A Tale of Two Boats

Summer comes to our house with the stink of boiling calf s foot glue closely followed by the antiseptic odour of hot tar.
“Won’t last much longer. She’s had her day.” Dad says, “I think this summer at the island will be her last one.”
The following Saturday Dad and I take the boat – a fishing punt – out onto the Abbey River at Athlunkard Boat Club to test her mettle. I love the sound of the water as we – “dip-slush: dip-slush” the paddles. I love the startled squawk of the waterhens when we glide through their territory. And most of all I love the wet smell and familiarity of the river.
Moving out onto the broad Shannon, we turn right and slide under the Metal Railway Bridge where an ancient heron stands as impassive as ever. We bypass the tail-race of Ardnacrusha and move through the ruined pillars of the old salmon weir before we moor the boat at St. Thomas’ Island.
The grass is high. The thistles have multiplied but the scent of river mint still wafts on the air. Barefoot, we check out our picnic place and everything is perfect, ready for the picnic season to begin tomorrow. But how can I excuse myself from this tradition and go to the other side of the river to swim at Corbally with my friends?
On St. Thomas’ Island our favourite swimming spot provides the answer. There is something awful all over its sandy bank. I sink right down to my knees in stinking sludge.
“Indian maize.” Dad says, shaking his head, “I heard that a canal boat loaded with it sank upstream during the winter. The whole place is destroyed. We can’t swim here this year that’s for sure.” “Thank you, God.” I pray silently. I’ll have to go swimming at Corbally now. Dad agrees. Corbally it was from then on. The magic of our boat and our picnics on St. Thomas’ Island faded into oblivion. I had discovered boys.
Some time ago I met a man who knows everything there is to know about the trading boats of Ireland’s Inland Waterways. We chatted about the Shannon and my memories of the Guinness Canal Boats chugging past our house and I told him about the desecration of our sandy swimming spot on St. Thomas’ Island.
“The 52-M.” He told me. “She did it.”
Apparently the 52-M was a canal boat built for the Grand Canal Company in 1928. It was used to ferry barrels of porter from Guinness in Dublin to towns along the Shannon and usually had a cargo of goods on the journey back. It was on one of those return journeys and carrying a load of maize that the crew had what was reported as: – “An unfortunate directional incident.” – and sank in the tailrace of Ardnacrusha just below Parteen bridge. The boat remained underwater throughout winter and was raised the following summer when water levels were lower. Its cargo had been carried by the fast-running tailrace and washed up onto St. Thomas Island. The 52-M changed the direction of my life.
The strange thing is, some time ago I travelled along the Grand Canal at Robertstown, Co. Kildare on a canal boat named The Eustace. The Inland Waterways man told me that this is the self-same 52-M refurbished and renamed and still going strong whilst those halcyon picnic days on St. Thomas’ Island are but a hazy memory now.