History of the Royal Canal

HISTORY OF THE ROYAL CANAL

1790 – 2020

The Royal Canal was an enormous capital intensive project to undertake in the late 18th Century in Ireland. The Canal would eventually travel 145.6km/90.5miles and link the River Liffey in Dublin City with the River Shannon in Longford. To undertake a project of such scale seems unusual given that at the same time work was well underway on a similar project, the Grand Canal. Construction began on the Grand Canal in 1757. It too was to link the River Liffey in Dublin with the River Shannon, albeit by a more Southerly route. The Grand Canal was completed in 1804.

The origin of the Royal Canal is inextricably linked to its predecessor, the Grand Canal. As the story goes a retired shoemaker was on the board of directors of the Grand Canal. Among his high ranking fellow directors he was deemed to be on a lower rung of the social ladder. His colleagues on the board did not like that the shoemaker was taking such an active role in the affairs of the canal. This eventually culminated in a falling out between the parties. According to Samuel Smiles’ Lives of the Engineers:

the shoemaker threw up his seat on the board, and, on parting with his colleagues, said to them, ‘you may think of me a very insignificant person, but I will set out forthwith, start a rival canal and carry all the traffic’. The threat was, of course, treated with contempt, and the shoemaker was laughed out of the boardroom.’

Pontoon Bridge across the Royal Canal in MullingarThe shoemaker described above appears to be a man named William Cope of ‘Copes Boot and Shoemakers’. He served as a director on the board of the Grand Canal Company from 1784 to 1785 and on the board of the Royal Canal Company between 1789 and 1802.

The Royal Canal Company proposed a route from Dublin to Tarmonbarry on the border of Roscommon and Longford. It was estimated that the canal would cost £197,098 to complete. Construction on the canal began in the Spring of 1790.

The project was beset with problems from the beginning. The original budget of just under £200,000 was exhausted by 1794 only after a mere 22.5km/14miles of the canal was completed. Poor workmanship and a lack of supervision resulted in the collapse of several bridges causing the deaths of a number of laborers. To make matters worse, the Duke of Leinster who resided at Carton House in Maynooth successfully lobbied for a deviation in the original route. The canal would now pass by his residence in Maynooth. This proved to be a very costly alteration. Due to the new route, a large aqueduct had to be constructed over the River Ryewater and the canal had to be cut through quarries.

The Royal Canal company became heavily indebted as work progressed. Many investors lost their money. William Cope the shoemaker was made bankrupt and resigned as director in 1802. By 1809 the canal reached Coolnahay Harbour, 9km west of Mullingar. The Royal Canal Company was unable to raise any more funds to complete the canal to the River Shannon. The Royal Canal Company was dissolved and the government had to take over and fund the project. The canal was finally finished to Cloondara in Co. Longford in 1817. It had taken twenty-eight years to build at a final cost of £1.5 million.

Royal Canal 1830In 1830 an 8.5km/5.3 mile branch line from close to Kilashee to Longford Town was opened. It was constructed at a cost of £10,000. The main line of the canal used to flow to Broadstone in Dublin city and the section from Cross Guns Bridge, Phibsborough to the River Liffey was originally considered a spur. Unfortunately, the Broadstone branch of the Royal Canal was filled in 1927.

At its height nearly 50,000 people took passage and 112,181 tons of goods were transported along the canal in 1845. However, the Royal Canal was never as commercially successful as the Grand Canal. Furthermore, the introduction of railway lines to Ireland in the 19th century offered a much more efficient means of transporting goods and people. Just twenty-eight years after the Royal Canal was completed it was sold to the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) for £318,860. The MGWR originally planned to drain the canal and lay the railway track along its bed. Thankfully, the government of the day rejected these plans. By 1849 a railway line that runs adjacent to the canal was opened from Dublin to Mullingar.

The purchase of the Royal Canal by the MGWR coincided with the Great Famine, a tragic period in Irish History. In the late 1840s Ireland experienced successive years of potato blight that decimated the harvest. At that time, the potato crop provided for over 60% of the nation’s food needs. As a result, one million people died, one-eight of the entire population of Ireland. In the decade that followed from 1845 – 1855 over two million people emigrated from Ireland. The Royal Canal was one stage of the journey for thousands of Irish people who left their homes to take passage boats from Dublin to emigrate to England, Canada and the United States.

