the water iris at the river’s edge. There is now a hatch of olive dunn or similar fly on the water, and a few trout are rising. We cut the engine and let the boat drift while we cast a fly to the odd trout until Ballytiglea bridge comes into view.

Boat landing, Borris Estate . Photo: James Burke

We are now entering MacMurragh territory. Borris Demesne is the ancestral home of the MacMurragh Kavanagh family, descendants of the Kings of Leinster, who have lived and enjoyed these parts since the thirteenth century. They built their house in the woods on this beautiful stretch of the river, where it cuts its way through ancient oak forest. What we lack in the fish catching department is amply made up for by the scenery and tranquillity of this part of the river. A huge stand of trees on both banks give the impression that this is some foreign deserted place, until we notice the signs of occupation. A stone arch in the bank reveals an overgrown boat house and dock, its cut stone just waiting to be rediscovered and maybe one day restored. We have been travelling for six hours now and have met not one soul on the river nor have we seen a boat, other than the few bobbing in the marina at Goresbridge. I find it inconceivable that such a fantastic waterway still remains one of the best kept secrets in Ireland .... It’s glorious and here we three are, kings of the river for the day. We cruise on, past the mouth of the mountain river that rushes down from the Blackstairs to join the Barrow on the edge of Borris Demesne. Now we pass cultivated land as the river winds past the local magic salmon lie at Bunahoun. High up on the right we catch a glimpse of Ullard Castle, the ruined church there is twelfth century and has the most remarkable stone work. The arch, probably sixteenth century, is carved with the heads of St Moling and St Fiacre. We can’t walk cross country to St Fiacre’s Well. If we could, we would go there and drink from it, this would prevent us from drowning. All the locals at Ullard know the magical powers of the well water.

The river Barrow near Borris Lock . Photo: James Burke

Ballingrane Lock is no problem and drops us down about three feet to one of my favourite stretches of the river. Many a Spring I have walked down to here from the Borris /Clashganna road, through the hazel nut wood and its carpet of bluebells to this spot on the river to try for my first Spring salmon. There are two men there as we pass, on the beat known as Maggie’s Rings, both fishing a big bunch of worms, in hope of one last fish before the season’s close. We wave as we pass, ‘Any fish’ they call out, I am tempted to shout out ‘yes’, but leave it to John to hold up one finger. After all, today he is king of the river. James's camera clicks as we pass. No matter how many times I see the stand of giant fir trees on the hillside at Clashganna it still amazes me . I can see Mount Leinster to the east, which lets me know that I am still in Ireland and close to my home in Bagenalstown. But the trees are from somewhere else, Canada or the Rockies maybe, they are huge and magnificent, towering above the river, and the river here is clear. We pass a lone fisherman who is as happy as we are to be here, we wave and we cruise on.

Fly fishing at Milford. Photo: James Burke

... The sun slanting down through the trees, not a breath of wind, the river like glass. Perfectly symmetrical reflections are driving James mad, as he has filled both of the capture cards on his Canon digital camera, and is now having to delete some of his earlier masterpieces, always a nerve-racking experience. John and I have not caught a fish for hours but we do not mind, well John doesn’t mind, he has a salmon in the boat. Me, I’m alright, my little sulk is well gone, I would not want to be anywhere else. Ballykennan is the last lock on our journey and it is a special one. It is the only lock on the river with a double chamber. This is because it has to let the boat down such a long way - more than three meters. I decide to do the work on this one. Operating a double lock should be hard work, but such is the engineering of these old lifting machines that my task hardly takes a breath out of me. First enter lock one, close gates and sluses, empty the water into lock two, open gate to lock two, enter, close gate, , empty lock two, open gate, and now we are back on the Barrow, easy. A little breeze comes up as the sun drops down. We are coming to the end of a special September day, almost perfect, well if losing a salmon can be counted as a flaw. We float into Graignamanagh, as fresh as daisies. Ten hours on the river seem like nothing at all. We tie up and head for the Anchor Inn and toast the day with a pint or two. ‘What are you doing tomorrow, lads?’ I ask as my pint settles.

words - copyright Mim Scala
James Burke
. boatman: John O'Neill

Garrison Waterside Holiday Centre website design, search engine optimisation, photography, niche marketing by www.biggerpictureweb.com