This could have been the headline. I almost fell into the waterway of the Grand Canal while walking its banks with a friend. The killers of the aforementioned headline lay in wait in the rushes as a low wintry sun warmed us.
My fellow walker and I were fortunate to be on the left bank of the canal as there was danger across the water from potential arm breakers. Bewick swans, all the way from Siberia, Whoopers with yellow and black bills and Mutes (which are of course the loudest) with orange-red bills and a prominent knob on their foreheads, black nostrils and cutting edges, all nest yearly on the far bank.
Aware of the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage many Mutes have been observed ‘coming out’ as they mate with each other, irrespective of gender. Or, perhaps they are glaring cases of ‘should have gone to Specsavers’.
‘Ah look at the lovely swans,’ coo innocent families with their children as they pass by.
‘Run!’ soon follows as the male swans regularly attacks, rises, spans its wings, hisses, grunts, snorts and flaps, feathers a-flying. Imagine me in the water had I fallen in, an obvious intruder and hence the potential headline.
Apparently four percent of Irish swan deaths are due to internecine sqrabbles as they fight over nesting rights. Around now the Pens are preparing their nests to lay their eggs, four to six. They will hatch in two to six weeks. If there are any mature cygnets in the family they will be told to move out and get their own mortgage-free place.
Like most teenagers they will sulk about in groups and seek to squat in other existing nesting sites along the bank causing more confrontations and mayhem. The triumphal notes of successful defenders will fill the air, the cobs being very aggressive at this time.
Meanwhile, their parents will prepare for another clutch by ensuring an adequate food supply for the pen. Cobs help incubate the eggs, allowing the female to feed more and rebuild the fat reserves used up in laying.
The new born cygnets will emerge from the eggs short necked, thickly downed and fluffy, trailing their parents in the water within a day or hitching a ride on their parents’ backs keeping a wary lookout for the many foxes, hooded crows, rooks, herons and magpies ready to swoop and scoop them away.
When they are about fifteen weeks old they will be fully feathered, independent, throwing shapes, surface-skiing and churning water as they practice and ready their flying for winter migration. Two years later, on return from migration, they will be chased out of the family circle.
Swans mate for life, which is as well, Irish divorce legislation being what it was until relatively recently. The swans’ Irish solution was always supportive of divorce only if there was a bad breeding season or nest failure. Only female Australian black swans break the monogamous pattern, leaving the unwary male nestkeeping. But the Australian variety, as their name suggests, does not live here.
‘No such carry on occurs in Ireland, in either humans or fowl, as we well know,’ snorted my fellow walker.
‘Eating swans is illegal in Ireland, you know,’ I added. ‘But the English queen can eat her swans as she owns them all by law.’
I had a vision on the walk, which could have been caused by the encroaching hunger, of Irish emigration officials swooping down in a dawn raid, standing the swans up against the trees lining the canal at Leeson Street bridge, checking their IDs and residency documents. Those without adequate stamped papers would be pointed in the direction of Siberia or escorted across the border, back to her majesty.
My friend and I started our brisk walk from the small bridge behind the Pepper Canister which crosses to Percy Place. It boasts a plaque 1791. Joseph Huband, a director of the Grand Canal Company built it at his own expense. Methinks an expensive way to get a bridge named after one, which he did. It is rumored he partook in the 1798 Rebellion and thereafter escaped to Paris.
Behind us was Mount Street Bridge where, during the 1916 Rebellion, a small number of IRA volunteers caused the maximum casualties of the entire Rising- almost half of the overall British Army casualties of the insurrection – two hundred and sixteen dead.
Short and explosive bird calls from dense vegetation along the river heralded a few water chickens, better known perhaps as moor or march hens. They set off our carnivorous appetites. The omnivorous red beaked hens seemed to sense this and commenced twitching their tails, necks and grinding their backs: a habit that has caused them to be also known as ‘twitchy coots’.
Although the birds that startled us sounded Irish (from their dialect) they do entertain hen parties with loose morals from Sweden and Denmark along the canal, while staying away from the congested hen-party trail of Temple Bar.
We progressed over gravel, grassy towpaths, and sometimes tarmac till we came to MaCartney Bridge, also built in 1791 and named after George, chairman of the Grand Canal Company; now colloquially called after close-by Baggot Street. And if you think that’s the last bridge named after Grand Canal Company directors you are, of course, mistaken.