Old image of people working along the banks of the Royal CanalOne harrowing tale from the Great Famine which is forever linked to the Royal Canal was the fate of 1,490 tenants of Strokestown Park Estate, Roscommon. At that time Major Dennis Mahon was the landlord of the Strokestown Estate. In May 1847, the worst year of the potato famine, he evicted 1,490 of his tenants. He created an assisted emigration scheme to fund the journey of these emigrants from Strokestown to Canada. His former tenants were escorted 167km/103.4miles on foot by Bailiff Robinson to Dublin to ensure that they did not return home. They walked from Strokestown to Cloondara, from there, the Royal Canal’s towpaths took them the rest of the way to Dublin. From Dublin they had to board an open deck packet steamer to Liverpool. In Liverpool they took passage on what became known as ‘coffin ships’ to Canada. Half of the 1,490 evicted tenants who were forced to leave Strokestown died en route to Canada or shortly after arriving at their destination due to the squalid conditions on board the coffin ships. News of the fate of the Strokestown emigrants soon reached Ireland. In November 1847 the landlord of the Strokestown Estate, Major Dennis Mahon was assassinated while returning from a meeting in Roscommon town.

The 145.6km/90.5miles Royal Canal Greenway also forms the majority of The National Famine Way, a walking trail that follows the route the emigrants took from Strokestown to Dublin. Thirty bronze sculptures of shoes dot the National Famine Way as part of an interactive feature. The Interactive feature retraces the steps of a family of emigrants that were part of the 1,490 evicted tenants of the Strokestown Estate.

The purchase of the Royal Canal by the Midland Great Western Railway Company (MGWR) in 1845 was the beginning of the canal’s decline. Passage-boat services ceased operation in 1849. Transport of goods followed a path of steady decline over the next century. The canal fell into a state of disrepair becoming overgrown with weeds and difficult to navigate. The last trader, Leech of Killucan stopped trading in 1951. Finally, the Royal Canal was officially closed to navigation on 6th April 1961.

A pivotal moment in the preservation of the Royal Canal and its restoration came in 1946. An English couple, Tom and Angela Rolt embarked upon a triangular journey that would take them from the Shannon at Athlone to Dublin along the Grand Canal and back to the Shannon on the Royal Canal. Tom Rolt detailed their journey in his book ‘Green and Silver’. His vivid descriptions captured the magic of the towns, villages and the people he met on the banks of the Royal Canal. Tom Rolt’s book was quoted as an inspiration for those who would play critical roles in bringing the Royal Canal back to its founding glory.

Ballybrannigan Harbour Bridge on the Royal CanalIn 1954 the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) was formed to promote the development and use of Ireland’s rivers and canals. In 1974 a voluntary organisation, the Royal Canal Amenity Group (RCAG) was formed from a sub-committee of the IWAI. The RCAG aim was to save ‘the canal from complete destruction and to restore and highlight its potential as a public amenity’. The fruits of all their hard work is evident today. The restoration of the Royal Canal was completed and it was open for navigation in 2010. What is more, continuing development of the canal’s towpaths have created Ireland’s longest off-road walking and cycling trail which was officially launched as the Royal Canal Greenway in Spring 2020.

The first stone of the Royal Canal was laid in the Spring of 1790. It has a rich and fascinating history that stretches 230 years. My short summary of the Canal’s past barely tips the surface of the stories about the places on its banks and the people whose lives will always be linked to the canal. For all those whose curiosity was piqued and have a desire to learn more, I strongly recommend the resources below.

Brendan Creedon

Green and Silver by L.T.C Rolt. Published by Geogre Allen & Unwin (London 1949)

‘Waterways The Royal Canal’ RTE documentary series presented and written by Dick Warner. Produced by Tile Films Ltd (2012).

Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789 – 2009 by Ruth Delaney and Ian Bath. Published by The Lilliput Press. (Dublin 2010).

The Royal Canal The Complete Story by Peter Clarke. Published by Elo Publications. (Dublin 1992).

Guide to the Royal Canal Ireland’s Inland Waterways. Waterways Ireland

Walking the Royal Canal, History and Local History by Peter Clark. Published by Canal walks in Association with the Royal Canal Amenity Group. (2014).

Lives of the Engineers vol. 2 by Samuel Smiles. (London 1874).

The Royal Canal Amenity Group. http://royalcanal.ie/

The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. https://www.iwai.ie/

The National Famine Way. http://nationalfamineway.ie/

National Famine Museum, Strokestown Park. https://www.strokestownpark.ie/famine/museum/

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