Boatmen of the Barrowline & Navigation
Given the weekend that’s in it, this is a short story I wrote a while back. While completely fictional, it was inspired by the local boatmen that worked the Barrow Navigation and Barrowline canal, and in particular, Mr Stephen Bolger RIP. They were known up and down the canal system as the Barrow Boys.
The Barrow Boys – Easter 1916
My crooked middle toe reached back up at me from the edge of the granite flag stone. Below, a rainbow of diesel was splashed across the canal. Between its streaks and shimmers, my reflection stared back. Mother had combed, greased and split my hair in the middle. It stuck flat, black and tight to my head. My dirty white work shirt looked cleaner than usual and my¾ length trousers was stitched were it tore. “Keep your nose clean, work hard and you might get lucky and land a trade in a year or two” Father advised before introducing me to Mr Hughes, the boat’s captain. He wore a tight black cap that hid his dark eyes from most adults. His white nose hairs reached down and camouflaged themselves among a grey moustache and beard. Everyone called him Skip. “Welcome aboard young man” as he extended a leathery hand. “Jasus, who parted your hair, was it Moses” The men erupted with laughter. I reddened and eyeballed the toe, cursing Mother silently.
Sean and Bolly were loading sacks of malt onto the boat, so I got stuck in to help. Sean, ugly with yellow spots, could handle the sacks as easily as Bolly but rested often to roll smokes. Bolly however, kept going with a small white clay pipe nestled between his worn lips as he worked, and as he had done for about 30 years. He called it his little Doo-deen and having started smoking about my age, promised to let me try it someday. Bolly’s main job was tinkering with the engine. Despite his size (well over 6 foot and shoulders to match) he could get in at most parts with a hammer or spanner, but I sometimes helped. My small hands were good at either holding his pipe or getting a finger to where no mans could fit. Sean worked the lock gates and on the first few showed me the operation.
The boat moved night and day and we took turns sharing a pair of hairy bunks up front. Skip only left the grey arm of the tiller to sleep and when he did, Bolly took over. My main concern was listening for the whistle of Skip’s finger stumps between his gums. He hated the new engine and cursed it each time we entered a lock. To stop the boat, I’d jump off and rope a bollard before she’d smash into the lock gates. “There was never a need for such acrobatics with horsepower” he’d say. They were “obedient beasts”, unlike the Bolinder engine that the Canal Company had fitted. By day, the lock-keepers wives or children were always around to help me, but at night, I’d usually be on me tod. According to Skip, the Canal Company were killing off the horses and planned to do the same with the men.
It was just outside Dublin when we met the first lock-keeper, and with him, a grey suited man from the Company. They had the gates of the chamber shut and fastened with a chain. We moored up. Riots had broken out in the city centre and all traffic on the canal was halted. Skip was in a right flap as we were due in James’s Gate that evening. About an hour later a horse boat joined us and the lock keeper, Mr Cooper, stabled the horses for the night. As evening dropped, I collected wood and built a fire on the towpath. Built it like a fénnid would, old dry wood that wouldn’t smoke. Skip was impressed. The Boatmen stood round it cursing the Canal Company and rioters for the rest of the evening. I took up a roost on the canvased load and watch the April sun set out west. As night rose, so too did the faint sound of gunfire and an orange glow over the city. On the opposite bank, a Moorhen led a young clutch of four though a series of canals and channels among the reeds. The fluffy balls of black down-feather panicked and struggled to keep with the yellow climbing legs of their mother. Peeps and squeaks sung their distress. And as dusk took the canal, flicks of her white under-tail led the way home to the nest. Tiredness eventually caught up and I pull a shoulder of canvas over me.
After breakfast, I worked the blowtorch for Bolly as he coaxed the engine to life.
“She’s like me wife” he said. “Needs to be warmed a little each morning to get her started and a good servicing every now and again don’t do her any harm either” as he grinned to himself. “We’ll let her run there for an hour so. It’s important to keep her well-oiled and let her breathe for a bit each day or she’ll seize up”. With no word of moving on, we left her running and went fishing.
With the evening sun, Mrs Cooper brought some potatoes and we had a fish stew. She also brought the news that the rioters had started a rebellion. They’d taken over a number of buildings across the city and our canal at the James’s Gate branch. In the distance we could now hear bomb blasts and machine gun fire. Skip, Bolly and the other boatmen pitched horseshoes and discussed the situation. Me and Sean rested up on the grass bank, fireside; rolling smokes and watching the horizon.
“Do ya think they might reach us out here Sean?”
“Doubt it. Hopefully the army will put a stop to them soon. It’s shameful starting trouble like this and the whole of Europe the way it is”.
“How you mean”
He laid back and sucked on the rollie, inhaling deeply. “I’ll be eighteen next month. Told Skip I had enough of the boats. Gonna head out and help fight the Kaiser”.
“You gonna join the army”.
