The Ulster Canal

Ulster Canal Map

The Ulster Canal is a disused canal running through part of County Armagh, County Tyrone and County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland. In the early 19th century the idea of linking the lowlands around Lough Neagh with the Erne Basin and the River Shannon system became popular with the more progressive landowners and merchants of Armagh, Monaghan and Fermanagh. The Ulster Canal was built between 1825 and 1842 and was 74 km (46 mi) long with 26 locks. It ran from Charlemont on the River Blackwater to Wattle Bridge on the River Finn, south-east of Upper Lough Erne. It was an ill-considered venture, with the locks built narrower than the other Irish waterways, preventing through trade, and an inadequate water supply. It was an abject failure commercially, and contributed to the collapse of the Lagan Navigation Company, who took it over from the government but were then refused permission to abandon it when they could not afford the maintenance costs.

The Ulster Canal opened in 1841 and linked the two major expanses of water, Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. The original plan, was to create a navigable waterway, to link the ports of Belfast and Coleraine with the River Shannon and onwards to Limerick or Waterford. It could be argued the success of the Ulster Canal depended on the completion of the Shannon Erne link, then known as the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal. This was opened to navigation in 1860; alas by the time it opened, the Ulster was virtually derelict. The canal was then closed for major repairs but, by the time it was re-opened, the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal had all but been abandoned, The improvements did bring a limited increase in traffic but, by the turn of the century, the canal was again in decline.

The canal left the River Blackwater just below the village of Moy and climbed through 19 locks to the summit on the far side of Monaghan, descending through 7 further locks, dropping down to the Finn River where it enters Lough Erne near the Quivvy Waters.

Bridge over Ulster Canal, Tyholland One of the remaining stone built bridges over the canal still standsA public meeting was held at Monaghan in February 1817, and despite strong local support, including an offer to provide two-thirds of the cost by a group of landowners and businessmen, the Directors General did not take any action, and the project remained an idea. The proprietors who had taken over the Lagan Canal in 1810 saw the link as a way to increase traffic on their own canal, and public support for it grew steadily, until a large group of people requested parliamentary approval for a revised scheme, which was very similar to Killaly's of a decade previously. The government remained unconvinced that they would receive a return on any money advanced, and so the Directors General could not act. Finally, in 1825, a private company was authorised to construct the canal. It was estimated to cost 160,050, as a new survey had produced a plan which only needed eighteen locks.

The company then applied to the borrow 100,000 from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission, a body created under the Poor Employment Act of 1817. The engineer Thomas Telford was sent to Ireland to inspect the plans and estimates, which he duly approved, but the interest rates on the loan could not be agreed, and three further Acts of Parliament were obtained before a loan of 120,000 was agreed. Problems were then experienced with the contractors, Henry, Mullins and MacMahon from Dublin, who were awarded the construction contract in 1832. Telford then decided that there were serious problems with the design and that a new survey should be made. This increased the number of locks to 26, and the contractors were asked for a new estimate. Agreement could not be reached, and they eventually withdrew from the project. John Killaly, the local engineer, died in 1832, and it in not known whether he decided to reduce the width of the locks before he died, or whether the decision was made by Telford, but they were built 12 feet (3.7 m) wide, preventing through traffic except in specially built boats. William Cubitt succeeded Telford after he died in 1834. The canal was eventually finished in 1841. From the summit pound, nineteen locks descended to Lough Neagh, and in the other direction, seven descended to Lough Erne. Water was supplied by Quig Lough reservoir, a lake near Monaghan which had been enlarged. The final lock at Wattle Bridge was only 11.7 feet (3.6 m) wide, making it the narrowest in Ireland. The project had cost over 230,000.

Despite much local support the scheme did not see fruition for a further 13 years. In the meantime financial wrangling put further pressures on the proposals and what was eventually proposed was more like an exercise in cost cutting. Projected returns were based on tonnages carried on the Grand Canal, the most successful of the navigations. The original contract had been given to a contractor named Henry Mullins and Mc Mahon; they withdrew and the contract was awarded to William Dargan, also known for contracts associated with the railways.

Dargan was the main contractor building the Kibeggan Branch of the Grand Canal; sad to say Killaly would not see the fruits of his labours as he died in 1832, followed by Tedford a year later. Another engineer, William Cubitt, perhaps better known for his association with railway building, was appointed to progress the scheme.

Whoever made the decision to reduce the lock size remains a mystery. In reality the width of the smallest lock, at the Lough Erne end of the navigation, was 11 ft 8 ins. This meant cargoes being shipped from Belfast or Newry would have to be unloaded from one lighter to a different one to complete the journey. It is fair to say the first ten years of trading were disastrous; the fact cargoes had to change boats and the lack of water depth for the four summer months only proved it was going to be impossible to repay the loan. The Board of Works assumed responsibility for the canal and eventually it was leased to its builder, William Dargan, who was probably the main carrier.

