The Boats

Mayfly and Eco Showboat


The Eco Showboat Journey to the East is a five month arts expedition along the Shannon, Grand Canal and Barrow, aboard the Mayfly, flagship of the Eco Showboat project. setting off from the town of Askeaton on the River Deel, just off the Shannon estuary in the last week of April, and arriving in Dublin in early September before a final event in Howth on the Irish Sea



Our solar boat Mayfly, newly painted by Denis, was launched on the Deel river on April 22nd for the 2023 Eco Showboat Journey to the East, with not quite the same pomp and ceremony as is taking place in Westminster this weekend, but with a fair amount of hullabaloo nonetheless. Locals gathered to hear invited artist Michele Horrigan discuss her research into the Aughinish Alumina plant, which led to highly emotional scenes. People, tired and frustrated by over thirty years of illness, deterioration of water quality, biodiversity loss and harm to livestock - which they unsurprisingly link to the presence of the plant - gave vent to strong expressions of anger and sadness, with some ending up in tears. Meanwhile local environmentalists Liz Gabbett and Michael O’Connor welcomed families to two workshops, one looking at the impressive volumes of water we consume on a daily basis, and a second introducing people to some of the little invertebrates who live in our rivers, essential links in the biodiversity chain and highly sensitive to chemical residues that are almost certainly seeping into the water table, and from there into the Shannon estuary, from the nearby aluminium refinery.

Leaving Askeaton a day or two later in sub-zero temperatures at sunrise, with a resolve to continue to work with Michele and the Askeaton community to raise awareness of their demands for an independent investigation into the environmental and health impacts of the Alumina plant, the Eco Showboat sailed up the Shannon Estuary on the rising tide to Limerick to take part in the annual Riverfest festivities.


At the Hunt Museum urban farmer Kevin Wallace joined the Eco Showboat team to tell us about Korean natural farming methods he uses to enrich his soil and protect against pests naturally without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Kevin passed around murky jars of delightfully stinky potions containing naturally occurring bacterias and mycocosms, collected in spots where the earth has remained undisturbed for many years - near the roots of large trees or in dark corners of ancient graveyards - even inviting Denis to taste the brew, apparently perfectly comestible (he politely declined).

Artists Chelsea Canavan and Deirdre Power had fun with people of all ages during a Food Print workshop, a creative event designed to highlight the carbon footprint of our food while producing really beautiful printed artwork, and our in-house fresh water biologist Rachel O'Malley with the help of Ruairí Ó Conchúir, Limerick Community Water Officer,  introduced people once again to the dear little invertebrates that have now become so familiar to us: the Cased Caddisfly in his jacket built of debris; the Boatman spinning as he rows crazily beneath the water's surface; and the tiny translucent Side Swimmer (or Scud), valiantly doing the side stroke as she tries to find an escape route from Rachel's white tray. Meet the Invertebrates is a fantastic hit with young people so we are really delighted to have Rachel with us again this year thanks to an award from the Local Authorities Water programme to complete the Arts Council Open Call award that supports the Eco Showboat. Also important to note that after the workshop Rachel returns the invertebrates alive and unharmed to the same river from which they came.


Denis will have to go it alone through the terrifying hundred foot Ardnacrusha Lock on Monday at 8am. Even if he can count on the piloting of the wonderful Pat Lysaght to navigate the treacherous Abbey River, I won't rest easily until I know he is safely through the Lock, but hopefully next time I'll be sharing an account of our upcoming events in Dromineer on May 10th where Aideen Barry will tell about the environmental challenges of living close to a thousand year old mining site on land now considered toxic and where cultivation is forbidden.


Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power plant one of the deepest locks in Europe, more than 100 feet in total depth. Constructed from 1925 to 1929 as part of the new Irish Free State's ambitions to propel our fledgling state into the modern world, it can be approached from Limerick by travelling up the perilous Abbey River and along a short canal off the tailrace. This is a risky business and many boats get into trouble. Depending on how many turbines are in use, the current in the Abbey River can be thunderous, and the flow is further compressed by the narrow passage under Mathew Bridge.  Pat Lysaght, Limerick's "Man of the River" knows the river like the back of his hand and has been benevolently guiding boaters through the treacherous waters for several decades.

So on the evening of Sunday May 7th, Denis and Pat set off from Limerick and braved the Abbey river, travelling upstream on the rising tide of the Shannon estuary which temporarily floods the lower Abbey and neutralises the downstream flow.  On that rainy Sunday evening Denis' only option was to stay overnight on the Mayfly at the isolated mooring jetty at the top of the tailrace  below the lock, to be ready to pass through the lock early next morning before the turbines are activated. On Monday morning he was woken by a deafening dawn chorus.  In this wooded manmade ravine below the lock there is no access other than by boat, the sound of distant traffic is imperceptible, and the bird population can celebrate undisturbed.

At 8 am the lock gates creaked open, revealing the first chamber - shear walls, 40 foot high, dripping with water and streaked orange and green with algae. The lock passage, which takes over an hour, went smoothly, thank goodness, and having safely passed through, with heavy rain and winds threatening, the Mayfly continued up the headrace and , after passing through Parteen Weir, made a bee line for Dromineer Harbour, passing safely by the treacherous headland with its "boxing waves" at Castlelough that had so alarmed me last summer. Coming into Lough Derg from Killaloe, currents from the Shannon and the Scarriff rivers can combine with winds blowing down from the Silvermine Mountains to create pyramidal shaped waves that literally "box" your boat, so it rocks and shakes in unpredictable ways.


Arriving in Dromineer Harbour in early May, the weather was of course truly awful. This, combined with a funeral in the local community, stopped our midweek event from going ahead, despite the shelter offered by Joe and Rita at the Whiskey Still. Denis had been looking forward to hearing local poet Eleanor Hooker read some of her work inspired by Lough Derg. Instead he busied himself tinkering on the boat, and talking with people who wandered down to the harbour. 

He met Charles Stanley Smith, a local gentleman on his morning walk by the lakeside with his two identical dogs. Charles spoke knowledgeably about the environmental challenges facing Lough Derg, how it had been transformed by intensive farming and by other human activity. He was alarmed by the arrival of a wave of invasive non-native species which were taking over the lake, pushing out native species and disturbing the delicate balance of the lake's eco-system.

The next day, as if queued by Denis' encounter with Charles, a bearded young man in a cream coloured fishing hat arrived in the harbour and, stopping beside the Mayfly, started busily scraping mussels from the pontoon into a net and examining them. Wondering whether he was planning to eat the mussels, Denis struck up a conversation. The young man was Oscar Flynn, an ecologist conducting research for the UCD Invasive Ecology Lab. Oscar was gathering samples of Zebra mussels and Quagga mussels, two non-native species of fresh water mussels now widespread on Ireland's waterways, originally from the lakes of southern Russia and Ukraine. Both the Zebra and the Quagga feed by filtering water, making the previously murky water crystal clear. Oscar explained that, while the sparkling clean water may look enticing, in fact fish and other native species are being deprived of the phytoplankton on which many of them feed, while vegetation on the bed of the lake - bathed now in light from the surface - was flourishing. The lake's eco system was being transformed at a remarkable rate. One female mussel can produce more than 1 million eggs in a year, and each single tiny mussel can filter a full litre of water a day.

Charles - who Denis met several times during the windy, rainy days the Mayfly spent moored at Dromineer Harbour - was a former chairman of An Taisce, and had recently been involved in the preparation of a report for An Fóram Uisce – The Water Forum -  to influence government policy to set out concerted, island-wide action to protect our waterways from such invasive species - which Charles expects will continue to arrive from different parts of the globe over the next decade - and  to create an effective agency to implement such policies.

Denis was working on a project that we had long been considering: turning Mayfly into a responsive sound-art installation, emitting sounds that reflect the energy outputs from both solar and wind sources, allowing people to gain a better understanding of the power that is generated from both these sustainable energy sources. He was joined - in very windy conditions - by Nicholas Ward from UL on Thursday morning, and together they installed a series of sensors and Arduino boards, custom designed by Nick for the Eco Showboat, to capture data from both sources. With the technology in place, the next step is to design a programme to process this data into sounds - what these will be we're not quite sure yet: bells, birdsong, Freddy Murcury's best falsetto… the possibilities are endless. We hope to have Mayfly singing in response to sun and wind later this summer, so watch this space…

FRIDAY 12 MAY 2023

Visual artist Aideen Barry lives with her partner and children on the lower slopes of the Silvermine Mountains, not far from the site that was mined for silver for nearly a thousand years, but also in more recent times mined for zinc, bauxite, lead, copper and barite. The slopes on which Aideen and her family live are contaminated with heavy metals. An article published in 2002 by Olga Aslibekian and Richard Moles from the Centre for Environmental Research at the University of Limerick states:

"Extensive areas of soil within preliminary delimited zones were classified as contaminated"

and even more worryingly:

"Within floodplain areas grazing cattle may intake a lethal dose of Pb (lead)."

