by ehistoryadmin on May 23, 2014



OPERATIONS by C.I.E. on the Grand Canal will cease probably at the close of this year. The Company has said this in reply to queries by the “Leinster Leader”. Its 200 odd miles of waterway, however, will be kept open. There is a statutory obligation on C.I.E. to do so. It has been estimated that the gain to the Company as a whole will be over ₤100,000 by transfer of the canal traffic to other forms of transport.

Thus will virtually end entirely a mode of haulage that has gone on, in part, for over 200 years, serving altogether sixteen counties, whose existence has been an integral part of the nation’s development. Its history has, for us to-day, a character and atmosphere bordering on the romantic. But sentimental considerations have to be cast aside where the national economy is involved, and the step to be taken towards the end of 1959 is, we are told, bound up with an obligation to eliminate financial losses.

For the 334 employed on the canal in various grades, or at least those of them who will be redundant, there is provision for compensation. Transfer to other employment with C.I.E. is not unlikely for those who wish that course. The position of the lock-keepers and rangers is still vague. Asked if all or some of these would be retained and whether the lock-keepers would be allowed to stay on in their houses if they became redundant, C.I.E., pointed out that it will be probably a year before the barge traffic is taken off, and that some of these matters have not yet been considered.

Barge traffic will probably not cease altogether, for the continued maintenance of the system as a navigable waterway still leave it open to the by-traders and pleasure-boat owners. The waterways, of course, also involves the question of drainage of vast areas of the Midlands.


Abandonment of transport on the canal by C.I.E. has been threatening for many years. It has finally come to a head. The Minister for Industry and Commerce, Mr. Lemass, said in the Dail earlier this year, that the Transport Act which became law last year imposed on C.I.E. the general obligation to conduct the undertaking so as to eliminate losses by 31st March, 1964. This Act also provided, he added, for generous compensation in the event of redundancy arising as a result of steps taken by C.I.E. in compliance with this statutory obligation.

Neither C.I.E., nor their predecessors, the Minister pointed out, were under a statutory obligation to operate services on the Grand Canal. He said “The Committee of Inquiry into Internal Transport indicated in their report that by terminating canal services and transferring the traffic to other forms of transport, the C.I.E. undertaking as a whole would benefit to the extent of over ₤100,000.”

The impact the decision to abandon canal traffic will have on hundreds of families, particularly in the Midlands, was emphasized by a Workers Union of Ireland spokesman the “Leinster Leader” questioned. He said “Canal employment has been a tradition with them and might be regarded as a hereditary occupation. If barge traffic is to be discontinued not merely will the actual employees cease to work on the canals but the whole tradition will be broken and this will mean that in the event of any need to revert to canal traffic, due to emergency conditions, personnel will not be available.

The Union spokesman said further “It is suggested by C.I.E. that the necessary steps would be taken to maintain the canal system, even though it may not be used for barge traffic. Any one who has a knowledge of the canal system is aware that that is most unlikely to take place and that the discontinuance of the barge traffic means in effect, the end of the canals, because it is only through the close association of a big number of families with the canal traffic bearing arteries that it is possible to get the services of the necessary number of people for the maintenance work which, of course, is based primarily on the working of the locks.”

He then made this point. “It is most unlikely that the system can be maintained for any period unless active and continuous attention is given to the keeping of the locks and that is not going to be readily possible with the breaking of the tradition of employment of certain families on the canal system.”

Peculiar features

Conceding that the Company had made certain provision, since the amalgamation of the Grand Canal Co. and the rail system, for the absorption of redundant employees on the canal and for the integration of canal wages and conditions as far as possible with C.I.E. practices and rates, the spokesman declared: “But it should be borne in mind that canal employment has many peculiar feathers and that, in certain cases, the cash wages form only part of the value of employment to certain families.”

He was referring in particular to the position of lock-keepers, who live in Company houses and whose family economy is built around occupancy of that house. “The position of these people,” he said, “is immediately raised by the Company’s decision because, as we stated earlier, there is no conviction that once the barge traffic ends, effective steps will be taken to maintain the canal otherwise.”

Members of the Union consider the decision of C.I.E. as being wholly out of line with the policy being followed in other countries where greater attention is being paid to water transport as a means of easing the very heavy traffic on the roads. In this connection it is understood that heavy expenditure of capital is taking place and this is particularly marked even in Britian.

