He was ‘the third last of six lads and three girls’ born to James Connolly, the lock-keeper at Shannon Harbour during the first decades of the 20th century. Shannon Harbour was built in 1830 to provide a link between the horse-drawn barges that came up the Grand Canal from Dublin and the various boats that serviced the towns and villages along the Shannon.
For Tom and his siblings, it was a wonderful place to be ‘raised and reared’. The town had a bonded warehouse, a customs and excise post and a Royal Irish Constabulary barracks complete with holding cells. There was the Harbour Masters house, a boat repair dockyard, a school, several taverns, a smithy and livery, a large number of stone cottages and a Grand Hotel.
The Connollys learned to swim in the three waters that gathered at the harbour – namely the Grand Canal itself and the Rivers Shannon and Brosna. There were corncrakes to watch and fish to be caught. Handball was a particular favourite of Tom although he also had a strong penchant for dancing.
Indeed, it was the day after a dance that Tom’s barge, laden with beet, clunked to a halt outside Rathangan. ‘It was 19 and 40’, said Tom when we met him and his wife Joan in 2006. ‘At that time, the war was on and the government used to store a lot of beet in Rathangan. We had pulled in at Spenser’s Bridge and that’s where I first saw the lady herself.’
‘Wasn’t I the fortunate one!’ interjects Joan, preparing tea and biscuits behind us. Joan Conlan had also grown up on the canal. Indeed, like Tom, she and her twelve siblings had swum its waters, admired its birds, played hide and seek amid its leafy banks. They lived near the Spenser Bridge outside Rathangan, a small cottage built by their father house in 1908.
A friend of Joan was engaged in a secret romance with one of Tom’s colleagues on the boats. Fearful that her family would disapprove of a liaison with a boatman, the friend had asked Joan to deliver a message for her. Joan cycled down to the boat and tapped on the window. Lo and behold, Tom looked up and said ‘sure, where did you come out from?’ ‘And that was that’, they say in virtual unison.
Tom had left school in 1933 and spent the subsequent year ‘minding the locks’ for his father, opening and closing the gates to level the water. ‘There was a kind of farm out the back as well so there was cattle to look after and hay to be got and turf to be got too’. However, by the early 1930s, the horse-drawn boats once so popular in Shannon Harbour were giving way to diesel-fuelled barges that could make their way directly to the Shannon quays. Shannon Harbour had become little more than a toll booth and refuelling depot. Young Tom grew restless. ‘I always wanted to work on the canal’, he explains. ‘So, my eldest brother came home and took over the lock and I started on the boats in 1935’.
For the next twenty years, Tom helped steer countless motorised barges along the Irish waterways. One of his most frequent missions was to bring Guinness from Dublin to the West. This involved loading up a barge with anything up to 450 kegs at James Street, behind the brewery, and then voyaging west 131 kilometres to his childhood home at Shannon Harbour. From there they would often keep going south down the Shannon to Limerick.
‘There was a long run and a short run’, explains Tom. ‘On the long run you’d go on to the Shannon and that’d give you a few days rest. On the shorter run, you’d go by Tullamore. But you wouldn’t ever know when you’d get back’. ‘Some of the drink might not be so good when we got there’, says Tom with a smile. ‘But I never touched them. I never drank in my life.’
On the journey back to Dublin, the barges would call in to other towns for fresh cargo to take back. There was always room for the beet that came up the Barrow from Carlow, or perhaps a load of malt barley to bring back to the Guinness Brewery. ‘Carrying forty or fifty bags of malt weighing over 20 stone over your shoulder is no easy job’, counsels Tom, still feeling the weight.
Tom developed an intricate knowledge of the Irish waterways. The Barrow was lovely to go down ‘but not so nice coming back - you’d have to winch your way through certain parts’. He has mastered the Erne, the Ballinasloe Canal, the Royal Canal and Lough Neagh. ‘We made friends with all the lock-keepers and a lot of odd people along the way’
The coming of the railways, and later the motor car, inevitably brought the age of the canals to an end. On 2nd June 1960, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) closed the Grand Canal to navigation. Fortunately the subsequent plan to convert the abandoned waterway into a motorway did not succeed.
Tom went on to work in the malt house in Rathangan, looking after the barley kept in stock for Guinness. ‘It’s gone now and I think they’re developing it as a housing estate. But I was there a long time, shifting malt and turning it all day long’.
Today, Ireland’s waterways have no commercial purpose but are still frequented by coarse fishermen, courting couples and old folk who remember the old days. ‘I’m 89 and I’m one of the last of the boat men now’, says Tom. ‘ I’ve one brother still alive and he’s older than I am. He’s 93 now. He was a boatman too but he went to America in 1952’.
Joan and Tom were married in June 1945. They have since enjoyed 61 years of marriage and have three sons and a daughter. As we prepare to leave, Tom throws his eyes at Joan and whispers to me: ‘She was a great find’.
(Tom later gamely appeared on the TV3 chat-show Seoige & O'Se with myself and Kathleen Lynam. He passed away in 2008).