Aideen and her neighbours are advised not to plant vegetables directly in the soil of their gardens, but to use elevated beds with fresh topsoil, nor disturb hedgerows, and neighbouring farmers can no longer raise livestock or cultivate their land.

On Thursday afternoon, having said goodbye to Nicolas, Charles and Oscar, Denis got on his bike and cycled the 25 odd kilometres from Dromineer to Shalee, a long road sloping gently but consistently upwards to the Silvermines and Aideen's home. Along the way he was belted by rain and hailstones, as you would expect in early May in County Tipperary. He arrived dripping at the gate to be greeted by two enormous dogs, two small boys, and Cathal, Aideen's partner.

As part of the Eco Showboat programme, Aideen and Cathal had offered to host a screening of The Silver Branch, a prize winning documentary directed by Katrine Costello tracing the high court battle fought by farmer and poet Patrick McCormack and the Burren Action Group, challenging the installation of the controversial Burren Interpretive Centre at Mullaghmore. Aideen had hoped to project outdoors, but following the downpour that had drenched Denis on his bike, the field below the mountain was waterlogged and soggy, so they moved the screening indoors.

This was not just a simple screening. In a bout of gargantuan hospitality Aideen and Cathal cooked dinner for all 40 guests, followed by quantities of quite gorgeous looking strawberry sponge cake. I have only seen the photographs myself, marooned as I am in Paris for the moment, but from the looks of things Aideen's strawberry cake equals anything you might find in a boulangerie here is Paris.

A lovely coming together of people, with ecologists, artists, and friends and neighbours from Shalee and the surrounding district mingling and chatting as the sun set on the slopes of this beautiful scarred mountain.  Exactly what the Eco Showboat is about, and we are very grateful to Aideen and Cathal for hosting us. I'm looking forward to hearing about any new ecological projects or initiatives that may emerge from the evening.

Ailbhe came to pick us up at Lesseragh in the morning. While we waited for her we explored the house in daylight, before heading off to explore Ailbhe’s farm and say hello to the sheep. Finally, it was time to cycle back down the hill to the Mayfly and head off to our next destination: Portumna. Lough Derg was much more peaceful this morning than it had been the previous day. We made good headway and arrived in Portumna in time to walk through the park into town and get lunch. 

Knowing how crowded the main port would become by the end of the week, with a bank holiday weekend coming up and summer finally arriving, we elected to head off and find our our own wild little spot. We eventually found it by mooring next to a private island down near Portumna Bridge, and it was in this little haven that I left my father to continue the adventure on his own. 

Denis was looking forward to spending a few days alone in this apparently deserted place, with only a few unoccupied boats surrounding him, and finally editing the mass of footage we had taken over the last few days’ events. His peace was interrupted when he noticed that one of the boats next to the Mayfly was pumping pure diesel into the water! The pink liquid oozed out every so often, rendering the water oily and polluted. It was just then that another boater arrived, looking at the Mayfly and at Denis with astonishment.

“Is this coming from your boat?” he asked, and Denis did his best to defend himself. The Mayfly is an electric solar boat, he explained. It's entirely zero-carbon! The other boater looked at him like he didn’t quite believe him, and that he was about to be in a lot of trouble. Denis began to wonder how on earth he was going to get out of this situation when, luckily, another large burst of diesel suddenly bubbled out of the guilty boat, and the two men gawped at it, shocked.

With no sign of the boat’s owner, Denis and his new friend boarded the boat to see where the problem was. They eventually found that diesel was leaking from the engine into the bilge, to be evacuated by the automatic bilge pump. The local boater managed get a hold of the owner on the phone, who promised to come down and get the problem sorted out.  I hope he did!


In late May, I (Lotti, daughter and part-time assistant to Anne and Denis) joined to Eco Showboat in Dromineer to—metaphorically—sail off to Mountshannon. We set sail on Wednesday, blasting Led Zeppelin as we crossed Lough Derg in exceptional sunshine and arriving in the early evening just in time for dinner at the home of Paul Berg, one of the artists working with us who built the magnificent harp made out of three thousand year old bog oak, and his partner Martina. Though we are not musicians, let alone harpists, we got to strum the strings ourselves and thrilled at the delicately beautiful sounds that came out of our unprofessional hands. As the end of the evening approached we said our goodnights, looking forward to the arrival of harpist Anna Tanvir who would be able to play the incredible instrument as it should be played. 


We spent Friday morning setting up the Market House in Mountshannon, for our event the next day, accompanied by sound artist Slavek Kwi who showed us around Mountshannon, talking about his projects, his relationship with sound, and presenting us to the tiny peninsula he had taken “intellectual ownership” of. Much to his dismay, there were other people on his intellectual property at the time—Slavek reacted tolerantly. 

We then made our way over to Paul Berg’s Crannog Ceoil to film it with our drone, before taking advantage of the beautiful weather to go for a swim in the late afternoon. It was as we were getting out of the water that musicians Anna Tanvir and Maninder Singh surprised us with their arrival, earlier than we’d expected. We brought them over to Paul and Martina’s home, where Anna discovered Paul’s harp. Quite unexpectedly, Anna and Maninder began an impromptu jam session with a few of the songs from their repertoire, accompanied by Paul on the harmonica. This tiny concert was filled with such spontaneity and love of music that none could help but be moved—a prelude of what was to come.


Our event in the Market House—a beautiful old space where the Mountshannon Arts Festival is usually held—began around eleven a.m., with Denis giving a talk about the Eco Showboat’s journey so far. After this, sound artist Slavek Kwi let us experience some of the underwater sound samples he’d collected over the years, locally in Mountshannon or during his travels. Some of the sounds were unbelievable - like his recording of an electric fish from he Amazon - and really impressed on us all how incredible these underwater ecosystems are, and how little we know of them. Slavek, who told me how important sound has always been to his perception of the world - the sense he is most finely attuned to - really helped me understand how fundamental and interesting a sense it actually is. To combine this with ecology and to use sounds as a way of developing a deeper empathy with nature and its many ecosystems is also wonderful. 

After lunch, Niall Ó Brolcháin talked to us about rewetting the bogs and the importance of the peatlands in the world’s carbon emissions. Simply put, burning turf is responsible for 5% of our carbon emissions. That’s more than all the planes and ships, combined! But the peatlands, in their natural state, are also highly carbon absorbent. What can be incredibly dangerous for the world in some ways can also be a precious resource if we use it correctly, and this is what Niall is trying to move us to do, all the while reminding us that the farmers who own the peatlands are not inherently against rewetting the bogs, they simply have to earn a living. One of Niall’s missions is therefore to move the government to provide more aid to these farmers to support the rewetting of the bogs. Having myself grown up in France, where there are practically no peatlands, I didn’t know any of this before Niall’s talk, and was all the more flabbergasted at the effect they have on global warming. 

After this important talk Niall was relieved of his awareness-raising duties by the arrival of Anna and Maninder, whose contribution to the event included providing the most delicious Indian tapas selection, which they had generously made themselves the same morning

These were gone within minutes, and having satisfied their stomachs, the audience sat back down to listen to eco-poet Grace Wells recite some of her beautiful poetry from several collections, including a reading of a poem - The River - that she dedicated to my mother. This wonderful afternoon ended with Anna and Maninder taking centre stage to perform their beautiful folk songs from all around the world—Ireland, but also India and Madagascar—their powerful voices resonating through the space beautifully. And just like that, the day was over: all of us who had participated nearly collapsed in exhaustion, saved by Maninder who cooked a lovely dinner for us, and we talked away into the lovely, late spring evening, each of us reflecting on what we had just participated in, and excited for events to come. 


On the day after our Mountshannon event, activity and creativity seemed to still be at its boiling point: we began the day by taking Anna and Maninder out for a short excursion on the Mayfly, returning just in time to meet with Slavek, who was to make recordings of our engine underwater. However, as we arrived back in Mountshannon we unexpectedly ran into Jill Cousins, director of the Hunt Museum in Limerick, which had hosted one of our Eco Saturday events just a month before. We ended up all piling into Jill's beautiful barge where Anna and Maninder improvised another small concert then and there. After this wonderful little moment, Denis, Slavek and I went off to experiment with the sounds of our boat, the Mayfly, recording it all with Slavek’s underwater microphone. This was great, as one of our favourite things about the Mayfly is how quiet it is. To be able to hear what is actually going on there, below the water, thanks to Slavek, was amazing. 

