Canals and Waterways. [180]



Why is Ireland green?  Because it gets rain coming off the North Atlantic Gulf Stream.  Where does the rain go?  In to bogs and lakes, rivers and canals, and it eventually finds its way to the ocean.

In the 1700’s and early 1800’s, there was a major transportation problem.  The farms and plantations in the west and central part of the island could grow crops for export, (Figure 1) but they could only get them to market or for export by horse and wagon.  The roads were only partially paved.  (Railways were about 50 or more years in the future).  Once in ports, agricultural products could be shipped to England or other locations for sale.  

One solution was to connect the rivers, lakes, and bogs together to form shallow draft inland waterways.  The countryside was mainly conducive to such a plan having no significant mountains in the interior. (Figure 2) Designing such canals was within the scope of civil engineering as it existed.  There was a job shortage in Ireland.  In addition to general laborers, horse handlers, stone masons, blacksmiths, carpenters and othe specialists were needed, and available in the countryside.  These workers became known as navigators or, more popularly, “navvies” or “navvys”, and worked in teams.  In addition to Ireland, they also worked in England to construct their extensive canal system.  

Although generally shallow (10 to 12 feet deep), the construction was complex.  Locks were needed in some areas to transverse higher land,(Figure 3) and towpaths needed to be built along the sides for horses or oxen to pull the boats. Passing points and intersections had to be built, and bridges became a necessity.  Docks and loading facilities were also needed.  Canal traffic is slow – 3-4 mph, but ideal for moving large volumes of low unit-cost material, such as grain.

One of the longest canals is the Grand Canal, starting in Dublin Harbour, and extends to the Shannon near Athlone. (Figure 4) The Shannon waterway goes northward from the port of Limerick and intersects several other canals. These canals connected to the ports of Londonderry and Belfast. (Figure 5)  Separate canals served Cork and Waterford among other locations.  These canals were usually a combination of rivers and lakes linked by excavated canals. (Figure 6)

With the coming of the railways in the 1840-60’s, canal traffic gradually decreased.  Some canals were taken over as railroad right-of-way, while others simply remained dormant.  While dormant for traffic doesn’t mean they weren’t used, since they also provided for drainage, fishing, bathing, and irrigation. Besides human usage, the canals provided homes for water birds, such as ducks and geese. (Figure 7) Duck dinners were popular with both the rich and poor. (Figure 8) The waterways were fertile with over twenty species of fish. They provided a breeding ground for the Atlantic salmon. (Figure 9)

As Ireland’s economy grew in the 1960’s and later, the old canals saw renewed use for recreational boating. The ability to visit small towns, move through scenic areas, and relax and go at one’s pace became a popular vacation  pastime. (Figure 10)  Not only local folks, but the canals attract foreign tourists.  Ireland is well-known for fishing.. Some travel companies offer special attractions, such as cooking classes, or gourmet meals along with the slow, gentle ride on the canal boat.(Figure 11).  The Shannon-Erne Canal has been modernized with automatic locks. This cross-border operation connects along the border from Leitrim to near Belturbet. (Figure 12) and is a popular vacation destination.

The waterways are important to Ireland for many reasons beyond their initial use to move crops to market.  They play an important role in Irish life.

Irish National Tourist Board, Ireland of the Welcomes, From Shannon to Erne, Flanagan, P., Vol. 43, No.6, Nov-Dec 1994.
Haynes, D.O., Materials Handling Applications, 1962.
Wikipedia, Ireland-Canals, reviewed July 15, 2019


1. ABC178-8 Crops
2. 02/n1
3. ABC180-23    Aerial view Canal lock
4.  ABC180-4
5.  ABC180-1A   Selvadge
6.  ABC180-21   Aerial photo
7.  ABC161-9 Geese
8.  ABC180-8 Ducks
9.  ABC179-6 Salmon
10. ABC180-10 swimmers photo
11. ABC180-11A Shannon
12. ABC180-11 Erne