The Ulster Canal

During the relatively politically stable first part of the 18th century, Ireland began to slowly develop her own economic resources and then, particularly during the period of Grattan’s Parliament, she enjoyed a period of relative healthy prosperity and a realisation that the country had substantial individual wealth and economic potential.  During this period, it was also realised that a national transport network was essential for continued economic development and wealth creation.

A national waterways network was therefore developed. As part of this, in Ulster, two major projects were started and completed. The Newry Canal was built between 1731 and 1742. This travelled through Tandragee and Portadown and then linked to Lough Neagh via the navigable section of the river Bann. The Newry ship canal which linked the town to Carlingford Lough and the Irish Sea was subsequently completed in 1769.  The Lagan canal which linked the ever-expanding city of Belfast on Belfast Lough to Lough Neagh was commenced in 1756 and completed in 1792.

Following the Act of Union in 1801, the now U.K. government were keen to see a joined-up waterways system covering all of Ireland. After all, the canal network was then of huge importance to the ever-growing economy of England.  An inland navigation system was now seen as a way of increasing the economic viability of Ireland with the added benefit that large construction projects such as canals, were a method of utilising unused labour resources and bringing employment to the poorer areas of the country, and of course attractive financial returns for the involvement of private investment companies dominated by the Irish landlord class.  The inland waterways system was also seen as an effective method for the distribution of new resources, such as Coalisland coal, throughout Ireland, particularly to Dublin. Railways were at that time as yet undeveloped or in their infancy.

Early in the new century, the newly formed Directors General of Inland Navigation considered how to improve the inland navigation incorporating the rivers system of Ireland. They subsequently developed the navigable Shannon but in 1814, they concentrated on developing a link between Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, the missing link.  They initiated a study under John Killaly and his report proposed a 35mile structure with 22 locks and an estimated cost of £ 223,000.  Killaly was then the foremost expert in Waterways development and his plan proposed locks similar to the Royal canal with which he was familiar, but these were too narrow to accommodate the boats used on the existing canals in Ulster.  This project was at first rejected by the government as economically unviable.  However, the scheme was resurrected a few years later and amended by another engineer, Thomas Telford.  The number of locks was reduced to 18 with an overall cost of £160,050.

In 1825 a private company was set up with substantial backing from large Ulster land owners to undertake the construction of the canal.  The company applied for a £100,000 grant from the government and they appointed Telford, the foremost English civil engineer of the time, to review the scheme.  He at first gave his approval but then had second thoughts and requested a new survey.  This led to a redesign to include 26 locks.  Amazingly, the width of the locks was further reduced to about 12 feet wide.  This is now acknowledged to have been a primary cause for the eventual failure of the Ulster Canal.

The canal project commenced in 1834 but Killaly died in 1832 and Telford in 1833 so they did not see the commencement of the scheme.  William Cubitt another highly experienced engineer in both English and Irish projects was appointed as chief engineer.  He found that the projected tonnage for the canal was heavily inflated and therefore the financial return was totally unrealistic.  A cost cutting exercise was initiated to make the project more realistic.  At this point the original highly experienced and respected Dublin contractor, Henry Mullins and McMahon walked away, as they were not happy with the redesigned scheme and they were not prepared to jeopardise their excellent reputation on what they considered to be a defective scheme.  The contract was then awarded to William Dargan.

Dargan was an experienced engineer and project manager, although the majority of his experience was in early railway construction but he had also been the main contractor on the Kilbeggan branch of the Grand canal.  In the final plan, the 6mile stretch of a canal linking Armagh to the project was cancelled as part of the cost cutting exercise, which in hindsight, was a big mistake.  This reduced the viability of the proposed project.

The construction of the new canal started on 23rd of May 1834 in the townland of Carrickaness on the Co.Armagh side of the Blackwater River outside Benburb.  Notable gentry and supporters and a large section of the local population were in attendance.  The locals were excited with idea of increased local employment and the subsequent increase in local prosperity which the new canal promised to bring.  The Royal Standard was hoisted from Shane O’Neill’s old castle at Benburb and company flags were flown at Benburb.  A 21gun salute announced the commencement of the project.  The first job was to blast limestone rock in the quarry at Carrickaness, from which most of the stone for building the canal originated.

The main contractor William Dargan had rented an office from Lord Caledon located on Main Street, Caledon in a house facing the Caledon Arms Hotel. He had refurbished this to purpose and to a high standard. It was replaced in the 1960’s by a N.I. Housing Executive development on that site. The officials and gentry were entertained in the Caledon Arms Hotel and celebrations in an atmosphere of promise and positivity continued well into that fine May evening.

As the work progressed there was consistent criticism of the quality of the work.  The workforce was substantial, with around 2000 men and there were regular disputes, strikes and incidents involving the Police.  One example of a practical criticism was that the puddling clay in the Benburb Gorge section, which due to natural difficulties became the most expensive section of the overall canal project, was insufficient in depth to make the section water tight.  This at a later date proved to be a very fair criticism indeed and was a contributory factor to the eventual canal failure.

There can be no doubt that this was a challenging engineering feat. The Benburb section in particular required 7 locks in quick succession.  Anyone who walks the pathway today between the canal bed and the river Blackwater can appreciate the practical difficulties of cutting through the limestone gorge and dealing with the rising and fall of the terrain on this particular stretch.