Then, it was time for us to leave. We were invited to dinner with organic farmer Ailbhe Gerrard that evening, so we head off across the lake to Kilgarvan, with the wind fully against us. This slowed us down considerably, and once or twice the water got rather rough, but we persevered,  still blasting music as we like to do, and finally we made it and cycled up the hill to Brookfield Farm. We had a lovely dinner there at the top of the hill, overlooking Lough Derg, glimmering in the descending sun (the wind having dissipated once we were no longer on the water), and regaled by the many stories of Ailbhe’s father, Peter Gerrard, who finally drove us back to his home, Lesseragh, where we were to stay the night. After a short drive we passed through the old gates and  down a narrow, overgrown path, feeling like we were entering another age. There, Lesseragh appeared, a wonderful old country house just barely lit up by the headlights, plunged in darkness otherwise. 

We went in through the front door and Peter led us through the various rooms on the ground floor, lighting them one by one to reveal the walls covered with photographs and portraits, the bookshelves packed with books, the busy old kitchen built around the Aga. Peter told us more stories about the history of Ireland and his family, every time connected to little postcards or books he had on hand. Finally, off we went to bed, exhausted from the day, to fall asleep with all this in our heads.


After a few days of isolation, Denis headed back to Portumna Castle Harbour, which was, as he had guessed, full of boats. Helena, the Eco Showboat’s event assistant, arrived  that evening to set up her tent by the lakeside. 


On this beautiful Saturday, with not a single cloud in the sky, the team joined Dave Wall, Citizen Science Officer at the National Biodiversity Data Centre at the Portumna harbour, where he led the audience on a playful workshop on how to catch, identify and release Dragonflies and Damselflies. These beautiful creatures have become more and more common in Ireland due to rising temperatures, and are a good example of the way Ireland’s fauna and flora is being transformed by global warming. They are fascinating creatures to observe, and, catching them in a butterfly net, some of the audience got to gaze into their eyes (dragonflies and damselflies have deep pool-like eyes which one could really get lost in),  or hold them on their hats

In the afternoon, everyone went back to Portumna Castle where Anne Marie Deacy presented her artwork, l a n d // i n g, made in collaboration with Joanna McGlynn that compiles the tastes, smells and sounds that they’d collected Portumna Forest, and presented some of the astounding recording devices that they use to pick up on sounds not usually perceptible to the human ear, including a device that allowed them to record the sound of a tree growing! A sound I’m sure none of us have ever heard before. 

It was during this event that Deej Fabyc introduced herself, a fellow artist who works with performance, as well as running Live Art Ireland at Milford House, in county Tipperary. Deej was kind enough to invite Denis and Helena to attend a performance that was to happen there the next night.


On Sunday, Deej picked Helena and Denis up in Portumna and gave them a lift to Milford House, where they stumbled into a witch’s coven! This turned out to be Hi Vis Witches, a dublin-based performance trio who bring witchcraft into the 21st century wearing Hi Vis Jackets for construction work. Denis and Helena were immersed in an experience halfway between a witch’s ritual and a site visit, in which they got to test out their witch’s cackle and observe strange wormholes made out of air conditioning vents.

The evening ended with everyone planting a tree in the garden, in memory of Deej’s late partner, Mark Newell, an actor and artist. Mark died tragically a few weeks earlier in a car accident. He and Deej had been running Milford House and Live Art together these past few years. As everyone came together to plant the tree it was felt that Mark would be deeply remembered, and that his life and all the people he loved and who loved him should be celebrated. It is with this sentiment that we would like to end this segment. 

In memory of Mark Newell.

MONDAY, 12 JUNE 2023

Mayfly left Ballinasloe in the direction of her next stop: Pollagh. This was the beginning of a calvary for Denis. On our last day in Ballinasloe, rumours were circulating among boaters of drought and low waters — all of which would mean difficulties as Mayfly advanced along the Grand Canal. Denis and Mayfly set off all the same, stopping at Banagher for supplies - there would be few towns or shops while navigating the canal, which passes through an area of raised bog: water-logged plateaus that once were marshes. The canal here passes close to Ferbane, site of a major turf burning power station from 1957 to 2003, burning at its peak 2,000 tonnes of peat daily and producing about 2 million units of electricity each day.


The journey, from Ballinasloe to Banagher along the River Suck and the River Shannon, had been  peaceful, and when Mayfly reached Shannon Harbour, Denis called Jason Penders, lock keeper at the the 34th lock, the first lock on the canal after Shannon Harbour, aware that the water levels were unseasonably low due to recent drought. Bad news: Jason maintained that our draft —the depth of the boat under water —would be a problem. Mayfly has a draft of 2.7 feet, due to her keel, fixed permanently 1.7 foot below the hull to protect the electric inboard motor below the boat. The water in the canal was so low that Mayfly might not make it through at all. We considered waiting until the water levels rose again, but who knew how long that would take - perhaps weeks! With the next Eco Showboat event lined up in Pollagh on June 17th, it simply wasn’t an option.

"Call the office in Tullamore", Jason suggested, “talk to the engineer there.” We did, and to our surprise, the gentleman already knew all about the project. We explained our debacle to him, and—miraculously!—he said not to worry, they would get us through. Jason opened the lock gates and our ascent began. With gritted teeth, judicious planning and calculations of water depths, Mayfly scraped through the 34th lock and continued slowly through the low, weedy waters towards the next lock.

Alan Lindley, lock keeper responsible for Locks 33 and 32, was waiting for us to arrive. Shaking his head, he warned that it would be difficult. With such unprecedented low water levels (due to global warming?) our draft was on the very limit of what could pass. Lock 33 would be right on the limit. And then there was Lock 32… Denis' hair was turning even more grey than it had been before. Alan pointed to the masonry wall of the lock as he closed the gates behind the Mayfly and let her fill. If the water reached the third line of stone below the top, Mayfly would pass. If it didn’t reach the third line, she wouldn’t. The flow of water filling the lock slowed to a trickle as it inched towards the line, and the now entirely grey-headed navigator grit his teeth. Finally, the water made it, just barely reaching the line, and stopped. Alright. That would have to do. Mayfly entered the lock. She inched in slowly, and halfway into the lock she stuck, lodged onto a stone or other obstacle which lay at the bottom. Go to the front of the boat, Alan called out to Denis, who advanced carefully as far as he could, throwing a rope from the bow of the Mayfly to Alan. Mayfly tipped gently forward, floated free and Alan guided Mayfly through.

Hurrah! Mayfly had made it, through this first challenge at least.

"Keep going", Alan advised, "there is  a storm coming, and you don't want to be stuck in the lock during a storm. If there is lightning we can't operate the locks."

Denis pushed the lever of the electric motor to continue to the next lock, but the Mayfly took off very sluggishly.  Peering into the water Denis saw a kind of ball, like green cotton wool, where the propellor should have been. It was weed, sapping the acceleration of the motor, slowing the Mayfly to a snail's pace.

Alan headed  off to by car to Lock 32, less than 3 kilometres away,  with storm clouds forming overhead. Half an hour later, Mayfly had advanced just a few hundred yards. There was no choice: the weed had to go! Denis donned swimsuit and goggles, jumped into the weedy water, and swam under the Mayfly. A ball of weed, like a clown's hair-do, obscured the propeller. He ripped at it, coming up for breath three or four times until the orange propellor was freed. Climbed back on board, still in togs and goggles, he took the helm and inched forward. Another few hundred yards, and Mayfly stalled again, her propellor once again trapped in a weedy cloud. This halting journey continued, 500 yards then a dunk and a swim under Mayfly to clear the weed, then 500 hundred yards more. To make matters worse, the horseflies seemed to especially enjoy attacking the wet flesh of the tog-clad swimming navigator once he climbed back to his helm.

Mayfly made it to Lock 32 just as thunder started rumbling, and… fantastically enough, with the help of Alan, she made it through! This time, Denis moved to the front of the boat immediately, and the boat didn’t get stuck at all. Exhausted, he moored Mayfly at the waiting jetty above the lock as the storm broke and torrential rain started pouring down. Nothing to do but moor for the night. What a day!


Mayfly stayed put for the morning, charging her batteries from the sun  but this turned out to be a mistake, for the afternoon revealed another problem: the wind! Blowing in the opposite direction to our trajectory, with gusts building up to 40 km on that flat unbroken landscape, the wind turn the boat around, pushing the stern into the reeds at the side, whenever the now exhausted Denis left the tiller to remove the clinging weed. To make matters worse, Mayfly was entering an even more weedy stretch. She almost disappeared into an impressively tall forests of bullrushes, dense green stems capped by dark black seed pods waving in the wind (in the vernacular know as "black paddies"!). The growth of vegetation was so dense on this stretch of canal that Denis was taking his propellor-cleaning dip every few hundred yards, swimming through an underwater jungle of waving feathery leaves! And so on he went, again and again, plunging to clean the propellor, turning Mayfly back to the right direction from the water,  then jumping on and engaging the motor as fast as possible before she turned again. Each time he emerged, merciless horseflies attacked again. He continued all the same, bitten and cold, determined to complete the project (and perhaps knowing there would be what-for if he didn't!)

