IN WHICH WE REVISIT AN OLD FRIEND, WITH SOME OLD FRIENDS AND NEW, AND TAKE A JAUNT DOWN IRELAND’S LONGEST GREENWAY IN SEARCH OF HERITAGE, HISTORY AND WORLD RECORDS…
I’m staring at the ruffled waters of Richmond Harbour in Clondra. It’s about 7am on a Saturday morning, 12th September, 2020, and I’m still a little bleary-eyed from an early start and a night of tossing and turning. I need the loo, and the toilet block in the harbour is closed, thanks to Covid. Which is ironically why I am standing here, wondering how cold the water is, as my mate Austin and his son Jim carry a kayak down to the quay’s edge…
There are two major canals in Ireland. Purists will rage at this over-simplification, and therefore I urge you to visit a few websites if you wish to slake your thirst for these man-made waterways. One simple port of call is the Wikipedia list here. Then there’s the fascinating history of the construction which you can find here. And credit must go to the owners of this site – the Royal Canal Amenity Group, set up in the mid-seventies – who saved the canal from dereliction and restored it to its former glory. Also, worth a visit for any waterways queries is this site. And for more ‘Royal’ history, check out this one.
And while you’re there, consider this paragraph:
At its height nearly 50,000 people took passage and 112,181 tons of goods were transported along the canal in 1845. However, the Royal Canal was never as commercially successful as the Grand Canal. Furthermore, the introduction of railway lines to Ireland in the 19th century offered a much more efficient means of transporting goods and people. Just twenty-eight years after the Royal Canal was completed it was sold to the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) for £318,860. The MGWR originally planned to drain the canal and lay the railway track along its bed. Thankfully, the government of the day rejected these plans. By 1849 a railway line that runs adjacent to the canal was opened from Dublin to Mullingar.
And for all things Royal Canal, with some great running to boot, you should check out Maynooth man, Gary O’Daly, who has a great blog here. More on Gary shortly.
With the current demand for safe, outdoor recreation and eco-tourism, it was perhaps inevitable, following restoration, that the 146 kilometres of the Royal Canal (which joins two of Ireland’s best-known rivers – the Liffey in Dublin, and the mighty Shannon in the midlands) would become a greenway. The other canal is the Grand, and it follows a not dissimilar route to the Royal, and why both were built is itself a fascinating study of human behaviour. But that’s another story for another day.
Work has stalled from roughly my hometown in Leixlip in towards the capital. Whilst it’s all now navigable by foot or bike from Clondra to the heart of the city, there are a couple of rough sections underfoot around Clonsilla, and especially at the section known as the Deep Sinking, where the canal had to be cut through solid limestone. There are drops here from the towpath of about 30 feet, so the narrow, gnarly path here can make you a little nervous.
Anyway, this is all preamble to the main event. As I flagged in a few earlier posts, Gaelforce West succumbed to Covid. In recent times, I’ve generally aimed at doing one decent event a year. That could be a marathon or a triathlon, but it just gives me a focus. Without an event, I tend to ramble aimlessly and the training runs all end up as the same route in the park, at the same speed. As any recreational runner will tell you, the devil will find work for idle hands to do, and an event-free calendar is the first step on a slippery slope…
So that’s enough cheery stuff for now! Let’s get back to the matter at hand. The ‘old friend’ I mentioned up above is the Royal Canal. Since I was old enough to be trusted out on my own, I have explored the various local rivers, lakes and canals. Mostly I was fishing in the old days (sometimes when I should have been in school), and as I grew older, they became somewhere to amble, to swim, to paddle, to enjoy… there is simply something about water we are all drawn to as humans. I even dream about the canal. Not sure what that’s about, and as I don’t hold too much store in dream analysis, I just let these subconscious eddies and riffs meander through the mind and off downstream with them. Now might be the time to pull out that old ‘you cannot step into the same stream twice’ saying. Or not.
All I’m trying to say is that this wonderful piece of architectural heritage has been with me most of my days. There’s something stoic about a canal. Certainly the Irish ones were all built by hand, and as both the Grand and Royal head west out of Dublin, they pass through the boggy midlands on their journeys to the Shannon, and construction was fraught with difficulty and danger. Many died in the making. We don’t see that these days of course. And when I speak about the canals to people, they usually mention shopping trolleys and other detritus. They generally don’t believe me when I explain that canal water can be very clean and free of pollutants. The Milltown Feeder that feeds the Grand, for example, gets its water from the Curragh Aquifer, and I’m willing to wager there are water molecules down there since the last Ice Age.
