Robertstown, Co. Kildare, Ireland

The year was 1784. It was the year the Grand Canal came to this part of Ireland. The artificial waterway was first conceived in 1755 yet the 127 km route from Dublin to the River Shannon  (Shannon Harbour, Co. Offaly) wasn’t completed until 1804.

Collage of 4 photos. 1. Three flags flying in the wind beside a canal lined with a long row of terraced white houses. 2. View from up the canal towards an arched stone bridge. 3. View of a canal with blue skies and sunshine and green edges lining the water. 4. Tourist sign - white on brown - that reads: ROBERTSTOWN GRAND CANAL. In 1751 a Board of Inland Navigation began planning a system of Canals for Ireland. The construction of the CAnal began in 1773. However, engineering difficulties and slow progress by the builders in the early stages of construction meant that by 1779 only 12 miles and 3 locks had been built. In 1785 the Canal reached Robertstown and by 1791 the Barrow Line branch had reached Athy and in 1803 the great objective was reached when the Calan reached the Shannon at Shannon Harbour. Passenger boats used the Grand Canal until the 1850s with commercial cargo traffic remaining until 1960.

A barge navigating the full route has to pass through 36 locks and cross over the River Liffey at the four-arched Leinster Aqueduct in Co. Kildare.

Blue and white sign on the bank of a canal sitting on two poles reading LEINSTER AQUEDUCT Uiscrian Laighean WATERWAYS IRELAND - image is reflected in the canal water

While commercial traffic stopped in 1960, recreational barging is still very much alive and well. It’s a fabulous way to see the country. I’ve taken a couple of two-day trips on both the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal and also in Canal de Garonne in France. Barging is by far my favourite water activity.

It’s slow. Very slow.

The former towpaths are now footpaths, bringing new life to the waterside with myriad cafés and restaurants copying the French model and setting up shop to cater for walkers and bargers alike. [I happily and highly recommended the caramel slice and the coffee at the Digby Bridge Café at Lock 13 near the Leinster Aqueduct.]

White coffee cup sitting on a wooden beam inked in black marker: MAY YOUR COFFEE KICK IN BEFORE REALITY DOES. A black pole with a white top in the background as two swans float on the canal water out of focus

Back in the day, the Grand Canal Company spotted a gap in the market, opening five hotels along the route to provide overnight accommodation for passengers. I can only find references to three of them – in Portobello, Dublin (1807); in Robertstown, Co. Kildare (1801); and Shannon Harbour, Co. Offaly (1806). The ones in James’s Street (Dublin) and Tullamore, Co. Offaly are gone completely.

Collage of four photos showing a grand red-bricked three storey building. 1 Red-bricked building with three floors in three vertical sections. Sections 1 and 3 have three windows, one on each floor. Section 2 has two windows over a white door and under a clock. 2. View of the building from the rear - three floors with four columns of three windows. 3. Tourist sign - white on brown - that reads: Kildare. The Thoroughbred County. ROBERTSTOWN HOTEL - The hotel was built by the Grand Canal Company and opened for business on 15th October 1801. The first hotelkeeper was Mr Andrew McMillan. The hotel proved so successful in those first few years that an extension was built in July 1804. The fortunes of the hotel fluctuated in the following years. IN 1816 the hotel was leased to Nicholas Whyte for £26 per annum but possession of the hotel was returned to the Grand Canal Company in 1867. In 1869 the ROyal Irish Constabulary were granded a lease of the premises and they remained in possession of the premises until 1905. THe building fell into disrepair and was not used again until 1939 when it was taken over by Bord na Mona as a Billeting Camp. Since the 1970s, the Grand Canal Hotel has been utilised for tourism uses as the local community endeavours to capitalise on the tourism potential of the Grand Canal and Robertstown Canal Heritage. An interesting feature of the Hotel is the Crosthwaite Clock situation on the top story of the hotel. 4. A blue and white canal barge with six portholes and a white railing moored in front of a grand old redbricked hotel.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure up any of the 100,000 plus passengers who travelled along the canal in a given year in the first half of the nineteenth century. Had I been around then, I’d have been one of them, complete with my travel trunk, kid gloves, and parasol.

By all accounts, the food and accommodation at the Grand Hotel in Robertstown were exceptional and in much demand. At least until the mid-1800s, when passengers began to find other ways to get around.

From 1869 to 1905, the hotel was taken over by the Royal Irish Constabulary, although it’s hard to imagine there being a need for so many given the size of the village today. According to the last census in 2016, 707 people call Robertstown home.

White sign embedded into a grey niche in a cream painted wall. GARDA. Mura bhfuil Garda sa stáisiún brúigh an cnaipe le dul i dteagmháil le Garada. Line Rúnda an Gharda Siochána saor fón 1800 666 111. If station is unattended press button to contact Garda. Garda Confidential Line Free phone 1800 666 111

It sat idle for some 30+ years before Bord na Mona took it over as a billeting camp for workers on the local bogs.

Since the 1970s it’s been used by the local community. But word has it, that in recent times, it’s been sold. It was high on my Lotto list, even if An Taisce rates it as being of poor structure and high risk.  I’d have figured out a way to wash the 72 windows but I’m not sure I’d be using the 62 hearths. But I was a day late and a few million dollars short.

Old piece of machinery painted in green. An old bike painted red. Both sitting on a green gassy bank of a canal. On the opposite side a colourful barge is moored. The far side of the canal is lined with two-storey stone and white washed houses.

As we wandered in search of the houseboats (moored further up the road in the marina at Lowtown, the highest point of the canal), I found myself slipping into old age. The two-storey terraced houses that line the footpath were calling out to me. Were I looking for a last house, I’d be seriously searching here.

Collage of three photos of the one house - 1. a two storey stone building with four windows and a slate roof attached to a whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof surrounded by a stone wall. 2. view of the gable end of the stone house 3. view of the two houses from across the canal - blue sky reflected in the water

There’s a strong community vibe. The signs are there. I imagine everyone knowing everyone, which is good. And bad.

It has a very arty feel to it, too.

Bass relief of a grey stone horse pulling something off the picture - set into a cream wall with a spotlight on top

The two-week Canal Fest was first held in 1965. I’m not sure if it’s still going strong. Back then, the opening act was  Agnes Bernelle waterskiing on the canal drawn by a galloping horse. But more fame would come the way of the village when it was cast in the role of the fictional village of Skebawn in the three seasons of the TV series The Irish RM.

Robertstown Canal Fest written in white mosaic outlined in red on a background of yellow and green mosaic tiles all on a wooden plaque on a white stone wall

I was particularly taken by the rubbish bins.

A rubbish bin by the side of a canal. Shaped like a brown robin with a red breast bearing a plaque. On the plaque is written: Robin Rubbish "To make me shout, put the rubbish in my mouth" Bins created by the children of Robertstown National School. Designed by Aoife Ryder. Mentor: Peter Pilkington. Date: 27 April 2008

I’ve been doing some reading and quite fancy investigating the culinary school at The Ivy. And the complimentary guided walks along the canal.

Next time, though, we need to venture around the corner and check out Lowtown, the summit of the Grand Canal at 85 m above sea level.

Landscape masterplan of a village showing green areas, buildings, paths, and waterways. Pinned to a stone wall.

If you’re visiting Ireland this summer, you could do worse than walk the Grand Canal or hire a barge and cruise your way across the country.

Highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

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