Pushing the Barrow

By Patrick Kinsella 12 April 2016
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For most of its length, Ireland’s River Barrow flows smooth, like a perfectly poured stout. But a good river, like a decent pint, is judged by the white frothy bits on the top – and that’s where things get interesting when you’re paddling a fully laden canoe with your septuagenarian Dad at the helm…

AS WE CLANGED a couple of peat-black post-expedition pints together at the end of our 120km canoeing and camping caper along Ireland’s River Barrow, Dad accused me of attempting euthanasia by stealth. Which was a bit rich, I thought, considering the whole escapade was his idea in the first place.

Seventy-two years young, he reckoned to be knackered – but I hadn’t seen him so alive for years. The big dopey grin on his dial was a wide as the Guinness moustache above it. Had I really been trying to bump him off, this was evidently an awful way of doing it.

We’d just spent five quality days together, under surprisingly blue Irish skies, paddling through an historic and bucolic landscape, on a river that flows freely with a rich mix of myth, legend, wildlife and adventure. 

Twisted Sister

Overlooked for much of its length by the moody broody Blackstairs Mountains, which feed the river with streams, the Barrow wends through six counties in central Ireland, its serpentine course punctuated only by the odd town and occasional castle. Oh, and a loads of weirs and a smattering of rapids too. Dad wasn’t so keen on those at the beginning. But we’d come to an understanding.

The Barrow – part of a trio of Irish waterways known as the Three Sisters, along with its smaller siblings the rivers Suir and Nore – has been modified by man over many centuries to suit needs such as fishing and transportation. At its northern end it joins with the Grand Canal, an aquatic umbilicus connecting rural Ireland to Dublin, and it’s navigable for its whole length.

For some stretches of the waterway, canals with locks have been built parallel to the river, to allow larger boats to get around the more exciting spots, where submerged rocks lie in ambush and the flow gets steeper and wilder.

Barrow River Ireland

A trail for bikers and hikers runs along the Barrow’s towpath, but the riverbank is almost as little trafficked as the waterway.

Our plan was to join the Barrow just below the junction with the Grand Canal, at Monasterevin, and to paddle downstream all the way down to New Ross, where the river meets the saltwater of the Celtic Sea in an estuary that rises and falls with the tides. We would stick to the natural curves of the waterway for the duration, avoiding the locks and following the flow.

For each lock we bypassed, there was at least one weir to contend with. In a fully laden canoe, packed to gunwales with camping equipment and supplies, this involved an interesting choice. Either we could, as Dad had made me promise, unload every damn thing out of the boat and portage the whole lot around. Or we could get out of the canoe and use the painters (ropes on the bow and stern of the canoe) to carefully lower it down the whitewater in a controlled manner. Or we could throw caution to the wind and run the weir, risking capsize and calamity in the process.  

Our sensible and unified approach to this conundrum remained rock solid for at least one day – during which we didn’t encounter any weirs to test it. Which was fortunate, because we could ill afford to stand around and argue about whether we should portage or run them on that opening day. We hadn’t managed to get the canoe packed and to the put-in until early afternoon, and had to get to Athy before nightfall.

After a couple of hours cooing over the kingfishers that kept skimming the river, stopping for photos and sorting out who was going to sit where in the boat, our leisurely paddling cadence suddenly had to increase in tempo to something approximating race pace with the belated realisation that the sunset was right on our tail.

It takes time to sync into a decent rhythm in a two-man canoe, especially when you haven’t paddled together for a while. Muscles that we’d both allowed to get rusty were abruptly called back into action, and mentally I had to dig deep to recall the mechanics of the J-stroke – the pull with an outward kick that the rear paddler needs to employ in order to keep a canoe going straight.

Eventually, though, we got it dialled, passing under the bridge beside Athy’s 600-year-old White Castle while it was still light enough to see the local cross-fit crew doing running reps and burpees on the banks, before finishing off their session by jumping into the river.

Although we didn’t encounter any other canoes all week, every day we saw people running and riding along the towpath, or wild swimming in the river – a good sign that both the water and the locals are in rude health.

