My Watery Westmeath Childhood

When I think back on my childhood, I quickly realise that so many of the stand-
out moments for me revolved around water. Growing up in Athlone the
Shannon was always a massive presence. Crossing the town bridge as a child
meant negotiating the noisy, and quite frankly frightening, Bailey bridge which
was in place for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s until the new
fixed-span was put in place.
When I was eight-years old I walked on water. Following mass in the local
Franciscan church, I went down to the strand, went down the stone steps behind
the Friary and decided to walk across the Shannon. This was made easy for me
as the Shannon had frozen over that year (1963) something it hasn’t done since.
I joined a group of youngsters and not so youngsters who walked out on the
thick ice…would I do it again you ask me? I’m not so sure.
Days spent fishing were among the happiest childhood days I can recall. As a
child I admired many of the adults who fished. Basil Moran from Grattan Row
caught more big pike while fishing from the Docks than anyone else I can
remember. The jetty at the southern end of Burgess’ Park, built just above a
sewage outlet was a favourite place to fish for perch and the occasional bream.
I remember one man who used to fish there quite often, he would follow up any
unproductive ‘bite’ by smelling the worm and declaring whether the missed fish
was a perch or a ‘dirty ol’ brame’. I envied him his sense of smell!
If I could turn back the clock to any day’s fishing it would have to be a day in
the mid nineteen-sixties when I was allowed to go fishing with my brother and
his friend. On second thoughts it might not have been so much that I was
allowed to go with him as that he wasn’t allowed to go fishing without me. My
brother’s friend was John McGee and the three of us headed off across town to
fish in the canal.
This canal was Athlone’s first bye-pass, cut by three hundred men, supervised
by the Dutch engineer, Thomas Omer, in 1757. It was the first attempt at
opening up the navigation of the Shannon through Athlone. The canal became
almost redundant in the 1840s following the successful Shannon Navigation
Works which cleared the rapids and shallows in the river-bed at Athlone.
To get back to the fishing, it was a dull overcast summer’s day, which quickly
gave way to rain, but the roach were biting with great enthusiasm. Our catch
was quickly into double figures so we just ignored the rain for as long as we
could. Eventually the others retreated to the shelter of a thorn-bush while I
persevered and kept fishing. I can still remember the lines of a folk song which I
had heard on the television and which were going around in my head that day. I
insisted on singing it at the top of my voice as I reeled in my latest catch
With a ring thing of a ring thing of an eye lo
With a ring thing of a ring thing of an eye lay
With my roo boo roo boo randy
My lob-stone keeps fading away
Eventually when I was soaked to the skin and still singing, I heard John asking
my brother: ‘Can you not shut him up? Is he always like this?’ Diplomatically
my brother declined to answer that question.