With this tactic he managed to advance slowly along the canal. In early evening, Mayfly finally reached the little used but historic Bord na Mona swing bridge spanning the canal, a beautiful relic of the third industrial age when Ireland emerged as a modern electrified nation by burning the land itself. An exhausted Denis decided to stop for the night at the bridge.


From the swing bridge there was only a few short kilometres left to get to Pollagh, the site of our next Eco Showboat event, but with everything that had transpired the previous two days, there was no way of knowing how long it would take. Denis had a new method of advancing: using the inboard electric motor beneath the boat in conjunction with the auxiliary outboard motor mounted at the back, hooked up to it's own batteries in the rear locker - less powerful than the inboard, but easier to reach and clean weed off. When he felt the inboard getting sluggish he would rest it, letting the outboard take over for a few minutes. The rest in moving water seemed to loosen the weed on the inboard propellor, and putting it into hard reverse shook some of it off. Using this slow method, Mayfly made it to Pollagh without any more submarine plunges on Denis' part. But somewhere along the way our electric outboard motor burnt out, exhausted by working through the weed.

Arriving in Pollagh was like arriving in heaven, Denis and Mayfly were greeted with open arms and good food by Caitriona Devery and her mother Eileen Devery of the Pollagh Heritage Group - co-hosts of the Eco Showboat event in Pollagh, and truly lovely people!


Another chaotic day as we held our event at St Mary’s School in Pollagh  Throughout the afternoon, a storm raged above us, provoking multiple power cuts, but nonetheless the team soldiered on. Audience members got to meet artist Fiona McDonald  who has been working with scientists from the National Parks and Wildlife Services to create art which shows the bogs “breathing” – AKA, how much Co2 is emitted and absorbed. According to Niall O’Brolchain, frequent collaborator of the Eco Showboat and peatlands expert at Insight SFI Research Centre, only 3% of the world’s surface is composed of peatlands, but they sequester more carbon than all the forests of the world combined. But when bogs are dried up or damaged this carbon is released, which is why the protection of peatlands is so crucial.

This was followed by a screening of a new short film, Pilgrim Road Movie, by Anne and Denis and local artist Kevin O’Dwyer  which follows a walk across the bog along a trail that medieval pilgrims followed along the Esker Riada, a system of eskers (long raised winding ridges of sand or gravel) that stretch across the middle of Ireland. As the storm raged outside - lightning cutting the electricity and interrupting the screening five times - the film followed Kevin and Anne walking through peatlands, putting together the jigsaw of Offaly's history - from medieval pilgrimages to post-war carbon harvesting. The event ended in the late afternoon with a debate about whether this holy trail could be Ireland’s own Camino de Santiago - and whether such mass tourism was even desirable - as lightning again and again knocked out electric power, brought to us so recently by burning the very bogs on which we were standing.


Following the Eco Showboat event in Pollagh, Mayfly stayed moored for a few more hours as the 5th and 6th class students from St Mary’s National School popped by to visit the zero-carbon vessel and Denis studied the world beneath him with and underwater camera. He cast off in the early afternoon, heading to Rahan, a small village just 7 or 8 kilometres along the canal. With weeds still wrapping around the propellor, progress was painfully slow…

At Rahan, fortunately, a good friend, Terri Dale Kearney, was waiting with a precious gift:  a new outboard electric motor, ordered by Anne a few days earlier, and desperately needed as the previous one had burnt out struggling through the weeds. The new outboard motor was, for a while at least, a dream come true: its thick blades didn’t catch in the weeds, and when they did it was a simple matter to shake them off. Not powerful, but it kept Mayfly moving.


Mayfly arrived in Tullamore just as thunder began to rumble overhead, rising through the 29th, 28th and 27th lock and passing by the former bonded warehouse and bottling plant on Bury Quay, built in 1897 as part of the Tullamore distillery infrastructure. Passing under the first of three modern pedestrian bridges along this section of the Grand Canal, Denis heard a sound of scraping above - the windmill mounted on top of the mast! Fortunately no damage was done, but the upcoming bridges looked even lower.

Approaching Kilbeggan Bridge, a single-arched bridge built around 1929, Denis called to a man fishing on the canal side and pointed to the windmill. “Do you reckon we’ll make it under?”

The fisherman looked doubtful. “Probably not"! Denis hopped onto the quay and tried to walk the boat through, realising as he did so that Mayfly would not pass, especially as the stone bridge was immediately followed by an even lower metal pedestrian bridge. There was only one thing to do: take down the windmill. Just as the poor skipper started to do this - boom! The clouds dissolved into a torrent of rain,  thunder rumbling and lightning flashing just above Mayfly - perhaps not the wisest moment to be climbing up a mast with a spanner!

Taking down the windmill and mast should have taken 20 minutes, but it ended up taking an hour and a half, time enough for the storm to dissipate and sunshine to return. Denis was soaked to the skin, but fortunately had attracted no lightning.

Turning off the Grand Canal onto the spur-line - a short section of canal leading to Tullamore Harbour - and the moment we had waited for finally arrived… Mayfly moored alongside 48M, the first time the little electric sailboat had encountered its mothership - a big rusty heritage barge! Caitriona Devery of the Pollagh Heritage Group described the meeting as "like a gnarly granddad with his nifty young granddaughter".


48M played host to a private, filmed concert by Irene Murphy and Mick O’Shea - a sort of inauguration for this historic barge, which had been part of the Eco Showboat project from the beginning but which had still never received the public. Mick and Irene - who already produced beautiful work for the Eco Showboat project at Clonmacnoise in 2022 - worked like alchemists, mixing the noises resonating from the ancient steel structure with music and sounds of their own - recordings of water and wind - to create a tapestry of strange, subtle, beautiful sounds to celebrates the metallic nature of the hundred-year-old 48M.


Leaving her rusty grandfather behind on Sunday, Mayfly continued slowly along the canal to the village of Daingean, through weedy waters, made manageable by switching between inboard and outboard motors regularly, and on to Rhode, County Offaly, site of an important peat burning power station and even more importantly home of the Cleary family during the 1960s. Anne spent the first two years of her life here - a period of which she claims she has little memory - her mind presumably occupied with other things!

Arriving at Lowtown, County Kildare, later that week, Denis was greeted by Marta Golubowska, an artist who had been working with the Eco Showboat since the project began, who lives on a barge there with her husband and children. Our programme will bring us back to Marta in September 2023 for Culture Night, but for now the Mayfly stopped off only briefly at Lowtown on her way to Vicarstown for the next Eco Showboat event on Saturday. Vicarstown is on the Barrow line, a branch of the Grand Canal that leaves the main canal at Lowtown and leads south to the river Barrow. The following morning, leaving Marta and her family behind, Mayfly was confronted with the choice between two canals: the New Barrowline, or the Old Barrowline—like some kind of ancient riddle. No one seemed to know which would be the better option, and Denis opted for the New Barrowline. Simply because it sounds better - it’s new.

Well, this turned out to be not a great decision…

Just outside Lowtown, the canal became so weedy that you could barely see the water - the usually navigable middle of the canal progressively overgrown with bulrushes, lily pads and long grasses. Seeing what looked like a swamp, Denis decided to tear into it, perhaps imagining that, if she was going fast enough, Mayfly would be just rip through and make it out the other side (God bless his imagination!). But after a couple of minutes of this, the outboard motor just went dead - burnt out? - while the inboard was tangled deep in weed.

What a disaster… Denis tried a few times to get the outboard working again. Strangely, the pilot light came on, but as soon as he tried to get the motor to go at any speed past 0 it just went dead again. And again. And again. To make matters worse, the wind was rising, pushing Mayfly back and turning her around.

Denis racked his head for what to do. Changing into togs, he tried jumping in a few times into the thick, unclear canal water to clear the motor of the weeds, but every time the boat would just gather weed again as the Mayfly was turned by the wind and pushed into the bulrushes. Already, a whole morning had gone by, with no progress. Eventually Mayfly was blown back to the bridge under which she had passed a few hours earlier.

Desperate, with no idea how to make it out of this mess, Denis called Anne, who was working from Paris, taking on an altogether different sort of mess: a massive application to fund two more years of the Eco Showboat project, with a deadline the very next morning, just as their daughter (and Eco Showboat’s PR assistant for the summer) Lotti was coming down with food poisoning from a restaurant where she had eaten, and their second daughter, Salammbo, had spotted a mouse in the apartment and was running around trying to catch it (or run away from it). Utter panic! For a while, it seemed like all hell had broken loose on planet Cleary Connolly.

