River Cots and the ‘Curse’ of Potential

KLP is currently in the throes of development of a number of exciting projects and initiatives. These include major strategic projects such as the development of a Food Strategy for the county, the creation of a supply chain for wood energy, further development of the Trail Kilkenny brand of walking and other visitor routes and other ‘big’ initiatives. But it’s one relatively small project that I write about here initially. Cots are the traditional small boats used on the rivers of the southeast, particularly on the Barrow, Nore and Suir. An intrinsic part of the vernacular culture of the region, in recent years cots have been replaced by more modern generic designs. The designs of cots vary from river to river and sometimes town to town.

KLP has developed a project for river-side community groups across the county to train them to construct cots. An expert team of trainers and coordinators has been formed to lead the project but, in truth we expected that we might struggle to get the numbers we wanted to participate in the project. We would have been happy to get four or five people in similar number of areas but in fact over seventy people have signed up for the training! We always liked the idea of supporting the revival of the cot – seeming to us to be a symbol of the river valley culture of the region. The cot building courses starts in the towns of Graiguenamanagh, Goresbridge, Thomastown and the Piltown - Mooncoin area this September. Each group will build between two and three boats traditional to the design of their area in the autumn and winter. In spring of 2011 the river towns will exhibit and possibly race their boats against each other at local events and thus gently promote the living legacy of the cot. So far; so good! A worthwhile cultural heritage project with a solid community development dividend.

But there’s an added dimension emerging from and around the project and it plays into the potential of the river. It has become an oft-repeated cliché of mine (too oft, I fear) that to hear a repeated claim that an area as ‘great potential’ in a tourist or related sense, is a curse that points to the continued lack of realisation of that promise. Graiguenamanagh is the epitome of a town cursed with the potential tag. The surrounding Barrow River valley is beautiful scenic place rivers, hills, forests – it has the lot. In the case of the town, its faded grandeur is a crucial part of its attraction. The ‘Graiguenamanagh Town of Books’ festival levers that quality very effectively each September. But most interested in the sustainable development of the town are agreed that it cannot afford much more fading! Our social inclusion staff are hard at work in developing the human potential of an area which has long suffered economic and social disadvantage. KLP has long been working on developing on the ‘P’ word in the town. The company has a defined vision of the town as a hub of outdoor activities shared between the community and visitors. A suitable site has been identified and a development model is in preparation. We hope to start development early in 2011.

On its own this initiative would be a major driver of community and tourism in the area, but an opportunity is emerging that may see the river’s possibilities realised. Next year sees the 220th anniversary of the development of the Barrow Navigation- the parts of the river which are developed and maintained through for use by boats. A year of celebrations is being prepared and KLP is involved in these preparations. However we make no apology for viewing the anniversary as an opportunity to drive development of the river as a rural tourism attraction. We want to see a tourism industry on the Barrow based on the cruiser-for-hire model. Such a project would need the development of a significant amount of infrastructure on large stretch of the river in towns situated in a number of counties. We are talking marinas/ mooring-points, service blocks for toilets, showers, etc, not to mention the many ancillary attractions of dining, entertainment and other opportunities. We see the potential-rich town of Graiguenamanagh as being the centre of that development. It won’t be easy but we see a clear path to development which will require a series of partnerships with other agencies, commercial companies and communities. I hope to speak of this in more detail as it develops.

So what’s all that to do with cots? Well, as I said, partnership will be key to the success of the project. None of the above will be possible without the active engagement of the river-side communities of Kilkenny in their development. While commercial companies and state agencies respond to clear economic or mission briefs- communities must be engaged at an emotional level. And the enthusiasm for the development of the traditional boats points to an untapped wish in communities to identify with their heritage. We hope to build directly on that interest in terms of the Barrow Navigation festivities and indirectly in securing support for the development of the river as a tourism hub. So, will the potential be realised this time? Keep tuned; the development waters may get choppy but we’re confident of bringing more than one boat in!

Declan Rice, KLP CEO

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