The Ulster Canal

As Ireland’s waterway network developed in the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was a logical step to envisage a through-route from Belfast to Limerick. Belfast had been linked to Lough Neagh via the Lagan Navigation by 1794 and so two final links were required: Lough Neagh to Lough Erne and Lough Erne to the River Shannon. John Killaly was commissioned in 1814 to explore the first link from Lough Neagh to Lough Erne and his report endorsed a project for a thirty-five mile long canal with twenty-two locks costing £223,000. However, due to economic recession in the aftermath of the wars against Napoleon, the Directors General of Inland Navigation shelved the proposed scheme. Accordingly, Killaly produced a revised scheme reducing the number of locks to sixteen, bringing the cost down to £160,000.

Ulster Canal MapIn 1825 parliament agreed to the incorporation of the Ulster Canal Company to carry out the plan with a loan of £120,000 agreed from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners. Building commenced on the challenging Benburb section in 1834 with William Dargan, who was to become the pre-eminent infrastructure contractor of this era in Ireland, as the principal contractor. Twenty-six locks were now to be built and the canal was to be of smaller dimensions. The extraordinary decision was made that some locks were to be only 3.6 metres wide, the narrowest in the country, thus making through-traffic from other navigations impossible.

From the River Blackwater at Charlemont the canal passed up through nineteen locks to the summit level close to Monaghan. The most exacting engineering section was the staircase of seven locks in under a mile in the limestone gorge alongside the River Blackwater at Benburb. The only reserve of water to supply the canal was at Quiglough reservoir at the summit, which inevitably led to shortage of supply in summer months. From the summit the canal dropped down through seven locks to join Lough Erne at Wattle Bridge. The work was completed by 1841 at a cost of £230,000.

Heavily indebted from the outset, the first decade proved difficult for the Ulster Canal, coinciding as it did with the onset of the Great Famine. Inadequate water supply and the costs incurred in transshipping goods meant that anticipated traffic failed to materialise sufficiently. In addition, the second part of the link to the Shannon, the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal failed to materialise until the late 1850’s. Between 1851 and 1865 the canal was leased from the Board of Works by first William Dargan and then the Dundalk Steam Navigation Company; both parties failed to make the canal a commercial success. In 1865 the Board of Works assumed control again and shut the canal for eight months to carry out major improvements. However, by the time the canal was reopened the connecting link to the Shannon had also proved a dismal failure. In addition the Ulster Railway had expanded into the canal’s natural hinterland and became an irresistible competitor for the haulage of goods. The story of the Ulster Canal continued to be one of dwindling receipts, escalating maintenance costs and continuing problems with water supply. In 1888 the Lagan Navigation Company assumed control of the canal due to their interest in maintaining the Erne water link in the face of rapidly increasing railway transport costs. By the 1890’s annual receipts from tolls on the Ulster Canal had risen to £700 but maintenance costs were double that figure. The canal had become a millstone weighing down an otherwise successful company.

Having been refused permission by government to close the canal, the Lagan Company quietly abandoned it. With the coming of the border in 1921, neither government showed any interest in enforcing the maintenance of the canal. The last lighter entered the waterway in October 1929 and in 1931 an official Warrant of Abandonment for its Northern Ireland section brought an end to the sorry story of the Ulster Canal after ninety years in which it failed to realise any of the lofty ambitions of its original promoters.

Courtesy of D. Woods

To read more about the Ulster Canal see Dúiche Neill Nos: 3, 10, 11 & 18