But help eventually came. Early the next morning a friend of Marta’s, Tidg Horrigan, arrived from Lowtown in his narrowboat and threw Denis a line. The narrowboat’s propellor had big, heavy blades that cut through the weeds. Tidg, accompanied by his Jack Russell Callie, towed the Mayfly as far as Rathangan.

Meanwhile, Anne spoke to Ger Daly - Waterways Ireland engineer in charge of the Barrowline - who explained that the reason for all this weed trouble was essentially global warming: after a long heatwave in June, the water was much warmer than usual. This, combined with the sun, and perhaps a fair smidgen of pollutants in the water too, meant that the weeds had grown much faster than usual. Water levels on all the canals were low due to drought (as we had already seen on the Grand Canal before Pollagh) and Waterways Ireland's small fleet of weed cutters had struggled to keep up with this bloom. But he assured her that, after Rathangan, the weed had been recently cut and should be much more manageable.

Thankfully, this turned out to be the case. Mayfly flew along from Rathangan to Monasterevin, with just a bit of weed, and peace seemed to be restored, taking physical shape in the form of a beautiful, proud swan who swam along just in front of Mayfly for most of the way, as if sent by the gods! Often, it seemed like Mayfly would overtake the creature, but every time, just when it was almost too late, the swan would take off, flying ahead a short distance before landing in front of Mayfly again. This went on for a while. Was she leading the Mayfly along? Or was she simply trying to get away? At one point Denis moored the Mayfly under a bridge and plunged into the water to clear weed off the propellor. When he resurfaced, there was the proud creature, still watching over him! And so the journey continued, guided by beauty, until eventually Mayfly arrived at the waiting jetty of Lock 24 - just outside Monasterevin -  and the swan flew away.


Mayfly arrived at Vicarstown Marina, where he was greeted by Orla and Philip, of Barrowline Cruises. Philip took a look at the - apparently dead - outboard electric motor and suggested the problem might be the battery connection. Denis checked the connections and, sure enough, one of the cables was worn with just a few strands making contact to the battery. Enough to switch on the pilot light perhaps, but not enough to power the motor - a 24V motor requires thick power cables passing sufficient amps to move a boat the size of the Mayfly. A quick repair job, and the motor worked again!

Kicking himself for having failed to diagnose a problem so simple, but glad all the same to have that whole episode resolved, Denis cycled to the farm and family home of local artist Emily Miller. Emily's whole family came along to Saturday's event, where she presented her strange and wonderful art using taxidermied hides of small creatures killed by cars on the roads around Laois. Stretching the preserved hides of these creatures over handmade frames, Emily’s work is a stark reminder of the terrible impact we have, so unthinking, on the creatures around us.

In the afternoon, guests were treated to delicious refreshments by musicians Anna Tanvir and Maninder Singh, - colcannon samosas served with chaï followed by a delightful performance of music from many world traditions: Ireland, India, Madagascar…

And at the end of the day, stomachs and heads filled with ideas and conversation, good food and music, the crowd walked down to the harbour to see Mayfly. They discovered her surrounded by the kayaks and canoes of the SVT Canoe and Kayak Club, who came out to support the project and highlight how important it is to clean canoes and kayaks thoroughly to prevent the spread of invasive species.


Hello, hello! We are back! After a two week break, the Eco Showboat team returned to the Irish waterways, kicking off from Vicarstown and making its slow, steady way down the Barrow Navigation to Carlow. The break hadn’t been entirely restful for poor little Mayfly, following some dramatic weather Anne and Denis received a facebook message from a kind stranger informing them that the boat had been damaged during a storm. The photo included looked quite alarming: a canopy knocked over, solar panels tumbling into the boat, water everywhere! Fortunately Philip and Orla from Barrowlines cruisers in Vicarstown have become good friends and Philip very kindly went down to inspect the boat. The damage was less extreme than expected,  a connecting joint had ceded in the storm, and so Philip carried out a quick temporary repair while Denis picked up the replacement part in Paris to carry out full repairs when he got back to Vicarstown.

So, on Wednesday 19th of July, Mayfly headed off down a final section of canal, which runs from Vicarstown to Athy parallel but at a distance from the Barrow river. From Athy onward the canal joins the Barrow and the navigation continues partly on the beautiful frothing water of the river, partly on short stretches of lateral canal, called cuts, which have been constructed alongside the river at places where the navigation of the river itself isn't possible. 

Amazingly, during this last jaunt on the canal, Denis only had to jump in to remove the weed once! Waterways Ireland had been out with their weed cutter, and the way was almost clear. This was one last reminder of his hell of a time back in June before being released from the canals and arriving finally on the Barrow river itself,  one of Ireland’s most beautiful waterways. 

As Mayfly progressed down the navigation she passed a series of low bridges under which she barely scrape, until finally… krrrrr…!!!… the top of the mast scraped for a long, lingering moment on the bottom of a metal bridge, and a rain of rust showered down on Mayfly, on the deck, on the solar panels, and, last but not least, on the navigator too.  Finally, at the end of the day, Denis and Mayfly arrived at their overnight destination, Levitstown, covered in rust, to be greeted by Billy O’Brien  the lock keeper for the next few locks who found great humour in the appearance of Mayfly and her bedraggled skipper, seemingly unperturbed.  Billy instructed Denis on where he could dock for the night, and in this beautiful old industrial site he got to shake off the dust and rest for a bit, taking down the windmill which serves as the Mayfly’s mast in case of any further bridge related problems. 

Mayfly left Levitstown early the next morning, making excellent time thanks to the strong current which carried her smoothly down to Carlow. In contrast to the struggles of the Grand Canal, this last leg of the journey was peaceful and pastoral, the river Barrow at this point is lush and green, with only the rare walker or canoeist to interrupt the silence. 

Billy pointed out that the river was in fact flooded, the cause of the strong current. If the waters continued to rise, Billy warned, boats would be unable to make it under the bridges, and the locks would be closed. If the water level in the river rises higher than the water in the locks they cannot be used. But for the moment it felt like a dream. 

As Mayfly arrived in Carlow Town Park on Thursday, Billy helped guide her around a flock of swans comfortably installed in the middle of the river. It wasn’t the swans that were the problem, but the sand bank underneath, to which the swans were attracted and which had gotten many a boat stuck. Mayfly would certainly have gotten marooned on the sand if it wasn’t for Billy. 

Denis spent the next day recharging Mayfly, harder than expected as the weather was awful. Mayfly's electronic sound installation, which responds to watts of solar energy, didn’t fare much better. It seems the sound card in the controlling computer had burnt out, perhaps due to the damp, and the machine was silent, leaving Denis also completely burnt out. With much fiddling he managed to get the installation working again and so the day was saved! Somewhat. It was during all this fiddling that the Eco Showboat’s amazing intern, Lotti Connolly (the one writing these words) showed up, just in time to appreciate all the chaos and then head up to VISUAL Carlow, to set up the Eco Showboat event for the next day. 


With the help of the amazing team at VISUAL Carlow the job was easy enough and the next day everyone got to enjoy a wonderful afternoon consisting of Denis giving a talk on the Eco Showboat’s journey so far, followed by Saidhbhín Gibson presenting her beautiful artwork, 'Perpetual Glow', tracing the slow silvery pathways of snails, which held the audience enraptured. At the same time, Rachel O’Malley held her ever-more successful workshop, “Meet the Invertebrates”, showing a beautiful sample of fresh water invertebrates (creepy crawlies from under the stones in a river) collected that very morning from the River Burren in one of the rare moments of sunshine that weekend. The River Burren passes through the south of Carlow and meets the Barrow just a bit after going through the town, and is a truly beautiful little piece of nature. I (Lotti) accompanied her on the kick sample mission that morning (she kicks the bejesus out of the stones on the river bed to catch the invertebrates) and we both marvelled at the beautiful spot which had been recommended to us by Rachel’s friend in the Inland Fisheries.  I got the chance to talk with VISUAL Carlow’s director Emma Lucy O’Brien after the show and she informed me that a few years ago the Burren was renowned for being very polluted, with a lot of concern going around about how to clean it. It seems the situation has been vastly improved as Rachel’s kick sample yielded beautiful results, observed and enjoyed by all who passed by that Saturday afternoon. 

The day came to a close with a concert by Anna Tanvir and Maninder Singh, who reprised beautiful traditional folk songs from Ireland, India, Madagascar, as well as several other cultures, all brought together in Anna and Maninder’s own wonderful and intimate style in the impressive front hall of VISUAL Carlow. In particular, it is their rendition of the Swahili song Malaïka which we remember, a gentle love song gently delivered, somehow managing to make the large space seem very intimate. 

