Lough Allen Canal

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In February 1783, the citizens of Dublin were invited to the Royal Exchange (now City Hall) on Dame Street to inspect the burning of some Irish coal that had been brought to the city from a coalfield in the Arigna Valley near the Leitrim-Roscommon border. The fuel was now in sale in 'great quantities' along the banks of Lough Allen, as were 'inexhaustible' supplies of iron ore.

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The concept of using Irish coal instead of British had much appeal to 'Grattan's Parliament' in Dublin. The question was how to bring it from Lough Allen to Dublin.  Transporting it by canal had been mooted as far back as 1782 but it was not until December 1820 that a 4 ½ mile canal finally connected Lough Allen to the upper reaches of the River Shannon at Battlebridge.

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The project was overseen by John Killaly, the brilliant engineer who had completed the Royal Canal in 1817, with Dennis Hayes and Patrick Kelly in charge of construction. It opened to traffic February 1821, 200 years ago.

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Nine months later, Saunder's Newsletter reported 'much satisfaction' in telling its readers that 'a boat load of Irish coal is now on sale at the Royal Canal Harbour, Broadstone, which has been brought from Lough Allen … [it is] an extremely good house coal, and would answer remarkably well for manufacture.'

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Moreover, the canal itself was by no means faultless. In 1825, a boat that set off from Lough Allen with 25 tons of coal reportedly had to shed cargo twelve times in order to traverse eight sets of rapids. By the time it reached the Royal Canal at Cloondara, its cargo had been whittled down to just five tons.

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The waterway was much boosted by a decision to waive the toll for any boats carrying over 30 tons of coal during its first three years of operation. However, obtaining such hefty cargos was a big ask given that the Arigna collieries were so poorly equipped and serviced at the time. In 1822, the only way to get coal from the pits to Lough Allen was by carrying it cross-country in small baskets on the backs of workhorses.

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Faced with such challenges, trade had dwindled to such an extent that only 47 boats passed through it in 1831. When Isaac Weld surveyed the area in 1832, he noted that the only boats using it were carrying a small amount of Arigna coal south to Carrick-on-Shannon, Drumsna and, occasionally, Athlone. He maintained that the trade was kyboshed by an abundance of much cheaper 'sea-coal' (as coal from Britain was called) coming into ports all over Ireland.

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Plans to improve and develop the canal were further dashed when Thomas Rhodes filed a report in 1839, concluding that such sparse traffic did not warrant any great expenditure. It was hard to argue that Arigna coal was in demand given that over four times as much British coal was being carried on the Shannon at the time.

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In 1847, work began on damming the canal and letting it dry out so that remedial works could commence on its locks and sills. Plans were also afoot to make a new cut at Mount Allen to divert the waters of the Arigna River directly into Lough Allen and so reduce the amount of silt being washed in by flood waters from the mountains. An inventory of tools required offers a useful insight into what the diversion involved - 36 wheelbarrows, 48 shovels, 48 spades, 12 dozen clay pipes and fifty 12 ft wheeling planks.

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The Lough Allen Canal petered on through the Victorian Age. In 1873 it carried just 382 tons of coal, although that figure multiplied to 3,000 tons the following year. There were always challenges – part of the canal burst in 1873; another part froze solid in 1878 – and the end came in 1887 when the Cavan & Leitrim Railway Company constructed a tramway to Arigna.

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Lough Allen's fate was sealed in the late 1920s when it was designated as a storage reservoir for the hydro-electric power station at Ardnacrusha. Two large sluice gates were added to control the lake's flow into the Shannon during dry spells. When the lake was dredged and deepened to increase its capacity, it made the canal unworkable. The last pleasure boat passed through the weed-clogged canal in 1932. Six years later, all navigation was halted by the construction of a dam across the canal.

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In 1978, a popular local campaign ensured that the Lough Allen Canal was re-opened as far as Acres Lake. The resurrection advanced again in 1996 when a two-way lock was built at Drumshanbo, making the canal navigable from Acres Lake to Lough Allen once more.


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In 2017, the Lough Allen Canal received a major boost when it became part of the Shannon Blueway, a network of over 100km of waterborne or waterside trails.  A series of paths for walking and cycling were installed or upgraded along the canal banks while other additions included new canoe steps and a much admired, 600-metre floating boardwalk on beautiful Acres Lake. Combined with Lough Allen's burgeoning reputation for fishing, sailing and other watersports, these new works have had the desired effect of drawing more visitors to Acres Lake and the Lough Allen Canal - almost 120,000 people visited in 2019 and, Covid-19 notwithstanding, that number jumped up to just shy of 150,000 in 2020.

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In many ways the Canal has gone through a series of lifecycle stages. Its re-opening in 1990 to navigation was a major boost and its inclusion as a central element of the Shannon Blueway in 2017 has seen a re-imagining of its use – one that is paying dividends to the local economy and social fabric of the communities along the canal. 

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