Escape to the Mississippi

Growing up, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn, was my favourite TV programme.
Twain’s classic gripped me with the escapades of the duo on a raft on the Mississippi. Could we have
such a raft in Clondalkin?
One summer, 1984, my cousin John O’Byrne came to stay. It so happened that there were several
wooden boards lying around our garden that seemed to be the makings of a raft. We obtained
additional 2 X 4 laths of wood from the falling down fences of our neighbour’s gardens. We bought
oval headed nails from McNamara’s hardware and got hammering. When my father saw our
construction, he suggested that it would need buoyancy. Luckily for us he could get 25-gallon drums
from his job. We tied six of these under the structure. I also added a rudder because a raft needed a
The Grand Canal was at the bottom of the Watery Lane 1KM from our house. This industrial
behemoth of the 18th century was now abandoned but still I had grand visions of floating from the
9th lock in Clondalkin to the 8th lock in Ballyfermot and back again with me on the rudder, and my
cousin and three little brothers aged 8, 5 and 4 on board. One evening we set out to carry the raft
there but seeing our struggle my father offered to put it on the roof of his Renault 16 car. There was
no roof rack, so we had to tie it on and hope it did not fall off.
At the canal we placed the raft in the water with great trepidation and piled on. We excitedly pushed
it away from the bank, but unfortunately it kept drifting back into the reeds. My father, who told us
he had swam in the Boyne River as a child, looked on. The only solution seemed to be for my cousin
and I to get into the canal and push it. I was uncomfortable with this because I could not swim, and I
was not sure how clean the canal water was. But there was no other way, so we nervously got into
the cold water, held on to the side of the raft, and kicked furiously until it was in the middle of the
canal. Unfortunately, we could not then board it for fear of capsizing with the lads sitting on top. The
real-life experience of the raft was quite different from my expectations and I was in a bit of shock.
The rudder did not work either and it started drifting back into the reeds.
My father suggested we let the raft drift off to the far inaccessible bank but tie a rope to it under the
water to our bank. I was worried someone would find the rope but bringing the heavy raft back
home was out of the question. I came back three days later and was disappointed to see the raft half
submerged. That was the last I saw of it. In hindsight there were always some eerie moments during
Tom & Huck’s adventures, and my raft experience had turned out like this.
A year later when I started secondary school, I was proud to hear a new classmate recount how he
had once seen a huge raft on the canal tied up on the other bank. A year after that I read Huck Finn
in English class and learned how life on the raft had brought Huck face to face with his prejudices
through meeting Jim who was escaping from slavery.
I have not seen a raft since…