Nitwitted navigation proposals

The tradition of lobbying for ridiculous, uneconomic, unnecessary and expensive navigations has a long history in Ireland. Here is another nineteenth-century example, which also features local government in its usual role as a forum for lunatics (a role which could now be delegated to Twitter).

Navigation of the Liffey from Dublin to Leixlip

At the last meeting of the Town Council of Dublin, the Lord Mayor in the chair, the following proceedings took place on the subject of opening the navigation of the Liffey, through the Valley, on the engineering plan of our friend, Mr Steele.

Alderman Keshan moved the following resolution:

“Resolved: That the Lord Mayor be respectfully requested to write to the Chief Secretary, soliciting that his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant will be pleased to order a section and some transverse sections of the Valley of the Liffey, from Dublin to Leixlip, to be made by the Board of Public Works for the guidance of this Corporation, in a matter of deep public interest to the inhabitants of the metropolis of Ireland (hear, hear).”

He trusted that this motion would not encounter any opposition. He made it with a view to promote Mr Steele’s project for the improvement of the Valley of the Liffey (hear). Large sums of money had been taken out of this country for the improvement of London (hear, hear), and he did not see why a portion of the national revenues should not be devoted to the improvement of Ireland (hear, hear).

The citizens of London had their water trip to Richmond (hear). Why should not the citizens of Dublin have theirs to Leixlip? This would be accomplished if the Valley of the Liffey were made navigable (hear).

Alderman O’Brien seconded the motion, which was carried.

Dublin Evening Post 14 June 1845, from the British Newspaper Archive.

From the BNA


2 responses to “Nitwitted navigation proposals

  1. Before describing Alderman Kerhan as “nitwitted”, consider the man he was and the times he lived through. It was in 1845 when famine accounted for so many deaths and emigration. Kershaw was a close associate of Daniel O’Connell. He was the second Catholic (after O’Connell) to be Lord Mayor of Dublin. He was, for a time, the chairman of the Central Relief Committee, which was very active in providing relief to the destitute.
    During the famine, the British authorities rarely donated charity to the starving. However they would, if persuaded, fund capital projects. As a result there were many useless projects, such as roads which went nowhere. The objective of those who proposed these projects was to get cash to the starving by employing them. Now I do not know if this was such a project. It has all the hallmarks of one. However, what happened? was there a project? Did the British authorities part with any cash?

  2. Thank you. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Keshan is the correct version of his surname, and the Spectator and other sources agree.

    His religion is neither here nor there and nor, I think, are his O’Connellite sympathies: the former O’Connell supporter Peter Purcell was an immensely able man and a Catholic, whereas O’Connell’s Head Pacificator, the Protestant Thomas Steele, was by this time a lunatic.

    Steele had spent much time and effort lobbying for improvements to the navigation of the Shannon Estuary and of the Fergus, and in particular for a lock at Clare (now Clarecastle) that would enable seagoing vessels to reach Ennis. He got Daniel O’Connell’s support for that one, but happily Her Britannic Majesty’s Government had more sense than to adopt that scheme.

    Steele’s prowess an a urinator and his invention of the Communicating Diving Bell had earned him an Associate Membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers. However, he does not seem to have undergone any serious engineering training, although he continued to take an interest in the subject. On 18 July 1840 the Mechanics’ Magazine noted that he was intending to publish a letter to General Sir John Burgoyne

    developing, from some engineering elements perhaps not heretofore observed, a plan for opening water communication from the heart of the city of Dublin, through the delightful scenery of the valley of the Liffey, towards Lucan.

    Thomas D’Arcy McGee may have misunderstood this proposal when he wrote:

    Mr Steele’s scientific reputation stands deservedly high; his improvements in the diving-bell, his plan for reclaiming the mudlands and improving the navigation of his native Shannon, as also his scheme for supplying Dublin with water through the valley of the Liffey, are acknowledged by all competent judges, to be highly useful and strikingly able projects. In fortification and engineering, indeed, in almost every branch of mathematical science, he has few, if any, superiors in the empire.”

    That was complete nonsense: apart from the wild exaggeration of Steele’s abilities, the Liffey already flowed through Dublin. Steele’s plan (such as it was: I do not know whether any survey, engineering drawings or costings were ever undertaken, but I suspect not) was merely for a pleasure-boat route from Dublin to Lucan [Freeman’s Journal 27 April 1841, reporting on a meeting of the The Local National Repeal Association]. Although the topic was aired several times over the next few years, I have not been able to find any more details of the proposal.

    Unfortunately, O’Connell took up the proposal: on 5 April 1843 he gave notice to a meeting of Dublin Corporation, in Keshan’s absence, of a motion to request that the commissioners of public works should be asked to communicate with Steele about his plan, thus relieving Steele and the O’Connellites of the burden of doing any work on the proposal themselves [Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 6 April 1843]. Keshan moved his motion the following week [ibid 13 April 1843], saying nothing about the supposed benefits save that

    … he had been assured by Mr Steele that he had no object whatever in view save the desire to procure a healthy and delightful recreation for the citizens of Dublin.

    A nitwit called Sheridan said that, after repeal, the Liffey would “form a source of employment and amusement to immense numbers of the citizens”: perhaps he had in mind its use as a venue for injecting drugs. Sheridan also called attention to the coal deposits under the Phoenix Park, saying that “the work was put a stop to from some motive”.

    Major-General Sir John Fox Burgoyne had probably had enough of Steele on the Shannon, because the commissioners refused to meet him to discuss the subject [Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent 4 May 1843]. In December, therefore, the Corporation set up a committee, with nitwitted supporting comments this time from Alderman J Tandy Boyce [Freeman’s Journal 2 December 1843]. And the tireless Keshan introduced more motions in May 1844 [Dublin Evening Post 11 May 1844], perhaps in September 1844 [Freeman’s Journal 16 September 1844] and, as I originally said, in June 1845 [Dublin Evening Post 14 June 1845].

    It is clear, therefore, that this had nothing whatsoever to do with the famine: the O’Connellites had been proposing the Liffey scheme for years by then, and even the June 1845 motion was proposed several months before the Irish potato crop was known to be affected by blight.

    As the citizens of Dublin were already adequately supplied with recreational waters, the Liffey was not made navigable from Dublin to Leixlip. Of course there was already water communication between Dublin and Leixlip, by the Royal Canal. Steele’s plan was not even original: there had been an eighteenth century attempt at making the Liffey navigable and some remains can still be seen today.

    The real work on persuading Her Britannic Majesty’s Government to spend money on Irish capital projects had been done in the 1830s, when so many Irish Whigs (or Whigs owning Irish land) were in government. Public money was spent or lent for roads, bridges, quays, the Shannon, canals, railways: innumerable projects that, in Great Britain, would not have received public funding.

    Steele’s Liffey proposal highlights two weaknesses of the O’Connellite. First, O’Connell seemed to have little understanding of business or economic affairs, no notion of how Ireland might be developed economically (apart from going backwards) and no idea of what might make a reasonable investment of public money. He was not alone in that, of course, as W T Mulvany [very slow link] was about to demonstrate — and some of the Whig projects were equally bad investments. Second, O’Connell acted as a tribal chieftain, rewarding loyalty by supporting Steele even when it was clear he should have been summoning men in white coats. O’Connell commanded little enough respect outside the ranks of his own movement by 1840; supporting Steele’s frolics could have lost even more of it.


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