Yes, you’ve guessed it: the next bridge, built the same year, was named after Lieutenant Colonel Charles Eustace, M.P. and Deputy Chairman of the Grand Canal Company but now known to you and me as Leeson Street Bridge. This once housed a magnificent edifice atop similar to that of St Stephen’s Green Grafton St entrance, commonly known as Traitor’s Gate, where Dublin Castle spies were paid.
As we perambulated over Charelmont St Bridge my companion took up the commentary again.
‘Thomas Grubb, a billiard table manufacturer, developed his first telescope in a house somewhere close by, perhaps better to see the balls,’ he added helpfully.
Apparently, the Victorian optician went on to distribute many of his lenses to observatories worldwide, for a time one particular one being the largest in the world, first tracking Hailey’s Comet. In the face of such philosophical thoughts of the Universe we fell to discussing the use of lenses, particularly in colonoscopy.
‘Talking about the word Grub has infected me hunger,’ he complained inventing new words.
‘By the way, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom was born nearby and, not to be outdone, Shaw,’ continued my erudite companion, ‘arranged to be born nearby also.’
Portobello bridge, and yes you guessed it, was also built the same year as every other bridge in our journey so far and named after another director of the Grand Canal Company: William Digges La Touche. It was here that the Grand Canal Company had its headquarters and part of the port (now covered in) was named after Huband- before or after escaping to France I do not know.
“Ah! que porto bello!” (what a delightful port) exclaimed the visiting wife of some dignitary when she saw the Dublin spot, according to one story and the name stuck.
Another story explains the name of Dublin’s ‘Portobello’, also that of London’s Portobello Road, resulted from the War of Jenkins Ear which triggered one of the many conflicts between England and Spain in the 1800s.
A merchant ship captain donated his ear to history off the coast of Florida when objecting to a legitimate inspection of his cargo by a Spanish ship. British Royal Navy Admiral Edward Vernon went on to capture the poorly defended Porto Bello in Colón, Panama, hence the commemorative naming. Anyway, take your pick.
‘If you were standing here on the bridge in 1785 you could have spotted the first Irish hot air balloon flying from nearby Ranelagh up the coast to Clontarf,’ said my companion.
I didn’t know that but I knew that further up the canal, later in 1792, a passenger boat bound for the town of Athy in the next county was boarded by a hundred and fifty people, many drunk. Five men, four women and two children drowned when the boat capsized. I didn’t tell my friend as it was good for him not to know everything, although I suspected he thought he did.
‘Incidentally,’ he quipped as an aside, ‘as we are mentioning Athy, did you know that most Irish people claim to be born near Athy.
‘Yeah, their mother’s thigh!’
Much later, in 1817, William Windham Sadlier successfully flew a hot air balloon from nearby Portobello Barracks to Holyhead in North Wales.
‘This Holyhead trip,’ continued my colleague sagely, ‘possibly commenced that fabled modern emigration habit, from the eighteen hundreds to the nineteen seventies, of the Irish ‘getting the boat’ to Holyhead in search of employment.
‘Of course, nowadays,’ he sniffed, ‘the unemployed fly out of Dublin, Shannon and Mayo airports. Nevertheless, you can still witness a lot of hot air not far from the Huband Bridge, emanating from our Dail, the nearby Irish Parliament.’
‘One evening,’ I contributed competitively, ‘ in April 1861, for exactitude a Saturday as I recall, a horse-drawn bus, driven by one Patrick Hardy, dropped a passenger at this bridge but the remaining six passengers and six horses into the canal. Apparently, one of the horses reared backing the bus through the wooden rails of the bridge. Only Patrick the conductor survived, having jumped free.’ From the skeptical looks he gave me I knew he didn’t know that one.
Although Jewish emigrants and traders are recorded as arriving in Ireland from the 13th century such was the influx towards the end of this century, particularly from pogroms in Eastern Europe, that a “little Jerusalem” community grew in Portobello, which today houses the Irish Jewish Museum. We both knew that.
Across the canal here, where scores of vicious swans with beady eyes collect, is the Irish army’s Cathal Brugha barracks and smelling the food being cooked there we began to salivate. The barracks was the scene of a sensational murder in 1873.
