“When I was a young lad, there was probably three Michael Phelans closel enough in school together. The teacher, Maureen Cahill, Miss Cahill, was a bit confused, so I became Michael G; G for Gregory.
As time went on, I started to do a bit of hurling and there’d be lads shouting: ‘Take off the G.’ They were hardly shouting bring him on. Then gradually G became used more often and if somebody calls me Michael nowadays, I find it strange.
People have asked me about the name Phelan. I’ve been told that the Phelans were in Waterford prior to the Vikings coming in 795.
Ó’Faoláin chiefs were princes of the Déise at the time. It is said that Ó’Faoláin was the first Irish chief to fall in the resistance at the time of the Norman invasion.
Some of the Ó’Faoláins managed to stay in Waterford while a branch of them moved up river, first by the Barrow and then some diverted up along the Nore.
The Ó’Faoláins that went along the Barrow became Whelan and the Ó’Faoláins that went up the Nore became Phelan. Today, the name Whelan/Phelan is fairly common in the river region of all the counties these rivers flow through – Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny and Laois.
I was down in Cork one day and a fella asked me about my surname; he said he never heard of Phelan before.
Paddling their own canoe
I always had a great interest in the history and heritage of our area. I was born beside the river. There has always been a connection to the river with local people. Back in the days of Lord Castletown, local people would have been ghillies and gamekeepers when the gentry came to fish. I’ve heard King Henry VII would have been part of a duck shooting expedition here. Then the canoes came along. In 1999, a few of us set off from the woodenbridge and canoed to Kilkenny city. We had a great day and a great night after. When we were in Kilkenny, somebody said to me: ‘Why didn’t ye do it for charity and raise a few bob along the way?’ There was great interest.
So, we said we’d organise something for the Cuisle Centre cancer support facility in Portlaoise.
Then we had to give ourselves a name, so the Woodenbridge Paddlers were born. It’s a canoe club to all intents and purposes, but we are a community first and foremost.
We collected €21,000 for the Cuisle Centre and since then we went on to do more fundraisers.
We believe the woodenbridge is possibly the only bridge made from timber that currently carries public transport in Ireland. The current structure was built in the early 1930s. Up to then, locals made their way across the river by boat or stepping stones at low water.
A few years ago, plans were put in place to replace the woodenbridge with a concrete structure. We held a public rally and the importance of the woodenbridge to our area was discussed.
It is a landmark of historic importance, a unique part of this locality’s heritage, a meeting place. The proposed works were then withdrawn and there is now an agreement in place that any works will take into account the heritage value of the existing bridge structure.
Making way for the blueway
There is a great demand to establish a tourism offering here. It is an exceptionally scenic area; people love coming to visit. We put an application in to the National Trails office and we were told that it was suitable for a blueway. All the landowners were like: ‘100% on you go, if you can get something done, why not.’
We have had objections – not locally – from people with an interest in the pearl mussel and vertigo snail. They couldn’t see that everyone could work together; they still objected.
But anyway, to keep going with the blueway, we have to raise funds. So, I said I would go out paddling for 30 days and if people wanted to sponsor me that would be great.
The next thing, I had enough sponsors to keep me out for 60 days and sure then I said, we’ll go for the 100 days. If the sponsor wanted to come out with me, they could and I would give them a tour of the area from the water.
As I was doing this, people were saying, you should be writing this down and keeping a record of it.
Then, one night, I was sitting inside and the poor dog [Captain]was after dying. He was with me all the time and it was a kind of a dark time. So, I started to gather up the bits of information and now I have a book called The Erkina River from Source to Sea with G and Captain.
We had the launch in Bob’s Bar in Durrow on Sunday. It is the only pub on the river so where else could you have had it?”