Why I built a raft from rubbish to row down the Barrow
It’s not easy to row from Dublin to Carlow, especially when your raft is built from jetsam and your oars tangle in the weeds. But it’s a good way to meet people – and to create art
How do you make an artwork for a place that you don’t know? Carlow is a geographical blind spot for me. I have been in the town only once or twice, so a commission to fill a giant gallery at the town’s Visual Centre for Contemporary Art is the cause of many sleepless nights.
My house looks out on a filled-in harbour at the Guinness factory in Dublin. This was the final destination until 1960 for the barges that brought mountains of malting barley from Carlow along the River Barrow and the Grand Canal.
I cycle towards the canal and keep going until I hit green fields beyond Lucan, on the western edge of Co Dublin. Hundreds of plastic bottles bob in the reeds.
I begin to collect bags of them for no real reason, but soon an idea takes shape to transform them into hulls for a raft that I will row, Huckleberry Finn style, to Carlow.
Several pallets are also harvested from the canal and repurposed as a deck. Within a few weeks, and after many phone calls with my friend Gareth, who understands boats, I cobble together a craft held aloft by 686 plastic bottles, and try it out in Grand Canal Dock, in the middle of Dublin.
On my way to Carlow I’ll gather ephemera from the water, then assemble them into artworks at Visual, which will become a production space for river-borne material at the opposite end of this once vital transport system.
Monday, May 30thI’m waved off by Ann Mulrooney, the director of Visual, at the 12th lock in Lucan, where my initial exploratory trip ended some weeks ago.
Carlow is 102km away, which doesn’t seem like such a distance until I’m quickly passed by a woman in her 90s strolling along the towpath with her son.
My oars keep getting tangled in weeds. Keeping them fixed in the rowlocks is a struggle, and progress is so slow that the lock-keeper at the next lock, near the Lyons estate in Co Kildare, gives up waiting for me after three hours.
Armed with a lock key that I hope he will show me how to use, I thrash on until evening. Three big guys in kayaks appear just as the lock comes into view; they hoist the raft out of the water with me and lift it to the next section of canal.
As the light fades I pitch my tent on a grassy verge beyond Ardclough, aided by Simon, who finds me struggling with tent poles in his driveway.
He runs off and returns with three cold beers; maybe this isn’t going to be so arduous after all.
Tuesday, May 31stSimon has warned me about an aggressive swan in the area – and the next morning it appears up ahead, territorially zigzagging across the canal. He falls for some dried apricots I throw at him as I ramp up my rowing and charge past. The sun is out, and Co Kildare looks like some pastoral Shangri-La.
John, who has spent years in Thailand but now travels the canals at weekends, chuggs past in his barge and waits for me at the next lock to unravel the mystery of lock-gate opening. A bit dazed after hours rowing in the heat, I try to keep up.
At the bridge in Sallins, just outside Naas, I’m met by Tammy and her kids, who heard about my trip on Facebook and have come down with scones, more beers, a bottle opener and an ice pack.
Tammy’s neighbour Fiona paddles up to join me in her kayak and pushes me along until we reach the aqueduct over the River Liffey.
At 11pm, fired up and fearless after a big day on the water, I climb off my raft at Digby Bridge and set about opening the lock by myself for the first time. I turn the key and raise the racks and the lock slowly fills but then inexplicably empties again. Why didn’t I pay more attention to John’s lesson?
With all my bravado drained I reverse my little boat out of the lock and throw my tent up in the dark on the path nearby. Halfway through a can of tuna I hear something breathing outside. I call out but am too spooked to explore further. That night I sleep with the lock key in one hand and a hammer in the other.
Wednesday, June 1stFuelled by a triple espresso, round two with the lock gate the next morning is a lot less stressful (helped by tips from a YouTube tutorial on my phone). I had made the rookie error of not closing the gate racks at the far end of the lock.
