Shannon–Erne Waterway - History


The grand plan of linking the river systems of the Erne and the Shannon with Lough Neagh was behind the planning for several of the Irish canals, and the first attempt at a link between the Erne and the Shannon was made in 1780, along the Woodford river, from Belturbet to Ballyconnell. Richard Evans carried out the work, which was financed by a grant of £1,000 from parliament. He built a lock near Carrowl, but failed to obtain any more grants, and the project ceased. In 1790, there was a scheme to connect Lower Lough Erne to the sea at Ballyshannon, which would involve the construction of twelve locks, but only one was built, and the scheme foundered in 1792, due to a failure to raise enough capital.

The next survey of the Woodford river was made in 1793 by William Chapman, who estimated that Garadice Lough could be reached for £5,000, from where he believed that a link to the Shannon should be possible. Eight years later, the Directors General asked Richard Evans, who had carried out the work in 1780, to estimate the cost of a link from the Shannon to the Erne, and also to reappraise the link from the Lower Erne at Belleek to the sea at Ballyshannon. Evans estimated that the two projects would cost £48,000, but the Directors General took no action, and this was the last time that the link to the sea was considered.

In 1838, the Commissioners of Public Works were created, and one of their tasks was to find public schemes that would create employment. Accordingly, William Mulvany carried out the next survey at their request, at a time when work had begun on the Ulster Canal, which would provide the link onwards to Lough Neagh. The powers of the Commissioners were increased in 1842, so that their remit included navigations, drainage and water power works. The Ulster Canal wanted the link to the Shannon completed, while local landowners wanted better drainage of the area, and these two factors finally convinced the Commissioners that they should act. The scheme would combine navigation and drainage, and plans were drawn up by John McMahon, an engineer working for the Board of Works. He estimated that the work would cost £100,000.

When work began on the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal in 1846, it was financed by the Office of Public Works with John McMahon setting out the line and William Mulvany acting as the engineer in charge. The mix of drainage and navigation was always an awkward combination, since the first required low water levels and the second required high water levels. The engineering would have been simpler if two separate schemes had been built, as would the finances, since the drainage work had to be accounted for separately, and there were often delays while waiting for funding which was part of the other scheme. There were also problems with millers and eel fisheries, and surprisingly for a scheme designed to provide employment, difficulty with finding sufficient numbers of labourers to carry out the work. At the start of the project, over 7,000 were employed, but this reduced to 2,500 in its later stages.

A navigation channel was dredged through the six loughs which formed part of the canal using steam dredgers. The locks down to Lough Erne were all constructed with large weirs, and there were considerable problems with flooding from the Woodford River during construction. Between Lough Scur and Leitrim, the Leitrim River was enlarged, and eight locks were built. It soon became obvious that the original estimates were totally inadequate, and in 1852 there was an investigation into the Board of Works, since they seemed unable to deliver any projects within budget. Mulvany became the scapegoat, and was blamed for the overrun. He made cutbacks, reducing the depth from 6 feet (1.8 m) to 4.5 feet (1.4 m), although in places the navigation was shallower than this. Despite the stringency, towpaths were built on the canal sections at huge cost, even though the loughs made it impossible to use horse power for much of the distance, and boats with steam engines were already working on the Shannon.

The first boats to use the canal from Ballinamore began to do so in 1858. By 1859 the cost had risen to £276,992, and there was a dispute as to who should pay the difference between that and the original estimate. Following a public enquiry, £30,000 was paid by each of the counties through which the canal ran, and the rest was funded by the government. Management was to be by a group of navigation trustees and a separate group of drainage trustees, which again provided conflict. The canal was handed over to them on 4 July 1860. Within months the engineer and secretary of the trustees, J. P. Pratt, had compiled a long list of problems. The records showed that only eight boats used the canal between 1860 and 1869, generating tolls of £18, and with this level of usage, there was little incentive to put things right.

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