Tuesday 28 February 2012

Celtic Roots Craic! 48 – 'Up the Lagan in a bubble?'

Lagan Canal and Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, Co. Antrim

26 February, 2012

On the last show I was describing how, many years ago, my father had sowed grass seed with a device called an 'Aero' fiddle. Just the other night I was with some friends in a small pub called 'Paddy's Barn', in Saul, Co. Down – and there, hanging up from the ceiling rafters was a perfect example of one of these devices – which I haven't seen in over 50 years. It's a small world, eh?

That got me to thinking of another event from way back, which my father had told me about. I'll tell you about it in a minute. First a wee bit a' background. I was brought up in Co. Down, as I've said before, but I went to school in Lisburn, which is mainly in Co. Antrim.

The two counties are separated by the River Lagan, which flows from Slieve Croob – a hill in Co. Down near Ballynahinch – firstly west through Dromore, then north east to Lisburn and through Belfast, into Belfast lough – dividing East Belfast off from the rest of the city. There is a beautiful Irish song, 'My Lagan Love' – the air made famous by Horslips as 'Fantasia' – and the ballad itself has been covered by The Corrs, Celtic Women, Phil Coulter and a whole lot of others.

The south eastern part of the city of Lisburn is across the Union Bridge over the Lagan and is usually referred to by locals as 'over in the County Down'.  Just downstream from the bridge is what's known as The Island – a bend in the river below a weir, which was cut off by a section of canal and a lock.  This was once completely occupied by the old Island Spinning Mill, which eventually became derelict. It's now the site of the new Island Arts Centre – a venue for concerts, art exhibitions and all sorts of events.

The Lagan Navigation, as it was called, was begun in 1756, to connect Belfast Lough with Lough Neagh, the large inland lake which borders five of the six northern counties. When my father was an apprentice in what was later Barbour Threads – formerly The Linen Thread Company – he can remember the horse-drawn canal barges, known as lighters, delivering coal from the docks in Belfast to power the machinery in the Mill. The lighters also carried sand and bricks from Lough Neagh back down to Belfast.

The canal has been in disuse since 1958, with the M1 Motorway being built along eight miles of the canal basin in the mid 1960s. The tidal section of the Lagan through the city of Belfast became navigable again in 1994, when the new Lagan Weir was completed. This keeps the water level upstream at a fairly constant level by raising and lowering five gates which can also protect from floods during extremely high tides.

You can enter the enclosed basin for an hour or two either side of high tide, so we have taken our boat, 'Warrior Maid', up through Belfast Harbour and into the basin – mooring it overnight at Donegal Quay, right next to the city centre, and also upstream at Stranmillis – at 'Cutter's Wharf' pub – which is as far as you can go upriver at the moment. There are plans, though, to re-open the whole navigation in the near future.

We've taken three trips in all from Groomsport, where our boat is moored, round to Belfast, also staying at the new concrete pontoon in a basin behind the Odyssey Complex and taking friends and family for short trips around the Harbour and up and down the river. On one of these trips the personnel on the Weir had forgotten to inform me when we went through the night before that the outgoing Gate 4 was not going to be in use next day, and so we ended up bumping our keel on the top of the partially closed gate! Needless to say, the weir staff weren't very pleased about this.

In 2001, when the Island Arts Centre was opened in Lisburn, that section of the canal was also restored, and the local branch of the Inland Waterways Association were invited to bring small boats along to celebrate the opening. We also own a 14 ft. wooden dinghy, so I borrowed a boat trailer and arrived on opening day with my 79-year-old dad, my three-year-old grandson, my wife, Gerry, and another young friend. We launched the dinghy from a slipway, collected the rest of our crew at the canal basin and, after negotiating the lock and accepting the loan of a small outboard motor, headed downstream for a mile to the next weir and lock, which was still closed.

On the way I happened to remark to my Dad that I bet he'd never been down the middle of the Lagan before. He agreed that he'd never done it in a boat. When I asked what he meant he replied that he HAD travelled down the centre of the river before, but on a pushbike! We were a bit puzzled until he explained that one winter when he was young, the river had frozen over completely and he and friends had cycled along the centre of the frozen river.

It was as we were happily discussing this interesting anecdote, that my little grandson mentioned that his feet were getting wet. We all looked down and sure enough the water was nearly over his shoes. On further investigation I discovered that the bung was missing at the stern of the boat and water was flowing in like a tap turned on full! We were in danger of sinking! My young friend started bailing out the water and we headed upstream as fast as our 2 HP outboard could take us – yelling ahead to our friends as we approached the lock, to keep the gate open for us. As my friend kept on bailing, and we rose slowly in the lock, we managed to get my father, wife and grandson up the ladder to solid ground.

As soon as the lock gates opened my young friend and I headed across to the slipway, still bailing out as we went. That concluded our trip on the Lagan – though we did have a nice meal in the new centre afterwards. We have an expression here in case anyone thinks we might be stupid, or gullible – 'Do you think I came up the Lagan in a bubble?'

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