Two glamorous Lithuanian grannies in their mid-40s witness my triumph as the gates magically open and I row on towards Prosperous.
Ronnie soon shows up, the nicest man you could ever meet, and he walks alongside me for hours, telling me about his wife, who has just had a stroke, and his past life in Australia. He helps me to open the next lock. I feel blessed to have met him.
A family of ducks is my only company until I pass under Healy’s Bridge and the water widens, and a German girl tells me about her choir as we pass through the Bog of Moods and on to Robertstown.
I carry on for Lowtown and leave the Grand Canal to join the Barrow Line. In the pitch dark I call out to a father and son on the bank to ask where I am.
They take my phone home with them for charging and meet me at lock 19, close to midnight, with hot tea, sandwiches and cake.
Gerard trains his welcome headlights on my half-assembled tent as I struggle to hammer pegs into the hard ground, and tells me about his motorbike and his own adventures around the coast.
Thursday, June 2ndEvery morning my friend Nick in Sligo texts with a weather update and a plan for where I should end up that night. McCartney’s Lock, near Monasterevin, is today’s destination.
At the next lock I’m helped through by a red-bearded man who built his own floating house on a pontoon of orange-juice barrels in Lowtown. I gift him a beer for his help, and he walks off with the widest smile.
In Rathangan the lock-keeper sees me through the double lock, and after many hours of rowing alongside darkening trees set off by the milky, distant dusk I spot a single street light in the darkness, signalling the end of the day’s exertions.
Friday, June 3rdI’m woken at 7am by a call from a friend in Brighton wondering what the hell I’m up to. In Monasterevin I inch over the Barrow across the narrow aqueduct. I remember having my palm read in a pub here many years ago.
A few kilometres out of town I wallow for a few minutes in the cool shade under the towering motorway bridge.
Farther along again I have Row, Row, Row Your Boat sung at me by a gaggle of shirtless English fishermen cowering under sun shades.
DJ and Dennis pull up in their vintage speedboat as I near Fisherstown, in Co Laois, and, having been warned not to miss out on the Fisherman’s Thatched Inn, we all walk up the hill to have a look. The detour isn’t in vain. This thatched beauty is possibly the nicest pub in Ireland.
Christine, my wife, and Dash, my seven-year-old son, await my arrival in Vicarstown. After surviving on dried nuts and tinned tuna for five days, it’s quite something to feast on a roast chicken.
Saturday, June 4thA park run on the towpath is due to start at 9.30am, which gives me extra impetus to pack up and get going. I pass an enormous mink farm and daydream about staging a Roald Dahl-like mission to free the furry creatures until I notice the masses of barbed wire swaddling the compound.
At the lock outside Athy a worker from a nearby alcohol-addiction treatment centre helps me push open the lock gates and presents me with a giant foiled-wrapped sandwich that he was taking home for his supper. He says I need it more than he does.
At the far end of the town the canal finally joins up with the River Barrow. I whoop as the river’s flow doubles my speed and carries me downstream to a perfect camping spot by a cut-stone B&B.
Sunday, June 5thI had never expected to get this far, I’m amazed that the raft is still intact, and seven days into my trip I relax for the first time, knowing that Carlow is close. Rowing on the wider, faster river is such a pleasure. I pull up for the night at Bestfield Lock and make an unskilled attempt to get some twigs to light. The sound of Fleetwood Mac and The Ace of Spades drifts up from a party in the town.
Monday, June 6thA leisurely two-hour row brings me to the end of my journey. It rains for the first time as I round the final bend before Carlow and a group of family and friends sing Happy Birthday to You as I pass under the pedestrian bridge.
I thought this project would be about my story and my love of rivers and waterways, but it turns out to be about everybody I have met along the way and the stories and humanity that they have so generously shared.
Take Me to the River is at Visual, in Carlow, until October 16th. Fergal McCarthy will be leading free walks of the Barrow this Sunday and next, meeting at Visual at noon; visualcarlow.ie