The River Barrow
Two Men in a Boat featured in a live, RTE, Sunday Miscellany, broadcast from the Watergate Theatre in August 2011 celebrating ‘The Year of Craft’ and as part of Kilkenny’s Arts Festival.
The programme was repeated last Sunday, August 8, to coincide with this year’s Arts Festival and an exhibition in the Castle Park celebrating 50 Years of Irish Craft Heroes.
It was the summer of 1970 and I had just finished my first year in college, or ‘Uni’, as we called it. There was no such thing as inter-railing or J1s to the States back then, or at least not for me.
Summer for me was about finding a job that would help pay for my keep the following academic year. The job I found that summer, or rather the job that found me, was cutting rushes on the River Barrow.
The job found me because my employer, an entrepreneur of sorts, though he was called a business-man back then, happened to be married to my sister. He made coffins for a living and when the coffin factory closed for the month of August he, along with his workers, took to the river, in boats, to cut rushes.
This particular summer, he took me with him. My mother was reluctant to let me go: would I be safe on the river — ‘sure the chap can hardly swim’ —but my brother-in-law, who made up in charm what he lacked in stature, smiled saying:
“Arrah we’ll make a man of him yet, mam”. My mother had every right to be worried as the boats were made of soft Obechi timber by the workers in the coffin factory and would most certainly not meet today’s health and safety standards.
My brother-in-law cut rushes because his father before him cut them and sold them to Guinness’ where the coopers used them for insulation in the wooden beer barrels.
The use of rushes, however, was in sharp decline back in 1970 as aluminium barrels replaced the old timber ones. Yet my brother-in-law continued the practice having sourced a market for them with a basket-maker in Holland.
There were maybe eight of us in all, cutting the rushes, and we worked two to a boat, one cutting the rushes with a scythe while the other, positioned directly behind, stacked them, tying them into neat bundles until such time as the boat could hold no more and we’d offload them on the river bank. I worked with Martin who was not just the rush-cutter but captain, as it were, of my boat.
Standing directly behind him, I neatly stacked the rushes that he smartly and swiftly cut and swung back to me by the fistful. Because we were paid by the bundle, those rushes came thick and heavy and it took all in my power to stack and tie them with the lengths of baling twine, dangling from my trouser belt, all the while wary that I might lose my balance and fall headlong into the river.
When the boat was full, Martin rowed to the bank where we stacked the bundled rushes in rows, leaving them to dry for a week or so, before they were stored in some disused shed or hay barn that my brother-in-law had rented from some local farmer. Martin and myself became good buddies over the course of the summer. Come lunchtime, Martin would light a fire on the river bank, place the kettle on top but not before tossing in a few fresh eggs to boil which we’d later devour with slices of thick brown bread and the reddest, ripest tomatoes I had ever seen.
When we had finished for the day, we piled into the back of my brother-in-law’s pick-up truck as he drove to the local village for some well-earned minerals and ale shandies. And the craic was mighty in the back of that truck, speeding home, singing at the top of our lungs the huge hit of the summer, Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime.’
I don’t know if my brother-in-law ‘made a man of me’ that summer but here’s what I learned that August in 1970: I learned from Martin how to boil an egg in a kettle and that tomatoes taste better with a pinch of pepper; above all, I learned that whatever I learned in my first year in university it was of no consequence whatsoever in a boat for two, cutting rushes on the river Barrow.
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