The recent proposal, made by South Tipperary County Council, and published in this newspaper, for the taking into public charge of the River Suir towpath, from Clonmel to Carrick-on-Suir, is one that has to be welcomed by every citizen of this lovely countryside of South Tipperary.
For those who have walked and enjoyed the amenities of even sections of this towpath, it is a place which is treasured and which merits public conservation and maintenance. The Council already has had some involvement in that maintenance. There has been periodic hedge-cutting, some control of prolific nettle-growth and a seemingly endless battle with brambles. But, with the exception of one area in the townsland of Newtown Anner/Killaloan, the track is walkable, though there is under-mining here and there as a result of flooding, notably downstream of the old mill at Anner Bridge.
In fact, the condition of a structure which is well over two centuries old, the towpath is a remarkable tribute to those responsible for its design and its construction, under the auspices of the Suir Navigation Company. In fact, it seems to me that the path pre-dates that work. In Burke’s “History of Clonmel” there is a reference to a report of a meeting held in 1835, and reported on by David Malcolmson, in which he writes: “It is now sixty years since John Bagwell obtained a grant from parliament for improving the river ..... A thousand pounds were expended on making a trackway......” This would date some development back to 1775.
But since the rivers were the main arteries of access from the coast to the interior, it has to be accepted that some form of track or pathway, from which people explored the countryside, must be as old as human occupancy. The well-laid-out 19th century Suir towpath has to have a very ancient predecessor.
The Suir Navigation Company did not have an unchallenged passage when it set out to make the Suir at Carrick navigable for the berthing of large boats and for the trans-shipping of cargo upstream to towns on the river. Apart from a rocky ledge protruding into the river in the vicinity of the town itself, there was a very strong objection by the 200 boatmen who earned their living from off-loading and transporting goods from larger vessels.
In fact, while aspirations for the company were never entirely realised, considerable quantities of goods, coal, timber, iron, salt were imported and exports from Clonmel alone, were estimated at almost 54,000 tons, and from Carrick 9,000 tons, per annum, all by river transport.
Like Bianconi’s long-cars on the roads, commercial traffic on the Suir, from Clonmel to Carrick to the port of Waterford, was eventually overtaken by the advent of the railways. But the towpath between the two towns remains, and is now a most valuable recreational amenity.
It is an amenity that is much used and scores of people walk every day from the quays of Clonmel to Sir Thomas’ Bridge, or from Mulcahy Park downstream or upstream. The path from that bridge to Anner Bridge is still in reasonably good condition, and it opens up a countryside of rich pasture-land against a backdrop of the wooded slopes of the Comeragh foothills. If, as it is alleged, the infamous Oliver Cromwell said, on first seeing the Suir Valley, that this was “a land worth fighting for,” who would dare to dispute it?
The path, from immediately upsteam of Cloghcarrigeen, is narrow and overgrown in early summer, but the section at Kilsheelan is superbly maintained, thanks to the work of the Tidy Towns Committee. Then, onwards to Poulakerry (and a seasonal growth of a virulent species of stinging nettle!) to Ballydine and ultimately the delightful Old Bridge of Carrick.
The Suir, for the most part of its journey between the two towns, is a lazy river, and walking by it, and to its rhythm, is an “away-from-it-all” experience. Here and there, the sound of distant traffic may invade the stillness, but otherwise strolling by water on a sunny day, has a quality of timelessness.
And one cannot write about the Suir without recalling the prose and poetry of Michael Coady. The boatmen, the fishermen, the flood tides, the ebb tides, the streets of his own town of Carrick, are celebrated in his writings in prose, poetry and photography. His last book “Going by Water” was published in November 2009. In a poem under the same title, he commemorates the death of his friend William Callaghan (1925-2006), when his two sons took the body of their father upstream by boat, through Cora na mBrathar, the Gap of Ballinderry and by Poll Sailli, for burial in the ancient riverside graveyard of Churchtown.
It seems to me that the restoration of the Suir towpath should not require any major engineering work. Keeping the trackway open, the structure safe, allowing space for the wild-flowers, perhaps introducing more facilities for access between Kilsheelan and Carrick-on-Suir, is sufficient. In the conservation of this local treasure, less, rather than more, might be the most useful guideline for the preservation of the beauty and tranquility of this old Suirside amenity.