The Float to the Fleadh flotilla at Mullingar Harbour. Photo: Pamela McFadden.

Float to Fleadh put town on canal map

By Ciara O'Hara

Float to the Fleadh brought excitement to Mullingar Harbour for the second year in a row. Organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI), 35 boats arrived in convoy and stayed for the duration of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann 2023. It was a memorable and thoroughly enjoyable experience for all involved.

For the week of the fleadh, the harbour was a lively spot. The ‘music boat’ departed daily with a group of musicians on board who played tune after tune as the boat sailed around the town. There were barbecues, music, singing and dancing every evening, and the harbour looked spectacular when lit up at night.

Pamela and Robert McFadden aboard their boat the ‘Frui Vita’ Photo: Pamela McFadden.

Pamela and Robert McFadden had been to other boating events such as rallies, but this was their first fleadh. “We knew it was going to be the last one here, so we wanted to make the boat ready… bit of a different kind of cruising for us. We’re on the Shannon most of the time. So coming up the canals and getting the boats to use the canals is a big thing for us as boaters,” Robert told the Westmeath Examiner.

Robert has a degree in nautical science has been boating all his life. He has travelled “pretty much all over the world” but in the last few years was mainly in the North Sea and the gas rigs there. “My family had boats. I was a ship’s captain for 10 years at sea. We’ve always had a boat on the river, and the boat has done canals, so that’s why we bought it, to be able to cruise the shallow waters of the canals,” said Robert.

“Over the last four weeks the boats have been coming up as part of fleets and flotillas to all arrive at Coolnahay then to go in to Mullingar together. This is the second year they’ve done it, and they don’t get many opportunities to do it so… but the whole canal should be navigable,” he added.

Robert and Pamela moved from Dublin to Rooskey two years ago and were both enjoying themselves at the fleadh. “Ah it’s great, the whole thing is great,” said Robert. “There’s a great atmosphere. It’s great that the boats are involved as well,” said Pamela.

Judith Hearne of the IWAI, one of the organisers of Float to the Fleadh.

Judith Hearne of the IWAI is one of the organisers of Float to the Fleadh. She is originally from Dublin and lives in Kildare. Her husband, Denis M Baker, is chairman of the Royal Canal branch of the IWAI. “And we organised the float to the fleadh last year, because it’s obviously on the Royal. And we organised this one as well,” said Judith.

Judith and Denis spend every weekend on their boat from about March to November, going up and down the Shannon. “Generally our holidays are spent on the boat, on the Shannon. And we usually bring our boat in on the canal for the winter so we’re closer to home, so that when he needs to do maintenance, he doesn’t have to travel very far,” Judith told the Westmeath Examiner.

She and Denis first got into boating when Denis’s sister had a barge on the Shannon. “We got our boat 20 years ago and we bought a barge two years ago, which we’re doing up now.”

Through boating and the IWAI, Judith and Denis have met people from all over the world. “We’ve actually got a couple from either Sweden or Norway, and they were at the fleadh last year with us… The boating community itself is just fantastic,” said Judith.

“There’s 35 boats in the harbour this year and I would have known about 25 of those. The 10 that I didn’t know last year, I now know. And generally, you get to know about 10 or 20 new boats every year, so that when you’re going up and down the waterways, you’re just constantly shouting across at boats to people ‘Hi, how are you’, meeting other people, having barbecues with them; it’s fantastic.”

Niall Barnaby aboard his barge ‘Driftin’.

Niall Barnaby from Leitrim village was part of Float to the Fleadh in Tullamore, in Mullingar last year, and again this year. He said: “We came on the barge ‘Driftin’. We’ve three crew: me, my partner Bríd, and Mary, a new first-tripper. We came all the way down the Shannon. Then we got as far as Richmond Harbour in Cloondara, we met another nine boats, and then we came up in a convoy. There’s a range of craft here, from a Dutch barge to a river cruiser, to an English narrow boat.”

The ‘Driftin’ is 12 years old and is a replica Dutch barge. “Comes from the Netherlands. It comes in a kit. Each piece matches. We welded the bits together in Ballinamore in Leitrim. You get the kit and it’s like you having an IKEA kitchen,” explained Niall. “There’s a tulip on the mast, which is traditional for a Dutch barge.”

A retired ship’s captain, Niall travelled the world before becoming “captain on the Shannon ferry down at Tarbert for 20-odd years”.

“I’ve just got the seawater in here,” he said, gesturing at his veins, “and I’ve retired to this boat.” Niall and Bríd are “up and down the Shannon all summer” and will go back to Leitrim in the winter.

We have a chimney there, we have insulation. We have a diesel heater and central heating. We have solar panels; we have a generator so we’re self-contained – we have our own electricity… we’re double-glazed; we’re insulated. We have a stove there for the winter. Then we’ve got a Ninja [airfryer]!”

There’s also a slow-cooker, a regular cooker, a fridge and a kettle. The kitchen and master cabin have curved corners. The bed is shaped like a heart so that it’s possible to walk around it, and tanks of freshwater are stored under it. All the furniture has to be versatile and multi-functional. The drop-leaf table fits on the deck and the chairs fold up so they can go outside. “Otherwise you lose space,” according to Niall.

He has never got into difficulty while sailing the barge, which he says is thanks to meticulous planning. “Obviously, the water is dangerous. You have to be careful. We do wear life jackets, and the main thing is, we plan things… which side we’re going to go alongside, which route we’re going to use. We just don’t get caught out.”

Niall feels Mullingar Harbour is popular because “you’ve local facilities here”.

“People will park their camper van at Abbeyshrule. They’ll come with us in three or four lots and then they’ll cycle back to the van. We have people here coming down with us [to the fleadh] and cycling back. Very, very common.” Niall had more crew joining on the Sunday and Monday to travel back with him.

The fleadh was “absolutely excellent” but Niall’s highlight was “the marina, because it’s so different for Mullingar”. He is especially fond of the harbour at night. “They’ve all got their solar lights on and we’ve had our own little sessions in there… I don’t play, but I support – a bit left-footed with the dances!”

He lost count of all the people he showed around the barge in the week and says Float to the Fleadh has “put Mullingar on the canal map” while “the boats have brought more people in” to the fleadh. Look at the traffic jams; you’re better off coming by boat, and because of the greenway, people parked there and cycled in. Commuting to the fleadh is not just by car.”

After the fleadh, Niall planned to “just doodle down” the canal. “It will take us three days to get back to the Shannon and then we’ll probably go south, or we might go back north. Depends on the weather,” he said. “We’ve had music and dancing all the way, and on the way back we’re meeting up with the Rose of Tralee in Abbeyshrule.”

While he hasn’t done it yet, Niall said “it’s quite possible to go from Holland to Germany, across to Croatia, and all the way down through France to the Mediterranean” via canals and rivers with a barge.

He looks forward to travelling the River Barrow for the fleadh in Wexford next year.

The Float to the Fleadh music boat. Photo: Pamela McFadden.
Mullingar Harbour during the fleadh.
The Float to the Fleadh music boat makes its way along the Royal Canal.