These members feel that in this country the desirability of maintaining canal traffic, to ease pressure on roads, is more essential because so many of our main roads from the Capital pass through bog areas where the maintenance of such roads is exceptionally heavy. They further point out that it is equally true that the canals, being presently available, and to the extent only needing maintenance at far less cost than that of main roads, provide a traffic artery with tremendous carrying capacity for bulk loads, particularly those the delivery of which is not governed by time factors of an urgent character.

With the dieselization of the railways, they say, this country would find itself in a most serious situation, in the event of war, if traffic was withdrawn from the canals and the canals not maintained as active traffic arteries. At present the whole of our road transport, and shortly our rail transport, will be completely dependent on oil imports, and the experience of the last war has shown the great difficulty in maintaining adequate supplies to meet our needs, whereas canals can handle traffic even if oil is not available for motor driven barges. They could still be drawn, if necessary, by other means.

To quote a member: “The canal system in Ireland is probably one of the most strategically laid out systems of any country in the world, from the point of view of meeting many of the basic needs of transport here. The system runs from the Capital, and the main sea port, right through the heart of the country, and by means of the Shannon and the connecting tributaries connects a number of the most important sea ports, including Limerick and Waterford.

“The carrying capacity of the barges, 50 tons, makes them ideal for bulk cargoes which can be trans-shipped into these canal barges in some of the main seaports.”

Began in 1756

The story of the canal goes back to 1756. Construction started that year, and in 1779 the canal was open for 12 miles. That summer the first boat started trading. It was owned by Thomas Digby Brooke, and carried cargo between Dublin and Clondalkin, Bollierstown and Ballyhealy, only 24 to 27 tons being brought each trip.

The line was completed as far as Sallins in 1780, Monasterevan in 1786, and Athy in 1791. It was extended westwards from Sallins to Philipstown in 1797, to Tullamore in 1798 and to Shannon Harbour in 1804. Branch lines were opened to Corbally in 1811, to Ballinasloe in 1827, to Mountmellick in 1830 and to Kilbeggan in 1834.

In an age of poor roads and no railways, the Grand Canal Co. brought many benefits to the country by providing a means of transporting goods and, later, passengers.

Constructions of the canal cost nearly ₤2,000,000.

The passenger boats or “fly boats,” as they were called, were introduced in 1780 to improve the inadequate facilities of that period. Stage-coaches were overcrowded and uncomfortable. Springs on coaches were unknown for almost another decade. When the branch to Athy was completed, Monasterevan became an important junction where passengers changed boats for towns on the branch canals; and the Canal Company established a coach service between the town and Kilkenny, Cashel and Limerick to attract more boat passengers.

It cost ₤202 in 1792 to build a wooden boat with two cabins (heated by stoves) a kitchen and pantry. The crew consisted of a master, steerer, stopman, a boy and a barmaid. Meals and refreshments were available on board.

The first passenger boats were drawn by two horses, with postillions in uniform and fully armed with pistols and blunderbusses, which had to be used on more than one occasion. To meet the increased competition when road transport conditions improved, lighter boats were built and drawn by 3 horses which frequently went at full gallop. Between the locks the boats made a speed of ten miles an hour. The journey of 54 miles from Dublin to Athy took 7½ hours.

Amusing incident

A complaint was made to the Company in 1809 that the intending passengers who dined at Monasterevan were often in a state of intoxication from whiskey punch when the boat arrived from Athy – an amusing incident which recalls the town’s chief industry at the time.

A description of his journey by canal in 1805 is given by Sir John Carr: “… the towing horses started… The cabin had cushioned seats … and a long table in the middle. The setting off and arrival of the boats are managed with great regularity. The passage money (from Athy to Dublin) is 10s. 10d”.

In 1847 the “fly boats” to Athy were discontinued; railway competition had begun, and by 1852 the Canal Company had found it unprofitable to continue the passenger boat service which for over seventy years had been of such benefit to travellers.

Many difficulties

On the canal reaching the Shannon, it was found that the boats trading on the Grand Canal were not, owing to its shallowness, able to navigate the river. The Government then made a grant to the company to make it navigable from Athlone to Portumna, but, the amount being insufficient, the company spent over ₤30,000 of its own money for the purpose.

From its inception, the company was beset by difficulties, physically as well as financially. Had not the railways made their advent in the forties, it is probable that the undertaking would have enjoyed some moderate prosperity and the reconstruction, which involved drastic cutting of capital, effected in 1848 might not have been a matter of necessity.