This wonderful afternoon led into an equally lovely evening when we all headed out into the pouring rain to get dinner somewhere. In fact, it was all a bit too wonderful, and Denis ended up missing his curfew, imposed on him by the Carlow Town Park which closes its gates at 9pm and where the moorings in Carlow are located. Denis, who sleeps in the Mayfly was hesitating to climb over the gates and wondering if there wasn’t a better way (he had a bicycle with him!) when a stranger passed by and recommended calling the Gardaí to see if they had a key (possibly under the impression that this odd fellow was up to no good and might simply deliver himself into the hands of the law). The local Gardaí were friendly and helpful but weren't authorised to open the gates,. It seemed that Denis had no choice but to climb the gates then, he told the guard. This was followed by a somewhat funny exchange in which the guard kept repeating that they “couldn’t allow that”, and Denis kept repeating that he had no choice, and finally he understood that they weren’t going to stop him, but weren’t going to authorise him either, so he went on with his gate-climbing initiative, balancing the bike on the top of the high gate so that it sat there while he climbed over and down before retrieving it. Meanwhile, Rachel and I were out on our own adventure involving a very, very unlit island on the Barrow and a mysterious cat which followed us around, scaring the bejesus out of me, but not Rachel. 

Sunday was a rest day, after all of that, we hung around hoping Mayfly’s batteries would charge from our solar panels in the dim grey daylight, and despairing that they still weren’t really getting there. We ended up taking cover from the rain at the home of Anna Tanvir's cousin Christabelle. This home turned out to be a wonderful old country house dating from the 18th century, which Christabelle has been slowly renovating since 2009, an effort that has paid off as the house is truly beautiful and full of old passages, artefacts, books and lovely mysteries in every crevice. We also got to recharge the Mayfly’s portable battery there, and so she was able to stream off in full steam on Monday morning, heading to her next destination where she was awaited by the Cleary Connolly clan’s final mysterious member, Salammbo Connolly, who had never, as of yet, taken part in the Eco Showboat project. But come and meet her for yourself next Saturday, in St Mullins! She is real! 


July raced on towards its end and Bo Connolly, my sister and daughter of Anne & Denis, saw Mayfly for the first time as she arrived in Bagenalstown by train to meet Denis, who had left Carlow on Mayfly that morning. Taking a short cycle along the tow-path to prepare for the following day's boat journey, Bo & her father came across a 20 metre long surface of weed - a thick blanket entirely covering "the cut" (the section of lateral canal required for navigation), just after the Bagenalstown Lock. It was weed that had been cut and hadn’t yet been removed from the water, accumulating just below the lock and looking for all the world like you could walk on it. They called the lock-keeper to see if something could be done, but he said he thought the boat should be able to plough right through.

On Wednesday morning, rain was pouring down as the Mayfly reached the lock. The lock keeper, our good friend Billy, once again assured us that the weed wouldn’t be a problem: it was floating on the surface and the boat's hull should plough through easily.

Emerging from the lock, Mayfly did indeed plough into the mass of weed… and quickly ground to a halt.

Billy looked on from the tow-path. “Throw me your bow rope,” he said.  He towed Mayfly further into the island of weed, but as she moved forward a growing mass of weed was accumulating at the bow and it became impossible to advance. Denis jumping up onto the tow-path with the stern rope, and the two men started to tug the boat forward, pulling it back every so often to release her. Meanwhile, Bo remained on the boat, keeping Mayfly away from the side with the boat-hook. The very first time she had set foot on the little solar boat, and already hard at work! After 20 minutes, they had advanced 10 metres, soaked by the pouring rain. But in the end they broke free of the clinging weed into clear water and were free! Free!.

The Barrow was flooding now and the current carried Mayfly along with it peacefully. Bo was at the helm, learning to steer a boat for the first time. The rest of the day's navigation passed peacefully, and our two navigators arrived in Borris (known for the Festival of Writing & Ideas) to stop for the night, soaked and tired.

The next day, Thursday, July 27th, was absolutely beautiful. Sunshine poured down on Mayfly during the whole voyage from Borris to Graiguenamanagh as Bo continued her apprenticeship in navigation. This part of Ireland is no doubt one of the most beautiful, and Denis and Bo were almost at a loss for words, peacefully floating upon the fertile Barrow, eyes wide and looking all around as Steely Dan played from the portable speaker. Truly, it was one of the most brilliant mornings Mayfly had ever experienced. All the while, they were mindful to remain in the very centre of the river, following the instructions that lock keeper had called after them as they left the last lock on the way out from Borris. “Keep to the middle on this stretch” he said, “keep away from the left bank!”

Denis was once again expanding on his theory of pleasure being nothing more than suffering and relief—well illustrated by how pleasurable this sunny day on the Barrow was after the trials of the previous day. The two were debating the point when… BANG! … BANG! BANG! BANG! The hull of the boat (or was it the keel?) violently colliding with something, sending Bo and Denis toppling forward and Mayfly spinning on whatever was below. The propulsion was still on and suddenly the boat was released, not forwards but sideways, and hurtled towards the left bank. “Dad, watch out!”  cried Bo. Denis grabbed the tiller and turned hard to the right just on time.

"Are we taking on water?" Denis called. Bo checked. "No".

The commotion seemed to be at an end, and Mayfly floated on, still carried by the flooding river.  The only consequence of the crash seemed to be that the boat was shuddering a little as she accelerated. A damaged propellor? They still had no clue what had happened under their very feet, or what damage had been done. At the next "cut" they moored at the waiting jetty before the lock and Denis put on his togs (once again) and plunged in. The water was so murky he could see nothing, and he had to use his hands to feel the motor. Miraculously nothing seemed to be damaged. The motor was intact with not even a dent on the propellor. He resurfaced to announce his amazing find!

Amazed, and still completely in the dark as to what had caused all that, Denis and Bo recounted the incident to the lock keeper when he arrived. He listened sympathetically and then shook his head, voice full of woe. “You should have stayed to the left!”

Bo and Denis just about fell back into the river laughing at that, for it was the exact opposite of what they’d heard him call after them just an hour before!! As they continued to Graiguenamanagh Mayfly was still vibrating on acceleration but otherwise alright. Everything was rosy once more! The two navigators treated themselves to a well deserved glass of happy-to-be-alive whiskey in the pub on their arrival in Graiguenamanagh. For they were happy to be alive!

From Graiguenamanagh they were planning to continue to St Mullins, where Saturday’s event was to take place. But visiting St Mullins on Friday morning with the lock keeper, Denis realised that his plan of mooring the Mayfly to the quay there was not realist. Beyond St Mullins lock the River Barrow is tidal, and the quay is only accessible for an hour or so either side of high tide, beyond which a boat with the draft of the Mayfly risks running aground - or worse running into rocks. Not a prospect Denis wanted to take on for a second time in one week!

So Mayfly stayed in Graiguenamanagh. And it was in Graiguenamanagh that the Eco Showboat’s co-founder Anne Cleary joined the team once more. Boy, did Bo and Denis enjoy telling her all about their adventures in those previous few days, managing to find humour in all they had survived, while Anne, always our Mom, wagged her finger and reminded them about safety!

At St Mullins, Saturday 29th July shaped out to be a truly beautiful day, with sun breaking through after a few early showers as Deirdre O’Mahony directed her extraordinary Song of the Farmer and the Dung Beetle, an experimental operatic performance by the amazing Siobhan Kavanagh and Michelle Doyle on a grassy bank of the Barrow.

The piece was commissioned by the Eco Showboat project. Deirdre - an artist whos work focuses on environmental issues and farming - had composed the song based on conversations with Kilkenny farmer Suzanna Crampton about the importance of the dung beetle in maintaining healthy soil. Suzanna believes that the dung beetle is the most important link in the chain of the soil biosphere. They recycle nutrients and dig them deep into the soil while also aerating the soil and making it more permeable for water, increasing soil fertility. The vital little creature is under threat however from insecticides, antibiotics and worming medicines given to livestock.

Close beside the performance on the river bank, Rachel O’Malley and Helena Brady continued to animate Rachel's Meet the Invertebrates workshop, presenting a host of tiny creatures from under the water that tell us about water quality.

At the end of the afternoon everyone ended up in Blanchfield's Bar at the top of the hill, to drink tea and chat more about the dung beetle, invertebrates and the Eco Showboat expedition. At the end of all of this Anne, Bo and Denis returned to Graiguenamanagh and finally got to relax together on Mayfly for a while before the little heads off to her next adventure - down the tidal section of the Barrow river to New Ross in county Wexford, requiring careful planning around the high tides to get there unscathed. 