Faced with the threat of competition from the railways, Dargan transferred his lease to the Dundalk Navigation Company. In less than ten years the lease was again transferred back to the Board of Works. Again extensive work was required. By this time the Ballinamore to Ballyconnell navigation had opened and the directors were optimistic. It took eight years to carry out the necessary repairs and by this time the Ballyconnell navigation was impassable.

Ulster Canal, west of Clones, County MonaghanThe canal failed to generate significant trade, as the water supply was inadequate, and goods had to be transhipped at either end into narrower boats. In addition, there was no link to the River Shannon to generate through traffic, and unlikely to be one while the canal did not prosper. The company were unable to repay any of the loan made by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners, and in 1851, the Board of Public Works took control of it. After cosmetic repairs, it was leased to William Dargan, who had built most of it as contractor, and ran the only significant carrying operation on the waterway. The Ulster Railway reached Monaghan in 1858, and three years later the canal was in a ruinous state. Sir John Macneill, the Irish railway engineer, suggested that the best use of it was to drain the water and lets cows graze on it.

In an attempt to recoup their losses, the government took control of it again in 1865, closed it, and spent 22,000 over eight years on repairs. Their main priority was to secure an adequate water supply, but when the canal reopened in 1873, this proved not to have been achieved. Maintenance costs far exceeded revenue, and what little traffic there was, was confined to the Lough Erne end of the canal, as the summit was mostly unnavigable, and there was only sufficient water during eight months of every year. However, there was a slight improvement in traffic in 1880, when W. R. Rea, the secretary of the Lagan Navigation Company, set up a new carrying company using smaller boats. There was a vague promise of government aid for any company interested in taking it over. A series of negotiations then took place, but the government failed on three occasions to pass a bill to authorise the sellout to the Lagan Canal. They eventually suggested that the Lagan Canal should try to obtain a private bill to achieve the aim, and they were successful in doing so in 1888

At a meeting, held in Portadown Town Hall in April 1888, a report was submitted by Mr. R. C. Sinclair, an eminent London engineer (who was specially engaged by Mr. J.G.V. Porter, Lisbellaw, with reference to the Northern canals, and to consult generally on the matter. The chair was taken by Arthur Thornton, Esq., chairman of the Portadown Town Commissioners, and there were also present amongst others -- Dr. Riggs, Armagh; Dr. Heron, Portadown; Thomas Best, J.P.; Thomas Shillington, Altavilla; George Greer, J.P., Woodville; James Best, Armagh; John Richardson, T.C.; John Tate, Hamilton Robb, Jacob Orr, Cranagill; P. Loughran, William Hall, T.C.; Frank J.O'Hanlon, Coates Stanley, &c.

The CHAIRMAN having briefly explained the object of the meeting. Mr. PORTER introduced Mr. Sinclair, C.T., who read the following very important report.:-

"To J.G.V. PORTER, Esq. -- Dear Sir -- Having at your request undertaken the responsible duty of making a personal examination of the canals in the northern district of Ireland, and suggesting some mode of rendering them of use and benefit to the country, and to avoid the calamity of their being in some cases disposed of, and probably closed entirely, by the contemplated action of the Lords of the Treasury, I have made a careful examination of the subject as respects those canals which might, and no doubt were, intended to form a through communication between the seaports of Belfast and Newry on the east coast, and the River Shannon on the west, but have confined my attention principally to those canals which form the connecting chain between the Blackwater and the Shannon -- viz., the Ulster Canal and the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell; Canal -- the Newry Canal and the Lurgan being to a certain extent in an independent position, and admitted to be in good repair and well managed.

Ulster Canal deserted bridgeIt appears from the published reports arising out of former inquiries, that the cost of constructing the canals and rivers in this district amounted to no less a sum than 836,623 of which the Ulster and Ballinamore absorbed more than half, or 450,652. I have made a careful and personal examination of both the Ulster and Ballinamore Canals. And first as relates to the Ulster Canal. I would remark that although the lock gates and masonry of the locks are, as far as I can judge, in fair working order, a considerable outlay will be required in preventing the loss of water by leakage, which appears to me to be very serious and extensive. Even now I noticed water being run down at every lock to keep the canal between the locks at a proper level, which certainly ought not to be the case. The canal at Benbun locks is very narrow, and will require widening and making watertight. The lower end at Charlemont seems to be on bad ground and very defective -- banks low, and the masonry of the lock on one side seems to have sunk and bulged inwards. I notice from the reports that these repairs are estimated to cost about 10,000 which includes a liberal sum in my opinion for raising the banks. I do not, however, question the amount, as I have no doubt the estimate was carefully made. I do not wish to swell this report by enumerating all the necessary repairs, of which I have taken copious notes, but to remark that, with the exceptions I have alluded to, and with the possession of a fine and capacious reservoir, and several other streams which may at a small expense be added for the purposes of the water supply, and with a rigid economy at the locks.

