The next time you are driving around the inside lane of the M50 roundabout, trying to leave as little space between yourself and the car in front to discourage that WW registered van from hopping in front of you, glance down at the centre of the whirling vortex below you. No, on second thoughts, don’t. I’ll tell you about it instead.
There, far below, above the M50 itself, and beside the railway track, there lies a most magical place, an oasis of tranquility in a maelstrom of vehicular activity.
The Royal Canal begins out in county Longford and wends it way eastwards across country before disgorging itself into Spencer Dock in Dublin. Footpathed throughout, its nature changes throughout its long journey, from the grey arctic tundra of Westmeath to the vast sprawling metropolis of Leixlip; from the hot, burning deserts around Mullingar to the blighted lunar landscape of Clonsilla. But nowhere is its magic more apparent than where it traverses the M50.
This world-renowned, yet paradoxically little-known, aqueduct is steeped in ancient lore and legend, half-lost through the mists of time, and shrouded in myths and fable. It is mentioned in the millennia-spanning “Annals of Castleknocke” where it is represented on an illuminated map as crossing “The Emme Fiftye,” bearing the legend “Here be Dragons and Snarkletworps.” Nobody is terribly sure what a Snarkletworp is, but the general consensus of learned opinion is that they are unlikely to be cute and fluffy.
This is the place where Chu Chulainn is said to have fought the mighty Slug of Ashtown, a fearsome and vicious creature nearly four inches in length. For three days the battle raged before Chu Chulainn squashed him underfoot. At the place where he died, a magical fire hydrant is said to have sprouted, the remains of which can still be seen today.
This is not the only evidence of an ancient past groping through the centuries to greet us. Runic inscriptions abound on the imposing stone pillars surrounding the aqueduct and give us a glimpse of life two thousand years ago. There are references to a mysterious “Wacker,” who apparently “was here,” and further down there are bawdy references to the sexual activities of the goddess of fertility, “Shazza.” There have been a few doubts raised in the academic world concerning the authenticity of these inscriptions, on the grounds that they are “done in marker” but most archaeologists are satisfied that they are genuine.
That our forefathers were attracted to this place is beyond dispute. Charred circles are still visible where the four elements of earth, water, air and fire were summonsed in a magical incantation to pagan gods. Worshippers were encouraged to imbibe a strange, amber liquid called Dutch Gold, which they believed gave them terrifying powers. And in one of the great archaeological finds of the twentieth century, a bag of chips was unearthed, perfectly preserved and still as soggy as the day they were discarded.
After the demise of the Celts, the area remained hidden to the human eye until re-discovered by the legendary Scottish explorer, Doctor Livingstone, in 1829. Armed only with four thousand native troops, several camels and a teddy bear named Poops, Livingstone pushed through the dense undergrowth around the Little Chef, and thus became the first modern man to view the “water-bridge” as he called it.
“In all my years,” he later wrote, (in his seminal work “Travels to Darkest Mulhuddart,”) “I never did see a more enchanted place. Except maybe the Angel Falls in Venezuela. And the Rift Valley in East Africa. And the Yangste Kiang. And possibly Bray Head. And several other places.”
Tour companies were quick to cash in on Livingstone’s discovery. A young Thomas Cook, advertising in “Ye Buy and Selle,” promised prospective tourists “a trip to the bounds of your imagination, a cacophony of sounds to bleed your very ears.” Very soon, the banks of the Canal were awash with hordes of exuberant Japanese tourists posing excitedly by the lock gates and doing quick watercolour sketches of each other.
The War of Independence put an end to large-scale tourism in the area. Perceived by the rebels as being a strategic crossing point of the M50, Rasher O’Shaughnessy and fourteen men bravely held out on the aqueduct for nearly a week, until the British discovered where they were, and told them to move on. And in 1922, dissidents attempted to blow up the canal, but were thwarted when it was found that their explosives “got wet.”
Nowadays the canal over the M50 is a protected ecological area. Up until recently, it contained a strange green slime found nowhere else on earth. Slimus Humungus, to give its more technical name, was thought to exist almost entirely on empty crisp packets and coke cans, as evidenced by the large abundance of these that thoughtful passers-by deposited into the canal. Coincidentally, this slime reputedly formed the staple diet of the aforementioned Snarkletworp and Dragons.
Such was the rarity and importance of this slime that in 1980, the Rainbow Warrior made headline news throughout the world, as it successfully frustrated attempts by The Don’t-Give-Two-Hoots-About-The-Environment Chemical Company to build a seventy six storey chemical plant in the middle of the canal.
The famous slime mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, when the newly-formed Canal Trust decided to “clean it up.” Its absence means that you are unlikely to encounter a Snarkletworp, when traversing the M50.
Yes, this truly is a magical place. Here, with the traffic roaring above your head and the stationary traffic below honking their horns as they approach the toll-bridge, and with the overcrowded train from Maynooth steaming past with its cargo of miserably squashed commuters, here it is possible to lie back on the soft earth and imagine a simpler, yet richer world, a world where nubile young maidens would cavort naked in the canal’s crystal waters and wash each other’s backs, [mind you, I don’t need to lie back near a canal to imagine that] ; a world devoid of bank charges and “Celebrity Wife Swap” and mobile phones; a world of perfect calm entirely surrounded by the maelstrom that is modern life.
Such places are rare. We should cherish them.