The Great Irish Navvy

Home Grown Heroes

Last updated: 24 Jan 2023

The men who built the canals were known as ‘navvies’, derived from ‘navigation’, the original expression for an inland waterway.They were hardy countrymen whose ability to wield a grafting spade was crucial to the entire canal enterprise. Working with a shovel (or ‘Lord Lovel’ in navvy slang), a skilled navvy could dig out 20 tons of earth a day – the equivalent of a trench 3-foot-wide, 3-foot-deep and as long as a telegraph pole (36-foot).

They became masters at blasting rocks, heaving barrows, carting rubble and ‘puddling’ the canal beds; each task was rife with hazards and many lost lives and limbs in the process.

Such experience led thousands of Irish navvies to venture to England where canal building was enjoying a lengthy boom. Many Irishmen who went over to harvest on the great English and Scottish estates also ended up earning better pay on British waterways.

Thousands more crossed the Atlantic to work on the canals of North America, prompting Ralph Waldo Emerson to remark: ‘The poor Irishman, the wheelbarrow is his country.’ At least 5,000 Irishmen helped build the Erie Canal, while the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal provided work for ‘4,000 Irish and their priests’. 

"Ten thousand Irish navvies spread out across the land, And they picked their way through the mud and clay, And moved it all by hand."

Navvies often lived in disease-prone shanty towns of temporary huts, erected near the project in hand, where they earned a reputation as fierce men who liked to brawl between shots of Charley Frisky (whiskey) and pints of Pig’s Ear (beer).


The advent of the Railway Age meant that by 1845, at least 60,000 Irish were at work on Britain’s railways. They went on to build tunnels, bridges, dams, drains and sewage systems across the world


They also continued to work on canals such as the Manchester Ship Canal, completed in the last decade of the 19th century. Nicknamed the ‘Big Ditch’, at least a third of the 16,000 work-force who built it were Irish, primarily from Connaught.

    Killaloe works, 1890       

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