No previous part of our expedition had been talked up to quite the same extent as the journey from bucolic
St Mullins to the port of New Ross. Since Anne and I had done a bicycle recce of the Barrow in the summer of 2021 we had been asking about it, and had been told to be very careful. For one thing, the River Barrow is tidal below St Mullins Lock. At low tide a boat risks running into sandbanks, a problem particularly for a keel-boat like the Mayfly which might fall on its side if grounded. For another thing, the tide is very strong on the lower Barrow - ‘ripping’, when rising or falling, at 4 Knots (Mayfly cruises only a little faster). Few boats dare take on this section of the River Barrow, which is not well charted. There are no moorings between St Mullins and New Ross. We had heard that the air draft (headroom) under Ferrymountgarrett Bridge, a former lifting bridge at Mountgarrett, could be a problem near full tide. There were hair-raising stories about the difficulties of bringing a boat into New Ross marina when the tide is “ripping”. Boats have been swept past and on down to Waterford. Others have been damaged colliding with pontoons or other boats. One sailor even told of a boat that had capsized after mooring with its side to the flow of the tide. On the other hand, we were told, you can use the tide to your advantage. Everything depends on how you coordinate your journey with the tide’s rise and fall. You can ride the tide, adding its power to the power of your motor. But could you make the trip on one tide? If not, you are in trouble…
This was not our first time taking on the hazards of tidal waters: Mayfly had traveled down the
tidal estuary of the Shannon from Limerick to Askeaton, and up the terrifying Abbey River from Limerick to Ardnacrusha riding the tide to neutralise the strong flow of water coming through the Ardnacrusha power station’s turbines. But in Limerick we had the help of the famous Pat Lysaght who knows all the secrets of the Shannon and who had guided us on both those journeys.
So we asked around to find the River Barrow’s Pat Lysaght. And as we approached the south east, we discovered that such a person did indeed exist: his name is John Dimond. Graham Bartlett of the IWAI (Inland Waterway’s Association of Ireland) had given us his number when we travelled up the
River Suck to Ballinasloe in July.
John explained to us the mathematics of navigating with the tide to go downstream: leave the lock not more that an hour after high tide, allowing the receding tide to carry the boat along, only adding as much power as you need to steer. Keep to the
outsides of the bends (the insides silt up). If you descend as slowly as possible you will reach Ferrymountgarrett Bridge a couple of hours after high tide when the river will have dropped enough to allow boats to pass easily under the bridge’s central span. If you arrive at New Ross while the tide is still “ripping”, you can moor at the rowing club pontoon, before New Ross Bridge and wait until low tide before continuing under the bridge to the marina.
If we had listened to John Dimond and no one else, we would have saved ourselves a lot of worry. But instead we listened to every horror story of boats which had run aground, run into the underside of Ferrymountgarrett Bridge or had come to grief trying to moor at New Ross marina in a ripping tide.
But after all the talk, the journey took less than 2 hours and went exactly as we had planned with John. Mayfly left the lock at St Mullins about an hour after high tide, just as the flow was beginning to gather pace. Knowing we needed to go slowly until I reached Ferrymountgarrett Bridge, I left the tide carry her as much as possible, only accelerating when I needed to steer.  
What no one told us was just how beautiful
the River Barrow is after you leave St Mullins. The river turns through a series of deep wooded ravines, Mayfly’s electric motor is very quiet, and I could hear birdsong, the wind in the trees and the flow of the water.
The air draft under
Ferrymountgarrett Bridge was not generous, but Mayfly, her windmill down, sailed under with a couple of feet to spare. After the bridge I opened up the motor and it was only a half an hour before I reached New Ross. John Dimond was waiting on the rowing club pontoon to help moor Mayfly.

In New Ross we had invited three local performance artists: the storyteller Joe Brennan, the artist/writer Suzanne Walsh and the poet Ben Mac Caoilte to join us at a very special venue: the
Dunbrody, a 19th Century ‘famine ship’ recreated in 2001 and now permanently moored on the quay at New Ross. Naively perhaps we had thought that we could moor the Mayfly alongside her for our event. But in fact the tide - always the tide - made that impossible. It was of no great importance because it was a fantastic evening even without Mayfly. Joe told a series of stories, each with an environmental theme, such as the Inuit story of Sedna and King Gull. Suzanne Walsh gave a performance where she inhabited the language and tones of David Attenborough to create an ambiguous self-contradicting animal kingdom where the characteristics of many creatures and their environments are evoked in a flow of language without any of them being named. Ben Mac Caoilte recited poetry that evoked his own life, each poem preceded by his musings on people and places around him and the struggles of small people in a world formed by alienating forces. The Dunbrody team, led by Sean Connick, were fantastic, welcoming us  and making every effort to ensure the evening was a success, as well as Liz Burns, the arts officer for Wexford County Council, who helped us curate this spoken word event by introducing us to the artists. 


After several months absent from the Eco Showboat expedition due to illness I finally rejoined Denis on the Mayfly in New Ross celebrating by sleeping for ten solid hours in the cosy, rocking cabin before waking on Wednesday morning with a sense of profound relief and peace - the most difficult moments of the past year were behind us - I had regained my freedom and hopefully Denis would no longer be required to half drown himself in the canal rescuing Mayfly - the weeds should be less impenetrable and the water level higher on the final journey back up the Barrow Navigation due to the recent rain and covered skies. 

So on Wednesday morning we unmoored Mayfly at 9.30 am — precisely 3 hours before high tide was expected at the St. Mullins lock — and set off up the Barrow  The swell of the tide carried us, and we used barely any energy at all (hardly more than 600 watts for 7 or 8 km/hr) as we easily streamed along. We could almost have floated free up the river, so strong was the tide, but for having to keep the motor running in order to direct the boat effectively, while also not advancing too quickly so as to arrive at St. Mullins at the perfect moment. Indeed, the lock is usable only one hour before and after high tide, otherwise the water levels are too low, so timing was of the essence.

It was the most extraordinarily beautiful morning, perfectly still, not a breath of wind, and the surface of the water was a mirror reflecting the blue sky. The Barrow river is wide and bordered by steep banks densely planted (almost amazonian) as you leave New Ross. For a moment it felt like we were alone in the world, then we spotted a silver haired figure on the bank, throwing a stick to a dog, then raising a hand and waving. I waved back and drew Denis's attention to the distant figure… he squinted… "No… it's John Dimond!" he exclaimed. This kind gentleman  who had been our saviour several days earlier, guiding Mayfly through the tricky tidal waters on the way down to New Ross, had come out to wave goodbye.

The stretch of river from New Ross to St Mullins is breathtakingly beautiful  On each side the terrain mounts up quite steeply, as if the river has carved itself into the earth (which it probably has), and thick swathes of forest sweep down to the waters edge. These forests appear to be largely native, not the dark monotonous blackness of farmed coniferous forests, but an exuberant mixture of trees and bushes of all shapes and sizes, a dazzling mosaic of lush greens (I tentatively guessed oak, sycamore and beech from a distance), broken here and there by the black stalk of a tall spindly scots pine - one of the few conifers native to Ireland - which only serves to highlight the festive explosion of a thousand different greens. 

As the forest approaches the water the deep variegated greens give way to to the lighter sap green and silvery colours of ash and willow, interspersed with scrubby hawthorns and bushy elders. And then finally right at the water's edge there is a dense tumble of low shrubs - blackberry with clusters of red and black berries, meadowsweet with foamy sprays of tiny white blossoms, and hedge bindweed with heart shaped leaves and delicate white trumpet flowers. 

We rounded a bend and gasped, the entire river bank was enveloped in a homogeneous blanket of pink blossoms, an incredible and unfamiliar display that was stunningly beautiful against the backdrop of green, and yet slightly ominous. We looked at each other at the same moment exclaimed "Himalayan balsam!"

We had heard of this invasive species from our friends at the local authorities waters programme but this was the first time we had come across it in such quantities. Native to the Kashmir, the plant was introduced into Britain in 1839 as an ornamental garden plant, and has since spread throughout the UK and to Ireland. It represents a serious threat to native biodiversity, establishing dense banks of balsam that overwhelm native plant species, altering the soil balance by reducing important colonies of fungi, attracting pollinators away from native plants and decimating invertebrate populations (75% drop in spider species in areas of balsam have been recorded). As if all of this wasn't enough, the tracts of balsam die off in the winter, leaving the riverbanks entirely bare and vulnerable to erosion, while large quantities of dead plant material enter the waterways and aggravate flooding. 

My rant about invasive species complete, we continued on our journey, music floating gaily from the colourful Mayfly across the water. The banks became steeper and more densely forested, and we passed through a long stretch of river that was shadowy and silent, without a single boat or human being to be seen. We marvelled that so few people ever get to see this incredible stretch of water  because of the tidal conditions very few boats navigate here, and there are no pathways or roads close to the river because the banks are too steep. We felt like we were observing a secret. 

