Medieval History

Over 300 years before the Christian era, legend has it that a great battle took place to capture the fort of Dinn Righ, a large mound near Leighlinbridge. The presence of such formidable defensive structure indicates the importance of the Barrow as a strategic military highway as well as a highway for commerce since earliest times. Evidence of early Christian and later medieval church establishments can be seen all along the river, notably at or near St. Mullins, Old Leighlin, Carlow, Sleaty, Nurney and Monasterevan.








Commercial History

The Barrow was a significant commercial canalised waterway right up to the 1950's with important river ports at Athy, Carlow, Graignamanagh and New Ross. Barges transported malting barley to Dublin as raw material for the famous Guinness stout. The finished product was later transported back downstream. Beet-filled barges supplied Ireland's first sugar factory at Carlow.


The canals built in Ireland were not ship canals, but they were for horse drawn barges. The tow paths that the horses used make ideal walks beside the rivers. What made the Barrow suitable for barges was its conversion in places to a canal. This work was done before the advent of railways which eventually spelled the death of the commercial river as the rails could go places where there were no interconnecting waterways.


Navigators, known as "Navvies" completed the work on the river. The Barrow was made navigable by cutting channels parallel to it and building weirs across the natural river, forcing a good flow of water into the side channels. Levels were taken care of by lock gates. There are several sets of gates near Carlow and just below the bridge there is a large weir.


The 6-M tugboat was the most notable boat used on the Barrow Navigation. It was a powerful craft with a 100 horsepower engine and was beautifully designed with its ship wheel. The tug would tow at least 4-5 fully laden barges from Carlow to Levitstown canal during flood times. When such a group of boats tied up for the night at a lock, it was a great social gathering. This was the days before the advent of modern communications as we know them today. The bargemen were magnificent singers, musicians and story tellers.


In the year ending 31st March 1956, 89,640 tons was transported by barge; in other words, 1,793 barge movements per year. This ensured clean and well maintained waterways. Carlow was a major contributor to the river traffic, contributing 20,000 plus tons.






Recent Developments

The advent of rail transport signalled the decline of the river as a commercial highway. The Barrow is now completely given over to recreational  and leisure activities.


The River Barrow has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and as a result, a number of relevant nature protection legislation and regulations must be adhered to.


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