And surrounding the canals are the beautiful but oft-neglected buildings that were all part of the industrial fabric of the time. And just like the locks, all hand-made, carved, crafted.
And so it’s something of a wonder that my idle mind took so long to work out that I should journey its length one day. I suppose it’s not that long ago that much of the canal bank was just impassable. Indeed, some of it west of Mullingar was even dry. But the various stars aligned this year to make the journey not just doable, but possible.
Once Gaelforce had sunk beneath the waves, the bubbles of another ‘event’ started to pop on the surface. My early unformed version of this was to do the distance over two days, with S, in much the same way as we did the Barrow Way. When I looked at running it in more detail, I discovered local man Gary O’Daly had already completed the task, in one sitting. And holds the FKT to boot, which is Fastest Known Time. (Read the epic adventure here, which is also a primer for anyone planning such a quest). So whilst that ‘first’ box was already ticked, it opened up a treasure trove of information, and once I pitched my idea to Gary, it was clear I had met someone with a similar sense of adventure (read ‘madness’) who had a huge grá for the canal and its history, and was free and generous with his knowledge.
The plan came to me whilst I was sitting at my desk. Do the Royal Canal Greenway as a triathlon.
A few simple maths would give me the distances required. Take an Ironman. Calculate out the percentages of each discipline. Apply them to the greenway distance of approx. 146k (over 90 miles in old money) and there you have it.
A swim of about 2.5k
Bike for about 116k
Run for about 27.5k
Indeed, for those fond of doing ‘kilo’ events (id est, do an imperial 100 miles as 100k, for example, or sometimes you will hear of runners doing a ‘metric marathon’ of 26k, for example), this was largely a ‘kilo’ version of an Ironman.
Give or take a few hundred metres either way, it landed quite well as regards landmarks. The start and finish points were set already: Richmond Harbour in Clondra is the official ‘start’ point of the canal, heading east. Dublin Docklands at the lifting bridge into the Liffey is the end. We settled on Begnagh Bridge in Longford as Transition 1 from swim to bike, and Maynooth Harbour in Kildare as T2.
Next up were the logistics. When you’re planning on doing something mildly crazy like this, it’s very important to have friends around you that will buy in. People who don’t even question the merits of such an idea, but just say ‘cool… what can I do?’
There was only one man for the job: my old school friend, Austin. Austin is a keen kayaker, and his three sons have taken up the paddle with great success. Not only was he in from the start, he was ahead of me on the various kinks of the planning in terms of what to bring and where to be in case of emergency. He was going to pick me up very early doors on Saturday, load up his car with the bikes (main bike and a spare, plus a third for his son), and he had press-ganged his eldest son James to be my chaperone in the kayak.
He would then track my progress as we wended our way through the midlands, and James would swap paddle for pedal power and join me for some of the bike. Austin would then take the bike from me at Maynooth and pick me up in Dublin, when it was all over.
They say ‘worth your weight in gold’… not sure that’s a great way to measure anyone’s worth, and I don’t even know Austin’s weight, but a rough calculation on today’s gold prices would put him around 3.5 million euro.
The second piece of the puzzle was Gary, who was taking pictures for his excellent blog, and would be passing by that day 😉 So Gary planned to meet us somewhere along the swim route, and do some cycling as well. And possibly some of the run, depending on a few factors.
The third and final members of the trinity were to be Des and Ciaran, who would do some or all of the run from Maynooth. Mostly for the craic, and to join in the madness, but also for a little extra ‘safety in numbers’ as there are a few ‘choice’ locations along the canal that have a reputation for trouble; usually from small groups of young lads up to no good. In the end, Ciaran, my firefighting colleague, couldn’t make it due to low crew numbers.
So the stage was set. All the pieces were in place. The board was beautifully laid out; the weather was settled and warm, and the plains of Ireland were calling. The gear was all ready, counted, ticked off various lists, and bagged away for the morning. All I needed now was a good night’s sleep. And as anyone in this situation will tell you, sleeping with a very early start ahead of you, with the prospect of a long day on top, means plenty of tossing and turning and waking at hourly intervals. The trick is not to check your phone to make really, really sure that it is indeed set for 4.15am. Yes. That is a bad idea.