Our journey passed peacefully and we negotiated the first lock we met. The second lock however was quite a deep one, and I was a little nervous. I took hold of the longest rope and Denis hopped on shore to open the lock, pushing the heavy black beam with his back to laboriously close the ancient gates. I navigated Mayfly slowly into the lock and threw up the rope, which Denis caught, passed it around a bollard, and threw the loose end back down to me. He opened the sluices and the rush of water immediately swung Mayfly around so she was diagonally across the lock, not nicely lined up by the side as she should be. I swore under my breath, I had taken the back rope as it is longer, but I should have taken the front rope, facing the flow of water. I struggled but couldn't straighten her. I had no leverage. This probably wasn't a huge problem as the boat would still rise up on rising water, but I was worried she might get caught. In my fevered imagination I could see a Suez Canal situation arising… hundreds of boats lined up waiting to pass through while rescue teams helicoptered in and the world watched with bated breath…

I called to Denis, who finally heard me through the roaring water, and just at that moment two young fellows came wondering alongside the lock. "Give her a push!" we roared. Mayfly's top structure was by now bobbing above the lock wall, and smiling pair gave her a good strong shove. She floated gently back into correct alignment and we heaved a sigh… disaster was averted for one more day!

The rest of our journey that day was uneventful. Having successfully passed through the St Mullins lock we stopped for lunch at that charming spot, the continued on to Graiguenamangh  where we were planning to stop off for ten days, running two Eco Showboat events with the recently created Waterways College an unusual and experimental school of the waterways that run very accessible courses on river ecology, forming citizens as ecology ambassadors to help protect water ecology and biodiversity across the nation. 

On Saturday, the Waterways College very kindly hosted our Eco Showboat event to a full house, and our old friend, dancer and choreographer Cindy Cummings improvised a beautiful performance with Anna Tanvir and Maninder Singh. 

Right on the heels of the first Eco Showboat event in Graiguenamanagh on Saturday, 12th of August, Anne and Denis were joined by their two daughters, my sister Salammbo and I, Lotti. We moored Mayfly alongside a beautiful barge we were to stay on for the following week, on the east bank of the Barrow, right at the very edge of the town. At night, when we looked to one side we could see Graiguenamanagh’s lights shining ahead while the other side was plunged in darkness, with nothing but the river Barrow and the woods around. And, of course, lots of stars above. We had some beautiful evenings in this place, with many members of Anne’s family popping over for a visit and big, joyful dinners in the cool night-time air with the help of the ever wonderful Anna and Maninder, who also brought their beautiful music to the gatherings and helped us all break into song. Particularly memorable was Anne's father Aiden’s lovely voice, beloved by us all but rarely heard these days, which made its graceful return on one of those mid August nights. 

Finally, after this rare week of rest in all our lives, Saturday 19th of August came, with all its running around. In the morning, we arrived at the space that the newly established Waterways College had offered us for the event, only to discover that Storm Betty, which had raged all the previous evening, had knocked down one of the poles supporting the structure. We put the pole back in position, slightly worried that if the whole thing fell down during the event it would be our fault… (alas, see the weight on the artist’s shoulder! The responsibilities! The fear!). But despite this we got along quite well with our preparations and finally the day was ready to start. 

In the early afternoon Anne led a biodiversity walk along the Duiske river, telling us all about the various wildlife that spawns along those paths, such as the Himalayan Balsam, a beautiful yet terrifyingly prolific invasive species - the seeds pop out when you touch the pods and are projected up to seven metres. The audience then made it back for an experimental performance - created by my father and me with help from Anna and Maninder and centred around the Sirens’ chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (to celebrate Graiguenamanagh Town of Books) - followed by a wonderful concert of music from South Africa, Madagascar, India and Ireland by Anna and Maninder.  

Anne, Salammbo and I stayed on in Graiguenamanagh until Monday, when it was time for us to head back to Paris and for Denis to navigate up to Dublin on his own. Storm Betty had caused the current to go twice as fast against Mayfly which was headed upstream, and the journey was slow and arduous. The cruising speed, normally 7 km/hr, was reduced down to 4 or even 3 km/hour at full power! The battery was running down twice as fast, with only slow progress on the river. The problem was also that the weather was bad and Mayfly's solar array was not capturing enough sunlight to fully recharge the batteries even after a short day of sailing. 

Anna and Maninder volunteered to help by bringing a home cooked dinner, and arrived that evening at Goresbridge, where Mayfly was moored, with a beautiful bœuf-bourguignon. They offered to take Mayfly’s portable auxiliary battery with them to charge it at their home, but Denis declined, still thinking that if he navigated in the morning and recharged in the afternoon he should be able to make it. This was wishful thinking however, but fortunately Paul, the lock-keeper for this section of the Barrow, kindly offered to charge the auxiliary battery at one of the waterside facilities, and this solved the battery problem for the moment. 

The day after that – Wednesday – was the real problem.

After Bagenalstown, (reputed to be built on the same urban plan as Versaille?) where Mayfly  moored overnight, the Barrow gets narrower and the current flows much, much faster. Occasionally it seemed like the Mayfly was barely moving. Lock-keeper Billy O’Brien, who had helped Mayfly through so many of her troubles, was waiting to help. He had already hauled Mayfly off a sandbank when she ran aground just before entering an earlier lock. 

The sky was black with clouds, and almost no energy was coming from the sun. Denis had departed with batteries only 2/3 charged, thinking it would be okay because the auxiliary motor had full batteries, but the current was very heavy. Billy warned that a lot of boats couldn't make it through that particular leg of the Barrow at all. But he thought that Mayfly's propulsion was strong enough to make it. She only advanced 9km that day however, and one of those kilometres took a whole hour, even with maximum acceleration on the main motor and the outboard motor. In a single kilometre, the batteries ran down as if they had done ten! Denis complained that it was somehow boring, going so slow, and stressful at the same time.

Coming up to Milford Lock, Billy offered to walk along next to Mayfly (yes, she was going that slow) and if she wasn’t moving anymore, Denis could throw him a rope and Billy would just pull the boat along. Seeing the dismal progress he was making, Denis suggested the time had come to throw the rope. “No, no,” Billy said. “You’re still moving. A lot of people who try to come through here think they’re moving when they’re actually going backwards, but I can see that you’re actually moving!” 

With these words of encouragement Mayfly continued her laborious way upriver, and actually got to within 30 metres of the lock, when all of a sudden the inboard motor conked out! Billy had just left her side - figuring she had made it - to go ahead and prepare the lock. Denis was left alone, the outboard motor still going but clearly not enough. Overcome by the current, Mayfly started to move backwards, and Denis realised he had little time. There was a bridge just behind, and with Mayfly gathering speed and no possibility of steering her she would very probably crash into the bridge and be destroyed! In a moment’s decision, he geared the Mayfly towards the shore thanks to the outboard motor, ran, rope in hand, and jumped! He landed with his hands on the shore but his feet in the water. Mayfly was still being pulled back by the current and in a few moments the rope would be pulled taut, leaving Denis with the choice of being dragged back into the water or letting the rope go. He scrambled through nettles (which he ignored) and finally made it up onto the towpath,  just about managing to take the strain on the rope and stop Mayfly's inexorable acceleration downstream. As he got his breath back, Billy appeared behind him, smiling, wondering what was taking all this time. Denis explained what had happened. “You were almost there!” laughed Billy, as poor Denis, stinging all over, climbed back in the boat, and Billy hauled her to the lock. 

Mayfly stopped at that lock for the rest of the day, unable to move with so little charge in the batteries. After the grey morning, the afternoon brought dazzling sun, the air crisp and light after the rain. Checking the boat's solar charge-controller Denis saw that there was 750 watts of electricity flowing to the batteries - a record - the most he had seen that whole summer!  It was late however, too late to fully charge the batteries with the afternoon sun. Fortunately our loyal friends Anna and Maninder arrived to rescue Denis - and Mayfly's auxiliary battery - and bring them both to the home and hospitality of Anna's cousin, Christabel, where Maninder prepared a beautiful dinner as the battery slowly recharged. 

The next day Mayfly made it all the way to Carlow with no incident but for a call from Waterways Ireland informing us that during Storm Betty several trees had been knocked into the canal approaching Dublin and no boats could pass. Efforts were underway to remove them, but it would take several weeks. It would certainly not be done on time for Mayfly's scheduled navigation into Dublin for our celebratory event in Dublin's docklands. This news left Mayfly effectively stranded, her destination cut off by more of the violent weather we have become so accustomed to everywhere in the world in these last few years, that is surely the beginning of an age of climate disruption like the world has never seen before. 

And this is where we are now… Denis is home in Paris for a few days, leaving Mayfly moored in Carlow as the Eco Showboat team awaits news of an evolution in the canal situation, hoping that we will be able to bring Mayfly through in the end as we prepare for the Eco Showboat’s Grand Finale evening at Windmill Lane in Dublin, which will be taking place, no matter what, on the evening of Saturday 2nd of September. 

Lotti Connolly

Anne Cleary