Southron sheughs

For reasons now lost in the mists of time, I forgot to draw the attention of Learned Readers to an exchange in the Dáil on 18 April 2012, which was reported on the invaluable KildareStreet website as well as on the Oireachtas site. Jack Wall, a Labour TD for Kildare South, asked this question:

Question 702: To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the position regarding the canal system under Waterways Ireland; the plans the agency has for the development of the canals; the number of lock keepers in the system; if there are any vacancies; if so, when same will be filled and the mechanism that will be adopted to do so; if the agency has any plans to refurbish existing systems that are not in use at present; if the agency has any plans to increase the number of berthings on the canals and if so, in which areas; if the traffic on the canals has shown a percentage increase over each year for the past three years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18431/12]

Now, that’s a bit of a portmanteau question. I wonder whether Jack Wall was prompted to ask about lock keepers but not quite well enough briefed to ask follow-up questions. The minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave a four-paragraph answer, and I’m going to break it up so that I can discuss each element individually.


The minister’s first paragraph was background music:

Since its formation in 1999, Waterways Ireland has continued to upgrade the facilities on the canals through the capital allocations under the National Development Plans. The canals system has benefited extremely well during that time, particularly with the number of additional mooring and landing spaces that have been made available. The provision of further mooring space will be dependent on available finance and priorities over the coming years.

I’m going to move the third paragraph up and deal with it next.


The minister said:

I am informed by Waterways Ireland that there are 20 lock keepers employed at present on the Grand Canal and Barrow Navigation. A number of staff have retired recently and decisions on their replacement will be taken having regard to the business needs of the organisation. I understand that Waterways Ireland is not planning to recruit lock keepers at this time. Any posts filled will be either by internal transfer or external recruitment, depending on the particular circumstances.

Although the minister mentions the Royal Canal elsewhere in his answer, and the question certainly does not exclude the Royal, the minister doesn’t mention it in this paragraph. In fact, there are several things the minister doesn’t mention:

  • that there are no lockkeepers on the Royal
  • that agency staff have been employed
  • that, far from considering recruiting replacement lockkeepers, Waterways Ireland might be considering reducing their numbers, or at least assigning some of them to other duties, perhaps on the Royal.

Now, I’m not saying that any of those actualities or possibilities is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, given the virtual absence of lockkeepers on the Canal & River Trust’s English and Welsh canals, it’s hard to see why the Irish canals, with much lower traffic, need so many.

But my point here is that a TD, and especially a Labour Party TD (haven’t they something to do with supporting workers?), might be presumed to be interested in the aspects that the minister did not mention. The minister’s answer was true but incomplete.

For the 2011 election Fine Gael published a document called Reinventing Government, with section headings on “More Open and Transparent Policy-Making Processes” and “New Systems of Openness and Transparency”. Where are they?

Stop digging

Here is the minister’s second paragraph:

My Department’s 2012 capital allocation for Waterways Ireland is €4.5m. This will facilitate continued investment in the development and restoration of the inland waterways. The main thrust of the refurbishment of the waterways over the next few years will be focused on the re-opening of the Ulster Canal from Upper Lough Erne to Clones. However, Waterways Ireland is also undertaking feasibility studies on the Kilbeggan Branch of the Grand Canal and on the Longford Branch of the Royal Canal. These are due to be completed by the end of 2013.


They’re thinking of digging even more sheughs!

Look. I know that engineers love to have excuses (and money) to do engineering: all that kit, wellies and hard hats, muck-shifting and the satisfying feeling that you are bringing joy (and tourists) to a small town. But it’s a waste of time and money. And there is absolutely no point in doing feasibility studies: what you want are cost-benefit analyses. Pretty well every single canal ever built with public funding in Ireland has been a waste of money and there is no reason to believe that relining the canals to Longford and Kilbeggan will be any better. I mean, look at the Naas Branch: very scenic, but hardly anyone ever goes there other than in convoy.

