The era of canal transport commenced in England in the early 18th century. The earliest canal legislation was passed by the Irish parliament in 1716.
Initially, the Irish parliament gave extensive powers to promoters and undertakers with a view to improving waterways in particular areas. An Act of the Irish parliament passed in 1729 established four bodies of commissioners.
In 1752, it constituted a corporation, the Commissioners for improving Inland Navigation with the object of promoting and carrying on inland navigation in Ireland. After 1772, it was given power to assist private enterprise by making grants to canal undertakers.
When the Commissioner for Public Accounts audited the Navigations Board in the 1780s it was very dissatisfied with financial controls. It criticised the remarkable the amount of money spent on uncompleted schemes. The Board was dissolved in 1787. Its uncompleted projects were handed over to local commissioners.
In the last session of the Irish parliament in 1800, the Directors of Inland Navigation were appointed to promote construction of canals.The Canals Ireland Act 1816 facilitated the acquisition of land compulsorily.
In all, Ireland did not undergo a canal revolution. By the mid-18th century when canals were at the height, it had less than 600 miles of navigation. Most had been built with considerable government money and support.
At that time, road communications within Ireland were particularly poor. The canals constructed between 1730 and 1860 assisted in the evolution of trade, industry and population centres during that period.
Several proposals to build canals were made from the late 17th century onwards. The first canal constructed in Ireland was the Newry canal linking Newry Port to the inland basin around Lough Neagh by means of a canal from Carlingford Lough to the Upper Bann near Portadown. The works was completed in 1742.
This canal was quickly followed by the Tyrone and Lagan canals in 1733 and 1756 in the north of the country. In the south of the country, work commenced on the Grand Canal, Shannon Navigation and the Barrow and Bann Navigations in the middle of the 18th century.
The construction of canals was strongly supported by the Irish parliament. In the period from 1730 until 1787, almost £800,000 of public monies was made available for canal construction. This was an enormous figure at that time.
By the last quarter of the 18th century, canal construction was at its peak. The construction of the canals was instrumental in the opening of manufacturing areas facilitating Britain’s industrial revolution.
Great population centres grew up around the Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol Hall and London areas cantered on industry in which canal transportation was critical.Ireland remained agricultural for the most part, with transportation in minerals being by way of importation.
The Newry ship canal was completed in 1769. The Lagan Navigation linking Belfast to Lough Neagh was completed in 1784.
The Lough Corrib Navigation linked Lough Corrib to sea in Galway.
In the 1850s, the Board of Public Works made the Upper and Lower Bann navigable between Portadown and Coleraine at the same time the further link was created from the Ulster Canal Southwest across County Leitrim to the headwaters of the Shannon through Ballinamore and Ballyconnell.
Significant navigation works was undertaken on the Barrow Suir and Slaney in the latter half of the 18th century. Between 1825 and 1842 the Ulster Canal linking Lough Neagh and Upper Lough and Erne was completed.
With the completion of the first ship canal in the 1760s, vessels up to 150 tons could enter the Port of Newry, which greatly expanded Newry as one of the most important ports in Ireland.
The motivation for the Newry Canal was to tap coal deposits discovered between Duncannon and Coalisland in East Tyrone. The Tyrone Navigation system commenced in the 1730s. It was undertaken to bringing coal with barge traffic to Lough Neagh, Southeast Newry and onwards by coastal shipment to Dublin.
The Coalisland Canal linked to the backwater which entered Lough Neagh. An extension of the Tyrone Navigation was built from Coalisland to collieries at Drumglass.
The 42-mile Ulster Canal was constructed between 1825 and 1842 by the Ulster Canal Company. Most of this was borrowed from the exchequer. The canal opened communication between Belfast and Belleek and ultimately to the headwaters of the Shannon. The canal was ultimately ill-fated as the Loughs were of insufficient depth and width to handle the traffic from Lagan and Newry Navigations and from Lough Neagh.
The Jamestown Canal bypasses a non-navigable part of the River Shannon between Jamestown and Drumsna. It is 2.6 kilometres in length and is located in County Roscommon. The Shannon Commission constructed a canal in 1848 to replace an earlier smaller canal as part of the upgrade of the Shannon Navigation.
The Tralee Ship Canal links the town of Tralee to Tralee Bay.
Lacy’s Canal was constructed in the 18th century linking Mullingar to the Northern shore of Lough Ennell. It is now derelict.
The Coalisland Canal, known as the Tyrone Navigation is approximately 4.5 miles. It was designed to reduce the cost of transporting coal from Tyrone to Dublin. An extension known as Dukart’s Canal was also completed in the late 18th century. It was abandoned in 1954.
The Boyne Navigation is a series of canals extending some 31 kilometers parallel to the River Boyne from Oldbridge to Navan. It was once used by horse-drawn canals traveling between Navan, Slane and Drogheda. It is now derelict. It was never a commercial success. It passed into private ownership during the First World War and subsequently fell into disrepair.
A number of small sections of the towpath are maintained as walking paths. Restoration efforts are concentrated on a small section at present.
The Barrow Navigation, constructed between 1759 and 1790 was well used. A number of grain mills were built, some of which are adopted as malt houses.
The Boyne was navigable for 19 miles between Drogheda and Navan. The first 13 miles to Slane were improved between 1759 and 1789.
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