Anne Wyndford Marshall was charged with surreptitiously administering cyanide to a Gunner Colin Donaldson whose interiors failed the onslaught. He was found slumped across the bed in an apartment she shared with her husband. A woman of much charm (and much else) she was found not guilty.
All this remembering, walking and talking was a bridge too far: both of us were hoarse and famished. We simultaneously remembered that the canal mainly shifted Guinness. So we shifted two pints each in quick succession in the nearby Bleeding Horse pub as we awaited delivery of a lamb shank slow cooked in red wine, garlic mash and an assiette of vegetables.
The pub is so named because a wounded horse from the nearby Battle of Rathmines between royalists and roundhead supporters collapsed outside in 1649. This battle, won by the roundheads, heralded Cromwell’s arrival some days later with his murderous hordes, his planned holocaust and the introduction to Ireland of his soldier’s basic food mainstay of bacon and cabbage.
‘Which reminds me,’ I said ignorantly with a mouthful of food, ‘of The School Around The Corner radio show in the fifties and sixties, compered by schoolteacher Paddy Crosbie. He asked for the usual poem, story or funny incident from the kids he was interviewing.’
‘Sir! A horse fell into a hole, sir,’ says a pupil, ‘and a nearby butcher with a gun was called to shoot the injured horse Sir.’
‘And where did he shoot him,’ asked the unwary interviewer.
‘Sir, In the hole, Sir!’ came the mischievous reply.
The Grand Canal Way is an informal linear park along the canal that typifies canal technology. The Grand Canal itself was built in the 19th Century. The engineers designed many of their own tools and machinery for the project: loading cranes, winches and pumps.
The abundance of workers initially available was adversely decimated by the Great Famine and emigration. It was used primarily to transport porter barrels, via an artery, from Guinness’s brewery (now filled in and carrying the Luas rapid rail- red line).
The original cause of my almost falling into the canal was the path being narrow and in need of repair and possibly, but only possibly, our mutual expansive girth. But who to blame?
‘Not many people know,’ interjected my egotistical friend, ‘that the Grand Canal in Dublin, she that runs 144km from Ringsend south of Dublin city to the Shannon in the west of Ireland through twelve locks, is administered from the Six Counties!
It was one of the clever concessions Republicans made during the Belfast Agreement, apparantly. It is now administered by one of the six (at the time of writing) North/South Implementation Bodies established under the ‘British Irish Agreement in 1999’,-according to Waterways Ireland, or, better known to the rest of us, as the Belfast Agreement/ Good Friday Agreement (even, the Stormont Agreement!) but not as the British Irish Agreement.
Thus I discovered that the headquarters for Waterways Ireland (WI) is in Enniskillen (in the Six Counties), with regional offices located in Carrick-on-Shannon, Scarriff and Dublin.
Waterways Ireland is responsible for the maintenance, management, development and restoration of inland navigable waterways, principally for recreational purposes. WI’s remit are the Barrow Navigation, the Erne System, the Lower Bann, the Royal Canal, the Shannon-Erne Waterway, the Shannon Navigation, and of relevance to us in this particular discourse, the Grand Canal. Imparting all this information had my friend’s swollen ego near bursting his head.
So, had we discovered the culprits responsible for the path’s disrepair and my almost drowning? Alas no. A twist viz this recent interesting exchange in Stormont (the parliament in Northern Ireland):
Sammy Wilson [Democratic Unionist Party-DUP]: Looking through the list of capital projects, I see lock gates on the Shannon, bridge repairs on the Grand canal, enhancements of the Grand canal towpath, the Shannon Blueway and the multi-activity trail at Carrick-on-Shannon. Nearly every one of these projects is in the Irish Republic. Does the Minister see her role as fighting for projects in Northern Ireland or simply sitting there, handing over our money for projects in the Irish Republic?
Further discourse informed all that that waterways capital projects in each jurisdiction are paid for by the government of that jurisdiction. So NI money is not spent on capital projects in the republic. But I wonder what Sammy thinks about the recent €1 million budgetary cut back for Waterways Ireland?
All this outs the real culprits for my almost Death by Swans- the Irish government.