Barrow Boys

The Barrow is Ireland’s second longest river, after the broad majestic Shannon. Dad grew up just outside of Limerick, quite literally on the banks of the Shannon, in a village called Corbally, where my Grandad built the family abode a little too close to the river. So close, in fact, that sometimes it came to visit them. His was a Huckleberry Finn-like childhood, spent messing about in boats, and occasionally wading around a house full of floodwater. 

And it was Dad that instilled a love of larking about in the outdoors in me. He took me on annual hiking and camping trips when I was a kid, packed me off on a survival course in the Hebrides in Scotland when I was 12, and always encouraged activities like kayaking.

With age, though, comes caution – and Dad was firmly of the opinion that we should portage the weirs. The weather was good, but not so hot that he wanted to take an involuntary swim every few kilometres, especially when we had so much gear with us.

That resolve lasted for precisely one weir, the first one we came to after leaving Athy. Subsequently we discovered that each weir had a salmon run on it – a chute where the flow was faster but smoother than the surrounding cascade, which accommodated something the size of our canoe perfectly and was great fun to run. We still unloaded some of the gear, and Dad hopped out for the bigger drops, but shooting the weirs like this cut down on all the messing about that a full portage involved, and it upped the excitement level of the trip by several notches.   

As the river passed through historic towns like Carlow, we often had an audience when we ran the weirs. This upped the ante considerably, but despite a couple of close calls, we stayed the right way up and made good progress. The second night we camped right by the lock gates in a picturesque spot called Milford, but the best experience was to come further downstream, along the river’s wildest stretch, just after the beautiful village of Borris.  

Barrow River Ireland

The best adventures start – and finish – in the pub.

For this section we were joined by Charlie from Go With the Flow adventures. Charlie runs guided trips along the Barrow and rents out equipment to those who want to do it independently. He had provided our canoe, but wanted to show us this part of the river personally – largely, I got the distinct impression, because he simply can’t get enough of paddling it himself. And I soon learned why.

Well away from any roads, the river here snakes around deep, steep, tree-lined banks and through the forest-filled grounds of a vast old mansion house owned for centuries by the MacMurrough Kavanagh family, one-time High Kings of Leinster. In the 19th century, one of family, Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, an MP at Westminster, used to sail his yacht from here to London to attend parliament – despite the fact that he was severely disabled.

But it’s not the history that gets Charlie excited about this bit of river. It’s the rapids. Shooting weirs is one thing, but running real rapids is what canoeing is all about, and here the Barrow delivers in spades, with numerous submerged rock gardens, salmon traps and small drops to negotiate. Charlie brought along a few friends and we mixed it up, swapping boats and even jumping out of the canoes altogether and floating through some of the rapids on our backs.

After bidding Charlie and co farewell at Graiguenamanagh, we paddled on and made camp on a small island by the musical weir above St Mullins, the exact point where the river becomes tidal.

Riding the Tide

To catch the last of the outgoing tide, we launched long before dawn, and navigated the Guinness-dark water by headtorch for a couple of hours. Daybreak delivered us into a much-changed landscape, with the wide river now fringed by mudflats and populated by seabirds.

The tide turned against us before we could reach New Ross, but the Barrow had a last surprise in store before we bid it farewell. Paddling hard against the incoming flow, we looked up to see a family of otters cavorting around in the water just a few feet ahead. They looked at us quizzically, and then carried on with their business, leaving us grinning all the way to the pull out.

Just before filing this story, I got an email from the old man. He had a question for me: Do you fancy a canoe trip down the River Shannon this summer? He’s obviously developed a taste for this form of euthanasia.   

The essentials

Getting there: You can fly from Sydney or Melbourne to Dublin from around $1300 with various airlines, including Qantas, British Airways and Etihad. Distances are short in Ireland compared to Australia, and trains and buses travel regularly between Dublin and Monasterevin, and also New Ross and the capital. 

Tours/equipment: Go With The Flow offers a range of options for people paddling the Barrow, from one-day fully guided experiences, through to arranging equipment and logistics (including drop-off and pick-up) for groups who want to explore the river independently. The company also offers a range of other river trips and adventure experiences. Visit www.gowiththeflow.ie or call +353 (0) 567 801 299 for more information.