True to form, I was up before the alarm. Breakfast was a big bowl of porridge, with some toast and tea. As we neared 5am, I dumped all the bikes and gear outside onto the pavement, ready for pick-up. It was a cool morning, and the only other soul on the lane was a fox, loping down the middle of the road. It stopped and gave me the eye, and vanished down a driveway. As I waited for Austin and Jim to arrive, I could hear it barking. A fox’s shriek is quite distinctive and has given rise to the legend of the banshee. On this occasion, it was a chance encounter, and I welcome any time I cross paths with such handsome wildlife.
The chariot arrived and we packed up the gear and headed west. Even though it’s largely motorway all the way to Longford, it’s still quite a spin, and somewhat sobering when you realise you are going to have to make it all the way back, and some, under your own steam. But as my dear wife is fond of reminding me, you do it to yourself, you know!
We navigated our way safely to Richmond Harbour and parked up near the water. All was quiet. The sun was beginning to make an impression on the day, and given that this was no ordinary triathlon, there was no great hullabaloo as regards setting out one’s transition area. All I really needed to do was get my wetsuit on, get in the water and start swimming.
I changed while the lads got the kayak sorted. I slipped into the canal and after a few photos and a clip of video, Jim started the watch, and we were off.
I hadn’t really thought too much about the swim. I certainly hadn’t trained for it. Not at all. Probably taking on 2.7k and change in the water was a little ambitious. But the canal didn’t seem too offended by my presence. The water was pleasant enough, and once we passed the first portage (I recommend this map if you want to travel the canal) of the 45th Lock, the visibility improved, which made sighting a little easier.
The next obstacle was the rail lifting bridge. I was just able to swim under but Jim had to portage again. Then it was the final straight to Begnagh Bridge. It always feels like it’s not getting any closer, especially when you’re level with the water. Along this stretch, Gary appeared on his bike to offer encouragement (and take these swim pics), and soon enough, we were clambering out of the water and stripping off the wetsuit. About an hour and five, according to Jim. I had decided to wear my trisuit for the journey, rather than change into proper cycling and running gear. Not that I was trying to shave minutes or anything like it. It was just a nod towards this being a triathlon.
The bike was unstowed, backpack slung over, and we were off. Having Gary alongside was a blessing. It always takes a little while to get your bearings when you’ve had your head down in the water for so long. And there were quite a few crossings to consider. And if you get one of these wrong, you will inevitably be led down a blind alley.
We tipped along at a reasonable pace. The towpath here is all a well-bound surface. In some places, it doubles as a road, and so a road bike is perfectly acceptable for the route we were going to take. I admit I am a little sniffy about the loss of some of the traditional grassy towpath, but as we travelled along, I could see the far bank in many cases still maintained this, and so sacrificing one side for the benefit of walkers, joggers, hikers and cyclists was a decent compromise. Nor could I have contemplated my journey without a decent surface; not on a road bike, anyway.
So low-to-mid 20s in kmph was the order of the day for the first part of the journey. We passed a few landmarks, like the Longford Line (currently disused) and it was fun to note these locations ‘in the flesh’ having looked at them online during the week. Gary and I parted company at Mosstown Harbour and I headed on alone. I passed Corlea Trackway and made a mental note to return soon to visit this wonderful piece of history.
We met again at Abbeyshrule, and Gary was able to pass on some of his extensive canal knowledge on the aqueduct over the River Inny. We pushed on, crossing over into Westmeath. One county down, four more to go!
The landscape opened up into extensive bogland. It reminded me of that Rich Hall gig, where he claimed his hometown landscape was so flat, on a clear day you could see the back of your own head. There is a certain mystery to this landscape. After the majestic, sharp quartzite peaks of the Mayo Bens and Maumturks last weekend, it was quite the contrast. Our bogland is in need of protection. Whilst nothing beats the smell of a peat fire, the damage to our environment is simply not worth the price.