What you want to do is to explain, politely, to the TDs of Longford and Kilbeggan that they can have canals only if they will agree to having all other public services (including the drinking-water supply) cut off. But of course both Kilbeggan and Longford already have ways of attracting tourists. Kilbeggan has a distillery while Longford has an absence of signposts, especially to Athlone, thus causing motorists to drive around in ever-decreasing circles until they imitate the oozlum bird.

I mean, the canal age is over; this is the age of the camper van.


Here is the minister’s final paragraph.

I am informed that boat traffic numbers on the Grand Canal and Barrow Navigation have remained fairly constant over 2009 and 2010. In 2011 the numbers increased by 30% following the re-opening of the Royal Canal and the fact that access was available to the Tall Ships event in Waterford.

Now this is really interesting, for three reasons:

  • first, Waterways Ireland keeps telling me that it cannot produce any usage figures for the canals and the Barrow. So on what traffic numbers are the minister’s statements based?
  • second, note that the basis of comparison between the earlier years (2009 and 2010) and the later (2011) is not clear. The Royal was not officially open during the earlier years, although there was some traffic. Was it counted? And does the 2011 figure that shows the 30% increase include Royal figures (in which case it would be an invalid comparison) or not (in which case the few boats doing the complete triangular route caused a huge increase in traffic)?
  • third, note that the minister does not give any actual usage figures. Could it be that they are very small?

What the canals and the Barrow need is action to increase the amount of traffic, especially in summer (when few people travel because of weed and sometimes water shortages) and winter (when few travel because it’s miserable). Adding extensions only spreads the existing traffic more thinly over a larger number of destinations. When you get to the stage of having traffic jams at locks, you can begin to think about extra destinations. Until then, put the shovels away.

9 responses to “Southron sheughs

  1. lol …. if we follow your logic, we’ll see Ireland closed down and it’s inhabitants shipped off to work somewhere more profitable. Manila, perhaps (Catholic, and they speak English with an accent).

  2. Everybody who speaks English does so with an accent.

    I don’t see why Ireland should be installing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century transport technology to shift holiday-makers around the place, especially when it already has some good twenty-first transport technology in a good road network. If there were evidence that large numbers of overseas tourists were attracted by the experience of actually being on canals (as opposed to just using them to get places) there might be something to be said for digging more canals, but there is no congestion on the existing canals and the canal hire business is tiny.

    Misty-eyed romanticism is all right for backward-looking northerners, happily celebrating their technological disasters, but southerners, being more hard-headed and realistic, can’t afford it.


  3. I think you are spot on the money (if you pardon the pun) when you point out that if WI want to make canal boating tourism a success, they need to seriously up their game as regards routine maintenance and facilities for boaters. (Your description some months ago of an attempt to do a “cruising ring” on the Royal/Shannon/Grand was hilarious, with passage only possible on alternate wednesdays when there was no R in the month and requiring a diving suit).
    This would require investment from WI, but it could quite possibly return a profit and wider benefits if done right.
    But if you go the other way and say that all canals and railways should be shut because they’re too expensive and businessmen can get the bus instead, I think you’re being silly. The fact is that Ireland (and indeed most of non-urban Europe) is not financially viable full stop. You are propped up with vast amounts of German and English tax payers’ cash via the EU. Labour is much cheaper in Asia. On purely financial grounds, it would probably make sense to do some ‘Highland Clearances’ style evictions of the remaining 3 million people (they keep leaving in their droves of their own accord anyways) and use the island for sheep and cattle farming to provide a source of burgers for Macdonalds outlets in London. But I think that would be a shame.

  4. Skipping the first part …. Businessmen won’t be getting the bus because they have BMWs. But indigent locals, especially those without important business meetings, will be able to get the buses WHICH ARE ALREADY RUNNING along motorways to the same places as the trains go. The trains will never be viable and [at least most of them] should be shut down as the alternatives already exist. You might say that it was insane for the Irish state to fund motorways as well as rail improvements, and I might very well agree, but it did so and we now have two parallel systems, one expensive and inflexible and the other not. My local train service has been running services with nine passengers. This is bonkers.

    On canals, I think that, given the sunk costs, the state should try to make a go of the existing canals, but there is no justification for adding more unless it can be shown that there is an excess of economic demand.