I have no hesitation in saying that the Ulster Canal ought to be and can be made available for trade purposes throughout the whole year, and throughout its whole length. I am satisfied that if it were in the hands of a company, and managed, as it would then be, with ordinary commercial sagacity, it would more than pay its expenses; and if the Ballinamore Canal were put into good repair, so as to be commercially and safely used, and thus form one unbroken line from Belfast to the Shannon, a considerable trade would arise. I believe the main cause of all the failure hitherto experienced has, if my information be correct, arisen from the fact that neither of these canals has been in complete working order at any one period of their existence -- so as to be capable of being used together in conjunction. Anything more truly deplorable than the state of the Ballinamore Canal I can scarcely conceive, with all its locks of excellent masonry, and the lock gates all allowed to decay and fall down; I am afraid this has mainly been caused by want of enterprise and energy, without which no public or private undertaking can prosper, and when I am led to understand that a sum of about 8,000 would put it in good order and repair, I cannot understand anything more suicidal (if I may use the expression) than the proposition to abandon such a work, and leave it for mere drainage purposes -- very useful in themselves, but of small value as compared with the advantage of cheap and regular carriage by water. I can quite see that the present position of these two canals, and the failure of one at least, is, and has long been, an unpleasant picture for the Lords of the Treasury and the Board of Works, and that they would gladly rid themselves of any further trouble and responsibility respecting them; but to abandon them after spending nearly half a million of money out of the public purse, and while retaining them in their own hands, without any well-directed effort to render them of commercial use, allowed them to go to ruin and decay (as in the instance of the Ballinamore Canal), would render them open, at all events, to a charge of grave neglect. I am quite aware that the rapid decay of the lock gates on the Ballinamore is mainly due to their being made of memel timber. Had they been made of good sound oak, as they should have been, with the trifling work they have done, they would all have been in good order at this time, and I think the cost of the work, or the price paid for it, did not justify the use of such material.

The next question which naturally arises is this; What is best to be done with it? I should recommend that it and the Ulster Canal be put into a state of good and efficient order at the expense of the Board of Works, they having neglected it, and handed it over in an incomplete state; and to hand over their entire interest in these canals, after putting them in repair, together with all their powers, interests, and easements, to a public company or to a Navigation Board. The Treasury must, I apprehend, treat these canals as insolvent, as neither the prime cost nor the interest upon it can ever be paid, and would probably wish to see the account closed. And here I would suggest that, if handed over to a public company, they should pay a fair interest upon the sum required to be laid out in repairs, or, as an equivalent, should take upon themselves to duty and expense of keeping the drainage works now in connection with these canals in good working order and condition. There is another mode of dealing with them which suggests itself to my mind -- viz., a Navigation Board framed upon a basis similar to the River Weaver navigation in England, though the circumstances of the two cases are not exactly parallel. The River Weaver in Cheshire, and runs through great salt manufacturing districts, and was at one time, I understand, a very poor concern, however, it has for many years been managed under an act of Parliament, by which all the excess of tolls over and above what is required for the maintenance and improvement of the River Weaver, as a navigation, is handed over to the County of Chester for the public purposes of the County, and every magistrate of the County of Chester is an ex-officio trustee of the River Weaver; and so excellent is the result that, although money expended on improvements is very heavy, and the river as a navigation one of the finest in England, the amount handed over to the County of Chester represents a sum of nearly 10,000 a year, I am not quite sure of the exact amount, but I believe it has one year exceeded that amount, carrying nearly three million tons of salt per annum.

The Canal at Blackwater TownIf the first proposition as to a company can be carried out, I should suggest that the money required to be spent in repairs be laid out by the company engineer in conjunction with or under the approval of the engineer of the Board of Works, producing vouchers to show how and where the money has been expended. When put into thorough repair, the one great object towards their ultimate success would be the union of the entire canal and river navigation into one interest to be under one management and control, instead, as at present, very different interests. It would tend, firstly, to greatly reducing the management expenses, and by enabling through rates made, greatly facilitate business, as a merchant or trader would then have only one Board and its manager to communicate with in lieu of, say half-a-dozen. I see no difficulty in arranging the whole matter on a basis of this kind, provided perfect unanimity is preserved, and vested interests fairly dealt with, and [--???--] business entered upon in a liberal, willing, and, above all, united spirit. Much has been said as to the competition with the Great Northern Railway, I am, of course, aware there will be, and have had abundant experience of what is meant by competition in England, not only as regards railway, but other traffic, and it is pretty generally understood by those connected with carrying that for a certain class of articles, such as coal, iron ore, building materials of all kinds, grain, and agricultural produce, canals can and do hold their own.

Eventually the Lagan Navigation Company was persuaded to take control. It is fair to say moderate success was achieved but receipts would not cover expensive necessary maintenance mainly due to the lack of water. The Lagan Navigation Company was refused permission to abandon the navigation, but eventually it closed itself. The last lighter to sail the canal was in 1929 and the canal was officially abandoned in 1931.

Our thanks to Brian Cassells, Kenneth Allen and the Craigavon Historical Society for their contributions to this article.

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