Ballynacargy was our next stop, and here Gary bid me farewell. We would meet again. I did the next stretch to Ballinea on my tod, where I met up with Austin and Jim again. I had a hot date with a cold sandwich, and I had earned it. Over 50k under the belt on the bike, plus the swim, and only gels and energy source drink for fuel. Acceptable, for sure, but not very satisfying. And certainly not savoury.
As I munched down on my chicken and bacon meal, Jim unstowed his bike and got his gear ready. We set off together for the metropolis of Mullingar. We could tell we were getting close, simply by the increase in foot traffic. But we negotiated our way through the town without incident and soon found our way back out into the open, skirting the busy M4 motorway, which we passed under at Mary Lynch’s pub, where Gary was waiting to wave us on through with words of encouragement.
At D’Arcy’s Bridge, I made an error, and we continued on the north bank for 2k before the pleasant road petered out into a gravel track. Clearly we should have crossed back at the bridge, and a quick glance across the canal confirmed this; there was an elderly couple sailing along gracefully on their bikes. There were the official signs to alert you of shared usage of the towpath. And indeed, there was the towpath!
Nothing for it but to turn around and make a mental note of the additional 4k on the watch, and to pay more attention to the signs. It was my big concern for the day (over and above punctures, injury or illness) – missing a crossing – but it had happened, and it was no problem. The new signage along the route seems to be well done throughout, and if you follow it, you won’t go wrong.
Shortly we also passed into Meath, our third county on the journey, and then we passed over another impressive aqueduct over the Boyne River near Longwood, where we stopped to get a few photos. The engineering involved here is impressive when you consider it’s all built by hand. There is another pumping station here, to top up the canal, so I must ask Gary about that. In the original canal construction, when it was fed by feeders from lakes, it must have had an adequate supply to keep it topped up. In the modern day, does it lose water?
Soon after the crossing, we were in Kildare – my home county – and shortly after that we pulled into Moyvalley and Furey’s Pub, where a contented-looking Austin had clearly had a decent lunch. Here Jim and I parted company, as was the plan. I soldiered on.
The canal dips in and out of Kildare and Meath at this point, and I could tell the M4 was near. I was cocooned in my own little parallel universe. An arterial route of delicate greens and greys. By my side, the Royal Canal a constant companion. September in Ireland is often gentle, and if you had to pick a day for this outing, you could scarcely have picked better. Just the occasional soundless dropping of leaves to remind you that Autumn is not around the corner but here at your feet. And that’s as it should be. As it is. The whoosh of the motorway traffic somewhere beyond the sanctity of our little linear ecosystem was an unwelcome reminder that the world was still spinning furiously out there somewhere.
Perhaps just as furiously spinning was the thought that Enfield was up next, and I had one more crossing to make before I was on the home stretch. In truth, you have no choice but to pass up and over the canal here, across a busy road, before dropping back down, and soon you are back sharing the countryside again with your old friend. And you are passing back across the borders of Meath and Kildare as you move ever closer to the end of the cycle.
Before long, I was at Cloncurry Bridge. And now I know I am really close. On the last day of the year, the local athletic club members put on perhaps my favourite event: Lock Up The Year. You can do a full marathon (which I did one year), a half, or a 10k. The half usually involves getting bussed out to Cloncurry Bridge and you run back to Leixlip. In simple terms, given that I was stopping at Maynooth, which is even closer, and I was on a bike… well, I hadn’t long to go.
There is a moment in each triathlon discipline (I suspect it’s common, though I have no evidence to back up my pet theory) when you say to yourself ‘yeah, I’m sort of done with this swimming lark… can’t wait to get on the bike…’ and then you repeat this towards the end of the bike when you believe that running will be ‘grand’ and you can relieve that pain in your arse from the saddle, and really get a good stretch in those quads, and roll your shoulders, and… yeah, all that bollocks. After a few k in the saddle, I usually start to reminisce about the gentle swish of the stroke, the caress of the cool water… and after a very short amount of running, the thought of sitting in a saddle seems incredibly seductive. And sensible.
But there ya go. That’s triathlon for you. And the oddness of the human condition! We do it to ourselves.
I was trying to video a little part of my arrival into Maynooth Harbour, which caused me to sort of crash-land in on top of Gary, Niamh, Austin and Jim, who were waiting for me in the fire station car park. Now it was time to ditch the wheels and take to foot. The rucksack was swapped out for a belt with a couple of small water bottles and some gels, and with little fuss and less fanfare, Gary and I tipped out of the harbour towards Leixlip like we were just going for a quick Sunday jog.
