Nowadays, waterways are mainly used by leisure craft, but canals and rivers have been extensively used in the past for the transport of merchandise. Remember the Guinness barges on the Liffey? With roads clogged by heavy trucks moving goods around the country, as well as the need to reduce carbon emissions, the waterways of old could come to life again.
Inland waterways hold great attractions for pleasure purposes. Chocolate box photographs of locks and bridges, with boats cruising on tranquil waters, create an idyllic, peaceful image of the countryside.
Quaint lock-keepers’ houses, as well as warehouses, other industrial buildings and sleepy pubs on the canal banks, serve as reminders of the commercial importance of these waterways before railways and many of our roads were built.
At a recent conference on the Shannon’s future, Dan Minchin of the Lough Derg Science Group said the return of commercial water craft was taking place in Britain and that could also happen here. “It would be seen as a more (carbon) friendly way of distributing goods around the country as there is access to many ports. With the development of the Ulster Canal and the refurbishment of the Royal Canal, there will be greater infrastructure.”
There has been a huge increase in the number of vessels, mainly pleasure craft, on the Shannon, with registered boats rising from 1,000 in 1991 to 6,500 at present.
The Waterways Ireland works programme included in the National Development Plan (NDP) 2007-2013 is estimated to cost €75 million. Waterways Ireland is a north-south body set up to manage Ireland’s inland navigable waterways, chiefly for recreation. The plan that runs until 2013 covers key projects including the re-opening of the Royal Canal to boating traffic in 2009 and the restoration of a stretch of the Ulster Canal, a north-south project.
The €200m Ulster Canal project, which includes cross-border roads, will be implemented jointly with the British government. The 74km canal links Lough Erne and Lough Neagh.
Local authorities expect the Ulster Canal to be a catalyst for regeneration in the Border region, as was the Shannon-Erne waterway, which reopened in 1994.
The Ulster Canal has been described as the “missing link” in Ireland’s inland waterways network and should be a welcome boost to the development of tourism in the region.
The NDP provides for the completion of extensions and other works on the Shannon navigation. They include an extension from Lough Allen to Annagh Upper towards Dowra; an extension of navigation to Glasson, Co Westmeath, completion of moorings at Ballina/Killaloe, Co Clare, and at Kilglass, Co Roscommon.
Canal restoration projects have been shown to act as a spur for the growth of rural communities, including tourism growth. “As these waterways run through some of the less developed areas of the country, their potential for acting as regeneration catalysts in this manner is considerable. The restoration of the Ballinamore Canal for example and the Ulster Canal project has attracted support from both sides of the border and both communities in Northern Ireland,” said Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Eamon Ó Cuiv.
By the end of the NDP, Waterways Ireland expects to have in place a further 3,750m of moorings, 70km of new or improved waterway and service blocks, pump-outs and car parks.
That should ensure a waterway system with improved access, providing an enjoyable amenity for boat users, walkers and anglers and where people can enjoy a quiet time in relaxing settings.
Canal building got seriously underway in Ireland in the 1730s and continued well into the 1800s. After a long decline, work on conserving and restoring waterways started in earnest in the 1980s and ‘90s. A large amount of work has been carried out on the Royal Canal network and on the Shannon navigation.