The lock-keepers entrusted with operating and maintaining each lock were often among the biggest characters on the canals. One such soul was Paddy ‘Sonny’ Byrne who looked after the Grand Canal Locks in Dublin from 1915 until 1943.
His father was a deep-sea diver who drowned at sea. Prior to the Great War, Sonny was master of the Aja, a pleasure vessel that ran up and down the Grand Canal, carrying guests for one of the Grand Canal Company’s co-owners. Sonny was offered a residence in the Lock-keeper’s Cottage beside the locks, but his wife was so frightened their baby daughter might toddle into the water she refused to live there. Instead they lived in Thorncastle Street, Ringsend, opposite St Patrick’s Church.
29th Lock-keeper, Winner of the Best Lock
Known as the ‘Hero of the Barrow’, Mick Webster, the lock-keeper at Carlow-Graiguecullen, had saved at least 50 people from drowning by the time of his death (aged 93) in 1938, earning him a medal from the Royal Humane Society. The Carlow Nationalist recalled him as ‘physically a gladiator, with the courage of a lion and the gentleness of a lamb.’ A noted sportsman, particularly with a cricket bat, Mick was also Head Water Bailiff on the River Barrow on the banks of which he lived.
‘Hero of the Barrow’, Mick Webster, the lock-keeper at Carlow-Graiguecullen, had saved at least 50 people from drowning by the time of his death in 1938.
At the waterways peak, there were 136 lock-keepers along the Royal Canal, the Grand Canal and the Barrow; today there are just 14. Lock-keepers had to be on call 24 hours a day, and the lock-keepers entire family helped out. The profession often passed down from father to son or, occasionally, daughter. Alan Lindley is an eighth-generation lock-keeper who looks after the 30th Lock on the Grand Canal. His ancestor James Mitchell came from Antrim to work as an engineer on the Grand Canal in the 1790s and fetched up as a keeper on the very same 30th lock.