    I think you may be right on the much larger issue of the viabillity of rural Ireland. Insane policies, started by Michael Davitt and continued by the Land Acts and that idiot George de Valera, have kept a large and entirely unnecessary labour force on the land, pretending to engage in economic activities. We need faar fewer landowners (soi-disant “farmers”) operating larger and more efficient food production units (although I prefer to buy from smaller artisan, ie middle-class, producers myself, paying appropriately for the social cachet).

    I think you are wrong, though, to discuss rural Ireland as though it were some sort of special case within Europe (and, if you don’t mind my saying so, anyone from Norn Iron is in a weak position on this). I see no reason why anybody in any industry in Europe or the USA or the Dominions deserves to be paid more than the equivalent worker in, say, China. Wage levels will eventually become the same in both places and both Irish and UKanian citizens and subjects might as well get used to it. The recent budget/autumn statement will help.

    Goldman Sachs will probably survive, though.


  5. You seem to forget that a lot of business trips are made by people flying in from overseas! And you can’t bring your BMW on the plane as hand baggage. Dublin airport doesn’t even HAVE a rail link, it’s unsane! I currently work for a multinational company, in one of their London offices… last time I had to take a jaunt to our Dublin office, I ended up getting a bus from the airport to Connolly so I could complete the journey by DART. Ridiculous. Busses are not a nice way to travel in an urban area if you are not local and don’t know where the stops are, never mind the noise and cramped conditions.
    Also, in no way was I excluding NornIrond from being financially non-viable! Its farcically bloated public sector is on a life-support drip from the UK tax payer. Ironically, if the fleg-waving north-southery could be overcome, and the practicalities of having hire-boats piloted across Lough Neagh were addressed, having an inland waterway link between Belfast and Dublin restored would surely be the biggest hope for a viable hire boat tourism industry? Those cities have more tourists spending more money than anywhere such as, er, Longford.
    Incidently, is the proposed bridge link between Louth and Down at Warrenpoint going to obstruct navigation to the Newry Ship canal?

  6. The small number of business folk flying in from overseas will be met by chauffered limousines. They certainly won’t want to travel either by omnibus or by train. Trains (and I speak from personal experience here, having been on one only a couple of years ago) are expensive and uncomfortable and don’t go where you want them to go, eg industrial estates, which are near motorways.

    Of course it’s ridiculous your getting a bus and a DART. Why do you think the lord made taxis?

    I really don’t see an inland waterways link between Dublin and Belfast as being of the slightest possible use. A couple of dozen enthusiasts might do the trip, but it is not of sufficient interest to attract overseas holidaymakers, which (apart from any other complications, and Irish weather) is partly because it would take far longer than most folk have for holidays. Anyone who wants to visit Belfast or Dublin can go straight there by flying machine.

    On thon bridge, it seems to have a bascule opening span, which is an insane complication for about three sailing boats that tie up in Newry: they could surely be relocated to marinas at Carlingford and somewhere on the northern side for less than the opening span would cost. However, that’s on the sea, so I’m not going to worry too much about it, although I note that the DUP doesn’t seem to be too keen on the bridge.


  7. I think you rather over estimate the Expense Policies of the typical big company if you think they’ll let you get a limo to your Dublin office! I admit most of my colleagues would jump in a taxi in the first instance, but when you have to wait 6 weeks to claim back your expenses, that can be a little painful.
    I guess two weeks is about the limit for most hireboat holidays, true.
    The DUP are not keen on the proposed roadbridge because it constitutes Northsouthery. This is quite apart from the fact that no-one at all wants to drive across that bit of water anyways, as there’s precious little on either side apart from some fields.

  8. Quick! Change jobs! You need to work for (a) Goldman Sachs or (b) a company that gives you a credit card.

    On thon bridge, I am probably one of the few folk who might want to drive across Carlingford Lough, having one sister living on either side of it (more or less). But in general I applaud the DUP’s suspicion of uneconomic northsouthery.


  9. Pingback: Lockkeeper job | Irish waterways history

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