“Spoke with the recruitment officer only a few weeks ago and he reckons I’ve the makings of a Captain or Colonel or higher.”
“But what about the gas Sean or if you don’t come back”
“What about it. Better than sittin here doing nothing. I want to see a bit of the world. Do something with me life”
“When you going”
“This is me last run”
We both stared at the burning embers.
“Ms Cooper said the rebels shot a boy in the head today, about my age”
“Yeah, when they should be out shooting Germans”
I settled in closer to the fire and threw on another old log. On the far back a lone peep sounded occasionally between little white flickers of tail feather. Darkness came down fast and the clang of horseshoes ceased with the men hitting the bunks.
Skips orders were not to leave the barge in case we got moving. So over the next few days Bolly explained the workings of the engine to me and showed me how to dig Eels from the canal bank. Mrs Cooper brought supper most evenings but it was the rumour of killings that the men seemed most interested in. Afterwards the men would bet on tossed horseshoes while I fished and watched the growing balls of fuzz. Each night they ventured further and further from home, losing their fluff and gaining feathers.
Oil covered and diesel soaked by Sunday I started the engine early. Failing to heat the bulb enough resulted in an explosive backfire and a blanket of black smoke. Sean jumped from his campfire bed thinking we were being shelled. My laughter made him worse. He cursed me down but luckily Mr Cooper was running up the canal track and brought the news that the rebels had surrendered. Within a half hour we struck out for James’s Gate with the engine thumping away at full power. Every lock was now manned by their keeper and this made my work light. We were first to reach Guinness’s and by nightfall we had unloaded the malt and reloaded with wooden kegs. Setting off, Sean and Skip took to the bunks and I kept Bolly company at the tiller. The city was calm. The dark waters mirrored the stars above as the moon rose from the trenches over Bolly’s shoulder. Silhouetted, he piped smoke after smoke, puffing almost in tandem with the engine. Leaving the 6th lock, I watched for the grown chicks but the nest was quite. No peeps or flickers of white under-tail and the boat just kept moving on.
Reaching open country, Bolly was confident to let me take the tiller while he packed his pipe and surveyed the kegs. He puzzled over a few of them and worried that one or two might explode from being over full. Finding the most dangerous, he dragged it apart from the others and bore a hole near the rim and bled-off a bucket of the black liquid. “We’ll keep an eye on the rest and hope none start blasting off or we’ll be in more bother than the rebels”. He knew his trade well and having drained just enough, plugged the hole and settled it back in with the rest. “Have ya ever tried the stout?”
“No, my father likes it but I’ve never tried it”.
“You may learn sometime. It’s part of the trade. We can’t have this stuff leaking into the canal or it will kill every fish and flower between here and Athy. Unfortunately lad, it goes with the job. Here, get this into ya” and he handed me a tin cup full. I managed it and then a second. Bolly managed the rest of the bucket. He surveyed the kegs again and as we swung left onto the Barrow-line at Lowtown, we finished off a second bucket.
Bolly retired for the evening and Skip came up carrying another bucket. “Will you have a drop young man”
“I will” and I handed him my tin cup. He looked at it and back at me and gave a laugh. “Bolly been teaching ya a few things”. “Yeah, was telling me that some of them barrels might explode if we aren’t careful” “Explode will they” as he gave a deep laugh and his belly shuck. I laughed too.
“We’ve got a busy few days ahead of us making up for lost time. We might have to run the boat by night on the Barrow. Do you think you’ll be up for taking a regular stint on the tiller”.
“Sure would Skip, it’s not too hard once you get used to it”
“Ah but the Barrow is a different girl altogether lad and nobody runs her at night. It’ll be tricky. That rebellion really set us back a bit”.
“We were lucky they didn’t get us Skip, they were a dangers bunch weren’t they. Imagine them taking over the country”
“They’d be no more dangerous or worse than the bunch we have”
“Mrs Cooper said they shot a boy my age in the head”.
“I don’t know about that, a lot of innocent people get killed in wars and this country’s been at war long enough. Could have been the army just as easy”.
“What will happen them now”
“They’re probably locked up in the Castle or Kilmainham I’d say”
“Will they get much”
“They’ll be lucky not to hang”
“Mrs Cooper said that we’ll have home rule as soon as the war is over. And that the rebellion was a terrible waste of life”.
“She would say that and her son in the army”.
“What about the home rule Skip”
“What about it, they’re never gonna grant it. Not even when the war is over. If they were, why would they send over ten thousand troops to blow the hell out of the city when they could have sent them out to Europe and let Ireland be. Home rule me arse. And them poor bastards up there now probably gonna get their necks strung”.
“I don’t feel great Skip. Think I’m sea sick”
“Sea sick, it’s on a canal ya are not the bleedin Atlantic Ocean” as he laughed.
“Your drunk young fella. Climb up there under the canvas and get an hour. I’ll whistle when I need ya”.