Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone; they come from three kinds of social practice, the struggle for production, the class struggle and scientific experiment.
Readers will not, I am sure, need to be reminded that those are the words of the late Comrade Mao Tse-tung [or Mao Zedong, as the younger comrades say] in the Draft Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Certain Problems in Our Present Rural Work of May 1963.
Maurice Semple, in By the Corribside [self-published, 1981], lists writers who, from 1868 onwards, agreed with the view of the Cong Canal expressed by Sir William Wilde:
[…] for it was discovered, that like many other undertakings, the great canal at Cong “would not hold water.”
Those writers’ view is echoed by local people, and even by engineers, to the present day. Their case is, in effect, that the Board of Works engineers did not know what they were doing or did not properly survey the ground and were therefore surprised to find, on admitting water to the bed of the canal, that it vanished into sinkholes or swallow-holes in the karst.
One oddity about that belief is that the Cong Canal does actually hold water: it is full in winter, as the photos on this page, taken in February 2013, clearly show. It is empty in summer, but that is because water is unable to get in at the upper end, not (I suggest) because it flows out through the bottom.
What interests me at the moment is that I can find no evidence to support Wilde’s contention. Samuel Roberts, the engineer in charge of the work, knew that the work would be difficult but there is no hint in any of his annual reports that he feared that the difficulties might be insuperable. Furthermore, it is clear from his own reports and from other evidence that he was ordered to cease work on the navigation aspects of the canal before it was finished: there was never a moment when water was admitted to a completed navigation canal.
I have not been able to find any report from the 1850s in the Freeman’s Journal, the Cork Examiner, the Dublin Evening Mail or the Belfast News-Letter, or in any British newspaper, that supports William Wilde’s account of events. What, then, is its basis?
Of course my inability to find evidence does not mean that it doesn’t exist, but I would be grateful if anyone could point me towards it. I should say that I do not regard later accounts, like Wilde’s, as valid unless they include some evidence from 1854, the year of which Roberts wrote
The masonry in the Cong lock was commenced in March, and was progressing rapidly when I received instructions from the Board, in April, to suspend the execution of all navigation works in this division of the district, and complete only such as were necessary for the regulation of the waters of Lough Mask, for drainage purposes.
What I am looking for is an eyewitness, an official or some other reliable account, from 1854, that says “the canal was completed; water was let in; it vanished, to the surprise of the engineers”. If no such account exists, I may be forced to conclude that Wilde’s style of work is opposed to the fundamental spirit of Marxism-Leninism. As the Great Helmsman put it in the Little Red Book:
To behave like “a blindfolded man catching sparrows”, or “a blind man groping for fish”, to be crude and careless, to indulge in verbiage, to rest content with a smattering of knowledge — such is the extremely bad style of work that still exists among many comrades in our Party, a style utterly opposed to the fundamental spirit of Marxism-Leninism. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin have taught us that it is necessary to study conditions conscientiously and to proceed from objective reality and not from subjective wishes; but many of our comrades act in direct violation of this truth.
Brian, I had heard ages ago (but where?!) that it was a funding shortfall which meant the canal channel was never lined with puddling clay as planned.
Hi, Mary. Yes, that’s pretty well what I think. I’ll write it up at greater length when opportunity offers, but essentially the Board of Works needed to get shut of the drainage schemes, especially Mulvany’s combined navigation and drainage schemes, as quickly as possible, as they were (a) well over budget (while wage costs were rising) and (b) in at least some cases beyond their legal authority while (c) pretty well guaranteed to lose money indefinitely, even if the railways hadn’t already taken much of the traffic (which didn’t apply to Cong). Several Acts were required to get out of the mess.
Back in Cong, though, there is not, as far as I can see, any evidence to show that the canal could not be made watertight, but work stopped a long way short of the point at which it would have been navigable all year round. The upper (Lough Mask) end was not finished and puddling was not complete. So I don’t know why people believe that water was admitted and then disappeared to the surprise of the engineers.
Most of the BoW engineer’s reports are available on EPPI.
I think it was some hydroglogists and caving types who told me that it was nothing to do with the rock not holding the water, and all to do with funding. Perhaps some people just like to hold on to the old rural myth of the engineers not knowing how to engineer the channel!
Thanks for the EPPI link — what a wonderful resource!
Aha! Info from hydrologists and cavers would be really valuable.
The canal clearly does hold water in winter; equally clearly (I’ll put up some pics anon), it is dry in summer because water can’t get in. Work since the 1850s makes it difficult to draw conclusions, from its present condition, on what it was like back then, but I doubt if anyone has puddled it in the intervening period. bjg