Even though I know this section of the canal so well, I also knew it would be easy to get seduced into thinking the job was nearly done. I had not really trained for this. I had done practically no swimming at all, for quite some time. And very little bike. Even though I had been out running a fair bit, I had not done any long distances, and I was facing into over 27k of running – the guts of 17 miles. I had done nothing like that in training. Nothing close.
We reached Louisa Bridge in Leixlip without too much fuss. Indeed, my watch stats suggest we clocked the first kilometre at 5.24 pace, and each of the subsequent ‘laps’ at sub-6 minute pace. Not fast, but for the day that was in it, not sustainable by either of us. Gary was nursing an injury, and I was carrying about 120k in the arms and legs. It was a warm day, and the pace was going to drop, one way or another.
When we hit Leixlip, we were ahead of schedule, and ahead of Des, who was to meet us at the bridge. It meant a brief but welcome respite on the grassy bank opposite the train station. Greetings and introductions were made (it turns out they knew each other through the running community anyway) and the posse of three set out for Dublin.
Once we passed under Collins Bridge at Coldblow, I was in uncharted territory. Not only had we passed out of Kildare into Dublin, but we were on a stretch I had never run before. But if you needed to pick two guides and companions, you would travel far and wide to find two better than Gary and Des. Gary himself has the FKT (Fastest Know Time) for running the full length of the canal in one sitting, which he did last June, and Des also ran the canal too, over three days, and both lads are great company and are full of stories to distract the addled mind.
Perhaps it would be unfair to say the canal loses its charm here. It certainly endures some indignities as it winds its way into the capital. Rubbish is the obvious one. Encroachment by housing too. Rather than having the freedom of the wide open boglands of Longford and Westmeath, it is hemmed in and fenced off like an unwelcome visitor. The city turns its back on canals, for the most part.
Crossing the busy M50 motorway on the aqueduct is quite bizarre, and must be even more so for a barge. I suppose it is yet another aqueduct; it’s just the previous ones seemed at ease with the landscape, and built of earth and stone. Nonetheless. The canal is nothing of not a reflection of its surroundings, and on this score, the Royal mirrors its surroundings well. Though along the way, and especially at the locks where there are some old stone buildings, you can sense the Georgian spirit of the canal. If there are ghostly echoes to be detected by sensitive ears – perhaps the banter of the lock-keepers, or the plod of the dray horses – then perhaps today is not the day to pick them up.
Instead of ghostly echoes, we get more corporeal reminders of the past; the bronze casting of a man pushing open a lock gate at Ashtown, Hamilton’s Quaternion Equation at Broom Bridge, commemorated with a plaque (the original etchings scrawled on the cut stone of the bridge are long gone), Brendan Behan’s statue on a bench at Binn’s Bridge, and the rather ominous but hugely impressive head of Luke Kelly near Sherriff Street.
But to reach and pass each of these small but significant landmarks, we must plod on. The pace has dropped, and as we reach each of these photographic opportunities, I suggest we stop briefly while I record the moment, and there doesn’t appear to be any opposition.
We have safely navigated the Deep Cutting at Clonsilla. Spotted Jenny Wren plying her trade. Check out her barge tours here. And had our first glimpse of the Poolbeg Chimneys – twin spires that will be forever Dublin, more than the actual Spire will ever be. And the canal turns ever to the south to meet its final destination.
Our pace continues to drop as we navigate the various roads and junctions. Many of the traditional stone bridges were simply outgrown as Dublin spread its cloth over the land, and they were replaced with larger offerings that did not need to allow for horses to pass underneath.
It feels odd to have our progress halted by traffic lights, especially for me, having travelled halfway across the country unhindered. But such is the way. Of course, we enjoy these ‘amenities’ today as people with leisure time on our hands. But these canal routes were the motorways of previous generations, ferrying the raw materials of so many trades. If cities didn’t exist, neither would canals.
