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The Newry Canal from Portadown to Newry 

The Newry Canal is the oldest summit canal in all of Britain and Ireland. The canal should be considered in two sections, the Inland stretch from Portadown to Newry and the Ship Canal from the town of Newry to Victoria Locks, halfway along Carlingford Lough.

This article considers the inland canal from Portadown to Newry. The towpath where the horses once walked to tow the barges or lighters as they were more commonly known is now open all the way from Portadown to Newry. The towpath provides many opportunities to explore the canal on foot or by bicycle.

The point of Whitecote, a short distance south of Portadown, is the start of the inland navigation. Here the canal is between two rivers the River Cusher and the Upper River Bann. The Cusher River supplemented water to the lower part of the system. The passage to Lough Neagh is to the North and uses the River Bann, entering Lough Neagh, Ulsterís Inland Sea at the Bannfoot. The distance to the Bannfoot is approximately 10 miles. On the Bann and Lough Neagh the lighters were propelled by sail.

The main reason for building the canal was the discovery of coal deposits at Coalisland in Co. Tyrone, and the need to transport them quickly and efficiently to Dublin. At that time road transport was particularly difficult. Arthur Young writing on his tour of Ireland from 1776 to 1779 stated, "on tolerably level ground a single horse and cart could draw a load of one ton". On the other hand a barge on water drawn by a single horse can carry as much as 70 tonnes, perhaps more slowly but still increasing the efficiency by about 35 times. Hence the attraction, to create a plan to transport coal from the Drumglass coal fields near Coalisland via Lough Neagh and onto the port of Newry where the same boats would hoist sail and travel to Dublin by sea.

Dublin at this time imported coal from the British mainland and this was proving costly and unreliable. In 1729 the Dublin Parliament established the Commissioners of Inland Navigation for Ireland and allowed these commissioners to levy taxes on a wide range of luxury goods from gambling to silverware. Work did not begin on the project until 1731. Three years earlier a Huguenot refugee called Richard Cassels had moved to Ireland as a result of religious persecution in France. Cassels had come to Ireland with knowledge of Continental Canals and while primarily an architect he was given the task of building this new navigation. Unfortunately Cassels failed to impress the commissioners and after three years was dismissed from the project. Thomas Steers, an English architect who had been involved with the project assumed responsibility for the project and it was finally completed in 1742.

The first two boats to reach Dublin, laden with Tyrone coal, were the Boulter and the Cope on the 28 March 1742. The canal is 18 miles long and had 14 locks. Initially the canal was designed to be 5-6 feet deep. A few weeks ago during the "Country Comes to Town" festival in Portadown, 14 boats in rally formation organised by the Inland Waterways Association made the trip from Maghery through Portadown and sailed right into Moneypennyís lock, the first lock on the Newry Canal. Interesting to note one of the boats had an echo sounder on board to record depth and the average depth on this part of the canal was still 5 feet. There was one short stretch where 2-3 feet was recorded. This short stretch of the canal is still navigable although weed does constitute a problem.

The bridge at Moneypennyís lock overlooks the bothy, which is now a small museum exhibit, the lock and the lockkeeperís house. Thanks to the foresight of Craigavon Borough Council it has been restored and preserved for future generations. The Moneypenny family were lockkeepers here for 85 years. As well as operating the locks, ensuring the barges got safely through the lock, looking after the bothy where the horses were stabled and the lighter men slept, they kept meticulous records of all passages and cargoes. They kept meticulous ledgers and in them recorded the name of the barges, their skippers, the tolls they paid and listed the cargoes they carried. Cargoes carried included linen, clay products, farm produce and imported goods to businesses in Portadown. As well as being a reasonably successful commercial venture, the Newry Canal had a successful passenger service which operated from Portadown to Newry. This was started by the Quakers in this area and was an alternative to the mail coach.

The morning train from Belfast connected with the "packet" boats on three days a week and the boats had a first and second class service. The journey took about 4 hours so it was possible for business people to go and return and transact their business, all in one day. Much of the business success of Portadown can be attributed the canal, Newry too became the fourth most successful port in Ireland.

