The Royal Canal

If Hill 16 is synonymous with Dublin GAA supporters, then the Canal End should have particular resonance with fans from Meath, Kildare, Westmeath and Longford as well as those from the capital. For the name refers to the 200-year-old waterway that connects all five counties with the southern end of Croke Park.

The Royal Canal was closed in 1961 and was rapidly falling into disrepair until 1974 when the Royal Canal Amenity Group in conjunction with CIE set about redeveloping the disused waterway as a public amenity.

In its 200-year history it has had eight different owners or agencies, more than any other Irish waterway, responsible for its maintenance. They were the Royal Canal Company, the Commissioners of Inland Navigation, the New Royal Canal Company, Midland Great Western Railway Company, Great Southern Railways and CIE.

Then in 1986 the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for it and redevelopment work was accelerated. By 1990, the 46 mile (74km) stretch between Mullingar and Blanchardstown was navigable once again.

Ten years later a barge sailed down the Dublin section of the canal for the first time in almost half a century. The waterway, which runs close to Mountjoy Jail, is immortalised in the Brendan Behan composition, "The Auld Triangle".

Many aqueducts are dotted along its ninety-mile route, but none more spectacular than that which ferries the canal across the Blanchardstown interchange on the M50. Another that will be familiar to many is the one just south of Longwood.

There are 45 locks in total on the route, one third of which runs through County Westmeath. The next longest stretch (22 miles) is in County Longford, with just over 16 miles of its course running through Kildare.

Only 12_ miles of its course is in the Royal County as it crosses over the county bounds between Meath and Kildare at five different points while the first (or last, depending on your point of view) 11 miles take you through county Dublin.

The origins of the canal date back to 1755 when a survey was carried out by Thomas Williams and John Cooley to find a suitable route for a man-made waterway across north Leinster from Dublin to the Shannon. The original proposal entailed using the Rye Water, the Boyne, Blackwater, Deel, Yellow, Camlin and Inny and Lough Derravaragh.

The prospect of exploiting the mineral wealth of the Lough Allen basin was one of the reasons for wanting to build the canal.

For over thirty years the plans lay idle until 1789 when support was sought to build a canal from Dublin to Tarmonbarry, on the Shannon in North county Longford, by a disgruntled director of the Grand Canal Company. Various subscribers contributed £134,000 which Parliament topped up with an additional £66,000 and the Royal Canal Company was formed.

At this stage work on the Grand Canal, connecting Dublin with the Shannon using southerly route across parts of Dublin, Kildare and Offaly was already in place and it was fully operational by 1804.
The project was beset by financial problems and it took nearly 30 years to develop the new inland waterway at a total cost of £1,421,954, seven times more than the original estimate. Several times during its construction additional funding was sought..

It is hardly surprisingly Royal Canal boatmen believed the 13th lock on the waterway at Deey Bridge, between Leixlip and Maynooth, to be haunted. Equally understandable is that people in high places sought to influence the route of the new waterway.

Problems with the water levels and the rising price of land on the outskirts of Dublin were additional obstacles and in 1794 the Royal Canal Company was declared bankrupt.

The Duke of Leinster, who resided on the Carton Estate, who was member of the Royal Canal company insisted that the new waterway take in the nearby town of Maynooth.

This put an additional burden on the constructors who were forced to deviate from the planned route and necessitated the construction of a deep sinking between Blanchardstown and Clonsilla.
The diversion also called for the building of the Ryewater Aqueduct, at Leixlip. By 1796, the canal was opened as far as Kilcock and it took another decade before the Royal Canal was open as far as Mullingar.

On December 2, 1796 the first passengers were ferried between Dublin and Kilcock at a cost of 1/1 (one shilling and a penny) which was considerably cheaper than the stagecoach.
Lough Owel, which lies a few miles north of Mullingar, became the chief source of water for new thoroughfare.

In 1807 a Canal Hotel was opened at Moyvalley, between Enfield and Kinnegad. It was reported to have been "the best of its kind and one of the best kept of any in Ireland" but like the canal itself found it hard to remain viable.

A later tenant didn’t fare much better. In the 1820s a local policeman was billeted there due in an effort to counteract local Ribbonmen who were regularly attacking boats.

After another failed attempt at running a successful hotel on the site, a Mr. Switzer purchased the building and established a successful Hydropathy and Bath House there. After closing the business he continued to reside there until his death in 1891.

There were a number of subsequent owners until the building was finally vacated in the 1930s. After falling into disuse, the building was finally demolished in 1977 to make way for a new approach to the bridge on the N4.

By 1811 the Royal Canal Company was again in serious financial difficulties. Despite receiving £143,856 in loans and grants it had debts of £862,000, so a parliamentary investigation was launched into its affairs.

The upshot was the dissolution of the company and two years later the Directors of Inland Navigation were order to complete the project at public expense.

Following its completion the New Royal Canal Company under the supervision of new government Board of Control took over the reins of the new waterway.

In 1830, a five-mile branch of the canal from Killashee to Longford town was opened and by now it was carrying 40,000 passengers and 80,000 tons of freight annually. However, the end was nigh with the advent of the railway.

The Midland Great Western Railway Company purchased the entire concern 1845 with a view to building a railway on the canal bed. A compromise resulted in the railway being developed alongside the canal from Dublin to Mullingar. However, the coming of the railway signalled end of passenger traffic on the waterways.

Even in its heyday, the Royal Canal was never as successful as the Grand Canal, which had links to Waterford, via the Barrow Navigation.

In 1873 Spencer Dock at the mouth of the canal was completed while around this time the Broadstone Harbour in Dublin was filled in advance of the construction of a new railway station there.

The rise in popularity of the railways meant that by the 1880s, the volume of freight carried on the canal was down to 30,000 tons annually. The popularity of the canal was further eroded with improvements to the road network by the start of the 20th century.

By the time country received its independence, we were no longer dependant of the canal the volume of goods carried dropped to 10,000 tons per annum.

The Royal Canal was taken over by Great Southern Railways in 1938 and transport difficulties encountered during the Emergency heralded a brief revival for the barges. By the end of the war CIE had assumed responsibility for the ailing mode of transport.

The fifties signalled the end of the line for the Canal. The last canal-trader, James Leech of Killucan, ceased to operate in 1951. Four years later, Douglas Heard’s ‘Hark’ was the last officially recorded boat to pass through the canal. For good measure he made a film of the trip.

However, it wasn’t until 1961 the Royal Canal was officially closed to navigation, 144 years after it was completed. In the last 30 years much has been done to develop it as a public amenity with the restoration of walkways and harbours along its route, while it also possible to navigate the canal as far as Abbeyshrule, Co. Longford.

Taken from Royal County
December 2003