We were truly on the home straight now. We passed Lock number 1, and Luke Kelly, and the way he might look at you, and into Spencer Dock. Des ran ahead to get a quick clip of me huffing and puffing towards the Sea Lock and North Quay Wall. Just as there is no ‘official’ start point to this triathlon experience, there is no end point either. But the solid stone wall of the quay with the Convention Centre in the background seemed as good a place as any to finally stop moving.
For history buffs, the current Dáil (government of Ireland) is sitting in this new building on the quays. Just to prove how interwoven everything is, the government had to move here because Covid restrictions meant the traditional Leinster House building on Kildare Street wasn’t big enough to allow for social distancing. Leinster House was designed by Richard Cassels and built for the Earls of Kildare and Leinster in 1745 – the powerful FitzGerald family, and the same folk who sat on the original board of powerful movers and shakers who planned the construction of the Royal Canal, and insisted it passed their family seat at Carton House in Maynooth. Which is why we had the expensive and labour-intensive Deep Cutting at Clonsilla, and the massive aqueduct at Leixlip, to cross the Rye. All thanks to William Robert FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster. His ‘country’ residence was Carton, but when in town, he lived at Leinster House.
And so there is an odd little synergy there. Had Covid never happened, I may never have contemplated this adventure. Had the FitzGeralds never engaged with the canal company, the Royal canal would have taken a different route.
And as my Dad is fond of saying, if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.
We all met back at Austin’s car, and Gary produced a hip flask of Tullamore Dew, which seemed a fitting way to cap off the day.
As is the way with these things, your body is simultaneously tired and wired. Once home, I stayed up, snacking on anything I could get my hands on, long after the point I should have gone to bed, watching Match of the Day. It had been a long day. But it had been a wonderful day too, and I didn’t want it to end.
I finally dragged myself to bed, and for once, sleep came quickly, and there were no dreams of canals. There simply wasn’t any room left!
This journey could not have happened without the great support, encouragement and enthusiasm of a number of wonderful people. In no particular order, huge thanks to Austin and Jim. The lift out to Longford was vital, but the extra support along the way with the kayaking and cycling, and food stops, and the lift home were beyond the call of duty.
Gary played a blinder before the off, with a trove of valuable information, and then joined in on the bike and the run. I suspect he knocked as much craic out of it as I did.
Des was the best chaperone you could ask for if you are heading into the Heart of Darkness (or Dublin, as the locals call it!). He’s always full of humour and stories, and is a card-carrying member of what I call ‘One Of The Good Guys’ Club. You won’t be surprised to hear he regularly paces Dublin Marathon, for example. Ciaran couldn’t make the run, but I know he would have enjoyed the craic too.
My own family also deserve honourable mention, mainly because they have to put up with me and my strange ways. Love you all, lovely people!
And so that should be it for 2020. It’s been an odd year and it’s not over yet. But there’s plenty of time to plan the next adventure. And I will put together a short ten minute film about the Royal Canal Triathlon, and get the link out somehow.
I normally pride myself on taking a decent picture, but on this outing, I was taking clips of video, and just neglected to take any good photos. I don’t even have a decent one in there of Austin or Gary, but perhaps they’ll feature in the film somewhere!
If anyone would like to do this and would like some advice, feel free to ask. The interesting pre-race gag was that we were going to set a World Record. And it’s easy to do. Just find (or create) an event that no-one has ever done before, do it, and claim a record. Easy.
And in fairness, as triathlon courses go, you could definitely make this one a runner (pardon the pun). It’s incredibly flat. The water is clean, and the surfaces are pretty good too. Any triathlete worth their salt tabs would knock lumps off my time too, so if I do claim a World Record, it wouldn’t stand for long.
But just bear in mind, when you do smash my time, you have to do your transitions in the same places, and stop for a sandwich at Ballinea, go wrong at D’Arcy’s Bridge and add 4k to your journey, and also get waylaid by a cyclist with a flat in Kilcock, looking for a bike pump. You should stop at regular intervals to admire the scenery, and learn at least a tiny portion of the rich history of the Royal. Indeed, what you should probably do is hire Gary as your guide.
And if you do it, make sure to tell me about your experience. I loved it, and would recommend it to anyone. No need to do it all in one sitting either. I’m sure as the Greenway develops, more offerings to the passing punter will spring up along the banks.
Enjoy it. And now, I’m away to walk the dog. We are having a classic Indian Summer September here in Ireland. I want to soak up every second.