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Flotilla recalls last Guinness cargo on the Grand Canal

Readers who live near the Grand Canal may have noticed in recent days a small flotilla of converted cargo boats navigating their way in a westerly direction. The lead boat in the small fleet on impressive broad-beamed barges carried the number 51M and its voyage from Dublin to the Shannon was a re-enactment of an historic journey fifty years ago when it became the last boat to carry a commercial cargo on Ireland’s canal system. The commemorative event has been organised by the Heritage Boats Association of Ireland who had been given the use of 51M by Waterways Ireland, official custodians of the canal. Fortunately 51M was not scrapped in the 1960s when its commercial life ended and was retained as a maintenance boat. Launched in Dublin in 1928 it was then the king of the canal, built of steel and driven by a Bolinder engine -  the ‘M’ in its registration stands for ‘motor boat’.

Move forward thirty-two years to when it cast off from James’s Street Harbour on 27 May 1960 marking the end of a way of life on the canal which had existed since the construction of the waterway in the early 1800s. For some 160 years freight barges had plied the canal bringing cargoes to and from Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and canal-side villages across the midlands from Sallins to Shannon Harbour. The spine of the waterways system is the Grand Canal which crosses mid-Kildare in a south-west direction from Hazelhatch to west of Ticknevin. The canal is an integral part of the county’s scenery in modern times and a prized feature of villages such as Sallins and Robertstown.

There were also branch lines off the main channel: the most important being the Barrow line which branched south at Lowtown and headed  through Rathangan and Monasterevin before joining the river Barrow at Athy from where boats continued their journey to Carlow and the tidal reaches of Waterford harbour. Other branch canals had been constructed to Edenderry, to the Blackwood reservoir near Robertstown, as well as to Naas and the forgotten Corbally harbour. For many generations such places on the waterways map echoed to the busy sounds of horse and drays pulling up to load and unload from barges: the boats themselves drawn along the canal by horses plodding purposefully along the towpath. The advent of the diesel engine in the early 1900s saw the towing horse largely replaced by engine power.

There was a crew of four men who lived on the boats on voyages which could take up to four days from Dublin to Limerick. The crew comprised of the Master or skipper, the Engineman, Deck man and Greaser – the latter being generally a young lad who had to cook and do the domestic jobs. Although a seemingly idyllic job the boatmen worked hard in all weathers, sometimes sailing through the night.

 The canal cargo business was always under pressure from the railways but tonnages of bulk goods where speed was not important remained high – barrels of porter (empty and full), turf and coal, sand and gravel, and grain and flour being the main loads. In 1912 for example more than 308,000 tons of freight were ferried on the canals. However competition from the motor lorry in the 1920s/30s meant that tonnages fell severely. The canals got a brief respite during the Emergency years (1939-45) when they were pressed into service to transport turf from the Bog of Allen to Dublin city where it was stored in massive clamps at the Phoenix Park.

As part of a rationalisation in the post war decades the Government bought out the shareholders of the Grand Canal Company and amalgamated its operations with Coras Iompar Eireann (CIE), a newly formed semi-state entity with a mandate to take over all transport services in Ireland. CIE had enough on its hands trying to keep the railway system viable and it was clear that the days of canal freight were numbered. In November 1959 CIE announced that the Grand Canal would close to cargo boats from the 31st December of that year.

 However that was not quite the end of the story. Guinness asked for a stay of a few months so as to complete alternative arrangements for road deliveries.  The definitive final voyage from Dublin began on the afternoon of 27 May 1960 when 51M cast off at James’ Street Harbour bound for the Guinness depot in Limerick. With the distinctive ‘putt-putt’ of its Bolinder engine echoing over the deserted jetties, it cruised out to the main channel of the Grand Canal to begin the final official voyage.

It is a happy coincidence that 51M escaped the wrecker’s torch and was kept in service though a succession of canal authorities as maintenance boat for the canals. Thus within the past week it was this same boat which tied up at Sallins and at Roberstown as it voyaged through the heart of Kildare to commemorate the end of a canal era on that May day, fifty years ago.  Series no: 179.

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 3rd June 2010 recalls the last Guinness cargo on the Grand Canal. Our thanks to Liam.  

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