There were 14 locks on the inland canal each 44 feet long and 15 feet 6 inches wide. These locks could accommodate boats of up to 120 tons. They were 12 to 13 feet deep and each lock was faced with stone from the Benburb quarries. Originally the locks had been brick built but these began to crumble and were replaced and enlarged in the early 1800ís. The bottom of the lock chambers were planked with 2 inch thick deal wood. You can still see this planking in the bottom of Terryhoogan lock which is the lock before Scarva. Lough Shark, now known as Acton Lake was the feeder for the canal. It is 78 feet above sea level. The walk from Scarva to Poyntzpass passes Acton Lake and the old sluice keeperís cottage has also been restored. There are 9 locks from the sea up to the header Lough and 5 on the descent.

One of the most interesting characters I have been privileged to meet is Mick Waddell who lives in Poyntzpass. Mick vividly remembers the lighters and the lighter men; his parents were lock keepers at lock No. 9. He talks enthuiastically of the characters he remembers, of Hughie Fox who captained the Fox, of a frightening man named Davidson but known as Hammerhead. This poor fellow died of exposure, alcohol and malnutrition. At the inquest into his death in Newry Workhouse, a witness stated he probably hadnít had his boots of for the last 15 years. He also spoke of a lighter man named Mc Cann, known as Top Coat Mc Cann, Dan Skelton known as the heel of the evening and John Neill known as Bap Neill. Mick talks of the lighter men being romantics as their boats were called after wives or girlfriends, Frank Neillís lighter was called the Nora, Billy McCannís known as the Flora, James Neillís lighter known as Emma and T.M.Groganís lighter known as Edith.

The Newry navigation was a successful enterprise. Although originally built to supply coal from the Tyrone coalfields often it carried fuel in the opposite direction. The coal from Coalisland proved to be of poor quality and was expensive to extract. But the real problem in sustaining the viability of the navigation was the competition from the railway. This runs alongside the canal virtually the whole way to Newry. The last vessel to sail the canal was a pleasure yacht in 1937 and the canal was finally abandoned in 1949. The stretch through Newry town served the warehouses until 1956 and the ship canal continued to trade until 1974 when the port of Warrenpoint was established.

Today the canal is used merely for drainage. There have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to attract funds to re-open the navigation. The entire stretch has been acquired by the four local councils and they have set up a committee to develop the facility. Presently there is an application with DCAL to re-open the stretch from Poyntzpass to Terryhoogan. The tow path is now open for the entire length from Portadown to Newry. Much of the funding for the re-opening of the tow path was provided by Sustrans and is part of the National cycle network. Sadly there have been some unsympathic improvements but at least the line of the canal is now protected for in the early 60ís there was a plan to construct a motorway along the bed of the canal. Iím glad to see Portadown is now turning its face again to the waterway, realising the tremendous asset it has on its own doorstep for so long it turned its back to the river. Could I take this opportunity to commend Craigavon Borough Council for there stirling efforts to re-vitalise the canal network within their area.

My own organisation is campaigning for the re-opening of all the waterways, the Coalisland, the Newry, the Lagan and the Ulster Canal. We feel it is imperative that the Ulster comes first as it links Lough Erne and the Shannon with Lough Neagh. Such an investment would allow this area to develop and enhance the tremendous tourist potential we are missing. Just look around and appreciate and soak up the beauty of this gem on our own doorstep. What better way to enjoy a Sunday afternoon in the Summer months listening to the Cuckoo, admiring the aroma of the wild flowers and appreciating the array of wildlife inhabiting the banks, perhaps even to catch a glimpse of the elusive Kingfisher as he darts along.

Brian Cassells
Autumn 2002

 


One of the many pretty hump-backed bridges

One of the many pretty hump-backed bridges (37kb) 


Scarva Visitors Centre

Scarva Visitors Centre (21kb) 


Scarva Village

Scarva Village (18kb) 


Heritage notice

Heritage notice (37kb) 


Disused lock at Poyntzpass

Disused lock at Poyntzpass (73kb) 


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Last updated: 07 Mar 2013

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