Boats of the Waterways

Last updated: 24 Jan 2023

'The Long Slow Journey to the Perfect Pint'

One of the iconic images of the waterways was the sight of boats laden with Guinness barrels voyaging through the Irish countryside. In Dublin, Guinness Brewery would hand over the precious cargo to the Grand Canal Company to move them along the canals. Canal man Tom Connolly recalled mooring his barge alongside St James's Brewery in Dublin, loading it up with the black stuff (perhaps as many as 450 barrels a time) and bringing the cargo some 131 km west up the Grand Canal - all the way to the pubs at his childhood home at Shannon Harbour.

  The 55M canal barge laden with its cargo

​On the return journey, they carried malt barley back to the Guinness Brewery, while there was often room to collect a load of the sugar-beet that came up the Barrow Navigation from Carlow.

Barrels of Guinness were also dropped off at pubs such as Thomas O'Keefe's at Kilcock, County Kildare, from where the stout was distributed to other pubs in the district. Founded in 1796, O'Keefe's is the oldest canal-side pub in Ireland.

​It was said that Guinness added five or six extra pints to each barrel, knowing that bargemen liked to tap 'a little drop of porter' enroute. An unwritten law stated that a sweet-can was the maximum you could take from a firkin, while the limit for a hogshead barrel was a biscuit tin. 

​Many believed that the long serene journey of the Guinness barrels along the canals gave the stout time to 'condition' and so produced the perfect pint.

Guinness was not only the most common cargo to be carried by the trade boats but it also kept such boats operating after the introduction of road haulage. In fact, Guinness was the last cargo to be carried by a commercial barge on Ireland's canal system when the 51M cast off from St James' Harbour in Dublin with a load of barrels, destination Limerick, on 27 May 1960.

              51M, the last trade boat on the Grand Canal, 27 May 1960

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