Money for the construction of the canal came from a company in which the Marquis of Donegal, the Marquis of Downshire, Lord Rossmore, Sir James Stronge and Sir Arthur Chichester were major investors. No doubt they expected a good return on their investments.  They then borrowed £120,000 against the projected cost of £160,000.  Despite many delays technical and otherwise, work progressed and landing quays were established at Charlemont, Blackwatertown, Maydown at Benburb, Milltown, Caledon and Middletown, eventually reaching Monaghan in 1838 and in 1839 this section of the canal was opened for business.

William Dargan the contractor for the canal now formed a company to commercially utilise the canal as far as Monaghan.  The company, The Ulster Canal Steam Carrying Company advertised for business in October 1839, pledging to transport all sorts of goods at competitive prices from Belfast (using the Lagan canal) transversing Lough Neagh using a powerful steam powered boat, the “Countess of Caledon” owned by Dargan, which towed the company’s trade boats.  The boat also carried passengers and later, after the opening of the railway at Portadown, operated a morning service from Verner’s Bridge to Portadown to connect with the 10am train.  By 1840 the company had 15  lighters on the canal each capable of carrying 20 tons and five more were being built at the Moy boat yard.  By 1842 Dargan had bought out his original partner, Lord Caledon and was in sole ownership.  A new iron built 100 feet steamer by Coates & Young of Belfast was in operation on Lough Neagh providing a service between Portadown and Ballyronan on alternate days.  By now, 1842, the railroad had reached Portadown and the “Countess of Caledon” had commenced the morning service from Verner’s Bridge to meet the train.  The arrival of the railway at Portadown which in the following years expanded through Annaghmore, Verner’s Bridge, Trew and Moy and eventually Dungannon in1858 spelt the death knell for the Ulster Canal although that was surely not fully understood at that time.

The cargo carrying boats on the Ulster canal were ‘dumb barges’; that is, they had no engines and were pulled by horses on the canal and were drawn across Lough Neagh by tug boats, sometimes two at a time. Dargan had purchased several of these tugs.

After the famine the canal facility had started to decline.  Lack of water was a constant problem as was the growth of weeds and lack of maintenance.  Supply boats bringing food and essentials were often delayed. The more efficient and expanding railways system was increasingly being used to the disadvantage of the Ulster Canal.

Dargan sold his “Ulster Canal Carrying Company“ to the “Dundalk Steam Packaging Company” in 1857 just prior to his retirement.  In 1858 the new owners announced that its boats would cease to operate on the Ulster Canal from the 31st December that year.  This also applied to their boats on Lough Neagh, Newry Canal and Lough Erne.  The new owners continued to have problems with the canal.  They were involved in expensive water disputes and in general they maintained that the canal structure was costing them £2000 per annum.  They handed it over to the Board of Works from 1st January 1865.

The Board of Works conducted a survey and decided that major renovations should be carried out. They closed the canal for eight years and carried out remedial work costing some £ 22,000.  The waterway then reopened in 1873.  It was not long before it was discovered that the water supply problem in Co. Monaghan had not been adequately addressed.  Canal traffic tolls far from compensated running costs. The stop-start situation was deterring users and the canal was registering huge annual losses. Then, Rea & Tate of Belfast created a new company “The Inland Carrying Company” and invested in two boats of 45 tonnes each and for a time things looked more promising, particularly on the Blackwater stretch of the canal but with virtually no through traffic to Lough Erne.  At this point “The Lagan Navigation Company” which was probably the most successful of all the canal companies negotiated to take over and accept responsibility for the Ulster Canal and Tyrone Navigation.  They then invested £12,500 to improve the infrastructure and succeeded in increasing the traffic for a few years.  However, the problems of occasional shortage of water, weeds, and other maintenance problems ate up any profits. In the early 20th Century, the writing was on the wall so to speak; it was virtually impossible to make a profit with the Ulster canal. Closure was in sight.  The new owners sought permission to abandon the navigation.  Official permission to close was not granted so the canal just fell into disuse and disrepair so it eventually closed itself.  The last lighter to sail the canal was recorded on the 29th October 1929 and the Ulster Canal Navigation was officially abandoned in 1931.

James Kane  July 2023


The Ulster Canal.

Brian Cassells. 2005 Cottage Publications. ISBN: 978-1-910657-05-8.

This is a comprehensive study of the Ulster canal beautifully illustrated with superb colour photography. I would recommend the chapter, a walk along the Ulster canal as particularly enlightening.

Brian has been a stalwart supporter of this society over the years and in fact delivered the penultimate talk to the society in February 2020 before we were closed down by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Dúiche Néill no 10.  The Ulster Canal. Damian Woods.

Dúiche Néill no 11.  The Ulster Canal in the Twentieth Century.  Damian Woods.

Damian like Brian has been a dedicated supporter of our society over the years.  He has been involved in all aspects of this society having delivered talks and contributed journal articles.  He is an acknowledged expert on the “Derry Road” the Great Northern Railway from Portadown to Omagh.  He has published a book on the Armagh Railway Disaster of June 12th 1889. “That Fateful Day “

Dúiche Néill no 18. Strangers on the Ulster Canal & William Dargan. Brian Gilmore.

Brian is a longtime member of the society and has been consistently responsible for much original and specific research over the years, most of which has been published in separate volumes of Dúiche Néill and other journals.  He was the esteemed editor of the Dúiche Néill journal from 2011 to 2018.

This article throws a lot of light on the political and social tensions surrounding the construction of the canal and shows William Dargan as a generous and enlightened Irish businessman and employer.