In 1756, the year the construction of the canal started, a report by Thomas Omer, Engineer to the Board of Inland Navigation, was presented to the Irish Parliament. He estimated that the Canal from Dublin to Athy could be made for ₤98,000. As a Canal Engineer, Omer was undoubtedly a failure; his estimates were hopelessly wrong; the mistakes he made were numerous; and, the line of the country chosen by him was unfortunate.

He started the work on far too ambitious a scale. There were many errors in levels, in one case being as much as 4 feet 6 inches; the site of an aqueduct was badly selected. These and other constructional errors led to an estimated waste of ₤59,000 out of the original ₤79,000 employed.

In 1789, a report was made that the first 20 miles from Dublin cost over ₤190,000. The cost of making the Canal to Athy was ₤427,074, estimated by Omer at ₤98,000. Nor was that the only blunder. Later on it was found that work under another engineer, particularly masonry, was “exceedingly ill executed,” and that the banks had not been raised to a sufficient height. So displeased were the directors of the company that they considered it necessary to dismiss this engineer and appoint another.

The new appointee, to test the stability of the works executed by two predecessors, had the water turned in. After some hours he suddenly let it off, with the result that the banks fell in several places.

Even locks were found to be defective. Many of them had fallen and had to be rebuilt. This delayed the opening of the navigation at Sallins (eighteen miles) by two or three years.

Generally well built

After costly and repeated failures, the works generally may be said in the end to have been well built. There are numerous aqueducts on the system, that at Sallins, 400 feet long, carrying the canal over the Liffey, being of a substantial character. It is called the Leinster aqueduct from the Ducal family of that name.

There are sixty-four locks, thirty five water supplies, 139 bridges, and also numerous tunnels carrying streams under the canal. The total length of the canal is 166 miles; this does not include the forty miles of the Barrow, partly canalized from Athy to St. Mullin’s in Co. Carlow.

The originators of the proposal to make this waterway through the great Bog of Allen, extending over the central plain of Ireland, undertook a task for which there was no precedent. The company deserves credit for the spirit in which it took over a project, the difficulties of the accomplishment of which were only partly known.

At Edenderry, the canal had to be built over a bog, high embankments having to be made. Extensive breaches had occurred at this place at intervals during the history of the company, the last being in 1916. At one of these breaches in 1800, it was found that there was not sufficient food in the district for the big numbers of men employed. Great quantities of oatmeal were then bought in Dublin and sent to Edenderry, one consignment amounting in value to ₤210.

About 1789, much damage was done to the canal banks by pigs. Lock-keepers were then paid a reward of 5/- for every pig destroyed, the company indemnifying their employees against prosecution.

When the canal had been extended to the Bog of Allen, big quantities of turf were carried by it to Dublin. Complaints were made of the high price charged. The boat-owners refusing to make any reduction, a mob of about fifty men, armed with swords and blunderbusses assembled at the Canal Harbour in Dublin in 1792, and insisted that the persons selling turf there should sell at the rates named or fixed by the buyers; and, having by violence succeeded, they soon afterwards returned and robbed the masters and men of the turf boats of sums which they termed levying fines for not assaulting them!

Cotton for Prosperous

A few days afterwards, about 200 persons forcibly broke open the Company’s stores at James’s St. Harbour, and also entered the boats to search for unmanufactured cotton, which they said they were informed was going up the canal to Prosperous, Co. Kildare, to be manufactured, and which they declared they would not permit. They found no cotton, but they threatened to come from time to time for the same purpose.

In 1788, an Act was passed authorizing the formation of the Kildare Canal Company, having as its object the making of a canal from Osberstown to Kilcullen. This Company, which had not very successfully made the canal as far as Naas, was in 1792 in financial difficulties. The directors made an offer of sale to the Grand Canal Company. This offer was rejected. In 1808, the latter company bought it through the Court of Chancery.

It was then in a ruinous condition. The Grand Canal Company made extensive repairs, and completed the canal to Corbally in 1811. When the roads had been made on the banks of the canal, turnpike gates were put up in 1777. These turnpikes were let to the highest bidder. In the same year John Rorke was declared for one year, for ₤15, the buyer of the tolls between the City Basin and Sallins Bridge.

In 1804, the turnpike toll for a four-horse coach was ¼, and for a one-horse chaise or jaunting car 10d., to be paid at one gate, and once only in the same county. The milestones on the banks of the canal, were put up so that the excavation work could be referred to as having been completed to or at a distance from a certain milestone.




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