A Potted History of Canals

Last updated: 04 May 2023

Canals are very logical structures. You have one water channel on your left and another on your right. To get water from one channel into the other, you cut a track – a canal – through the land that connects the two. The Grand Canal involved digging out a 132km (82 mile) artificial channel, including 43 locks. The new canal did bring new industry to the regions it passed through, although the kegs of Guinness stout were not quite as full when they reached their destination as they had been when they left the Guinness brewery.

Canals were cut in Mesopotamia (Iraq) at least 6,000 years ago, while other early examples can be found in ancient India, Egypt and Afghanistan. The Chinese invented rising gates, slipways and other clever ways to transport vast shipments of rice and grain around the country. This culminated in the construction of the Jing–Hang Grand Canal, which runs for over a thousand miles, which is the longest canal in the world and always has been. It starts in present-day Beijing and connects with both the Yellow River and the Yangtze river. This incredible feat of engineering has been consistently developed over the last thousand years or so, but China’s Grand Canal had its genesis back in the 7th century, at about the same time that the early Christians were starting to build island monasteries in Ireland.

By the time the Vikings began raiding Irish monasteries in the 9th century, the Chinese had invented the pound lock, the first device by which boats were lowered and raised through a built-in chamber, and the ancestor of our present-day canal locks.

Around the time of the Cambro-Norman conquest, the ingenious Cistercian monks built a large number of abbeys along multiple Irish waterways, including Mellifont, Boyle, Jerpoint, Duiske (Graiguenamagh) and so on. The Cistercians excelled at building weirs. In the late 12th century, the first artificial channels were carved. I’m willing to stand corrected, but I believe the oldest “canal” is the Friar’s Cut in Galway, which enabled boats to pass through an island at the southern end of Lough Corrib into Galway Bay.

The 12th and 13th centuries also brought the construction of the first proper weirs on Irish rivers – a weir being a dam, or barrier of stones, laid across a river to create a pool or pools of water. Such pools were useful for keeping fish stock but also vital for raising raise water levels in shallow areas so that boats could navigate the surface. Weirs also meant people could divert water from the rivers into mill races, special channels that turned water wheels which, in turn, created waterpower to crush oats for making loaves of bread.

Following William of Orange’s victory at the battle of the Boyne in the 1690s, there was a new age in store for the Irish waterways. King Billy was Dutch, and that Dutch link is important. The Dutch are world-renowned for building canals and waterways, as well as reclaiming water. Bismarck once allegedly remarked that if the Dutch were given Ireland, they would make it the most beautiful island in the world, but if the Irish had charge of the Netherlands, they would fail to maintain all the dykes and dams, and everyone would drown. I don’t know if Bismarck ever actually delivered such an outrageous remark, but it does underline how the Dutch were so admired for their skill at the taming river, lake and sea.

By the early 1700s, a growing interest in Irish waterways generally prompted the Irish parliament in Dublin to pass an act in 1715 “to encourage the draining and improving the bogs and unprofitable low grounds, and for easing and dispatching the inland carriage and conveyance of goods from one Part to another within this kingdom.”

In the ensuing decades, there was an enormous amount of “draining and improving” of bogs and such to make the land more profitable. Some were more successful than others.  The act also referred to the ‘easing and dispatching the inland carriage and conveyance of goods.’ In other words, the notion that the transport system could be boosted by new canals and river navigations to get people and products from A to B.

On the back of the 1715 act, eighteen different navigation schemes were launched across Ireland in the early 18th century. Almost all of them were complete disasters, mostly because too much money was required to get each project off the ground, and then keep them in motion

On the back of the 1715 act, eighteen different navigation schemes were launched across Ireland in the early 18th century. Almost all of them were complete disasters, mostly because too much money was required to get each project off the ground, and then keep them in motion

Only two schemes enjoyed any progress – a minor tweak to the River Maigue near Adare Manor in County Limerick, and a scheme to make the Liffey more navigable. However, even the Liffey scheme came a cropper in the long run.

Tolls were introduced to generate some of the money required to run these navigations. It was also hoped that each canal would generate its own income by the very nature of the goods being transported such as, say, bringing coal from the coalmines of Tyrone or Roscommon to the household of Dublin. Coal was starting to earn big bucks for canal investors in England so there was plenty of interest in Ireland.

In 1759, Henry Brooke, a map maker, described Irish waterways as a giant spiders’ web that would enable Ireland “to spin her own web of happiness out of her own bowels.” Brooke reckoned that if 80,000 idle hands were put to work, Dublin and the Shannon could be connected within a year! It took rather longer than a year, and for slightly crazy reasons, they ended up building two canals from Dublin to the Shannon instead of one … for which the building and maintenance costs were massive and constant.

Ultimately, almost every canal in Ireland was doomed to disappoint – leaky, money-munching, exhausting. Ironically, just as they worked out how to build sensible canals that didn’t leak in the 1840s, the railway arrived and utterly knocked them for six. The canal system was almost entirely redundant by the 1940s. A glimmer of hope was ignited by forward-thinking souls who recognised the long-term importance of having waterways, rivers and canals that flowed freely through the land. That become increasingly important as tourists – domestic and international – began to enjoy the waters, walking and cycling on the greenways and blueways of Ireland’s beautiful riverbanks and canal banks, or voyaging on barges, cruisers and other boats.

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To my mind, the story of the Irish Waterways is only just beginning. The canals didn’t work in the age of the Industrial Revolution, but maybe their golden age is yet to come. As we voyage towards the middle decades of the 21st century, perhaps these tracts of perpetual rainwater that tumble down from the mountains and hills into our rivers, lakes, streams and canals are serving another incredibly important purpose – as a vital part of our ecology, our biodiversity, creating havens for flora, fauna and wildlife, for otters, bats, bugs and bees. Perhaps this network of waterways can help us win the mighty battle of the present age to regain control of our climate.


Researched and written by Irish historian Turtle Bunbury, the history of Irish Waterways and their environs is the result of extensive original scholarship through the National Archives and contemporary newspapers, as well as the expertise of local historians and academic historians.


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