The Shannon–Erne Waterway

The Shannon–Erne Waterway, a mix of canal, river and small lake, links the Shannon (at Leitrim) to the Erne (near Belturbet). Formerly the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal, and originally the Junction Canal in the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Drainage District (or some such combination of elements), it was rebuilt in the early 1990s with automated (boater-operated) locks, service blocks, a logo, marketing and other such new-fangled extras that had not engaged the attention of the Office of Public Works.

I have not been able to find a proper cost-benefit analysis, but my impression is that Irish taxpayers paid relatively little of the cost, so that it was a good investment for them. It has been used as an example of the regenerative power of restored waterways, although (unlike, say, the River Suck or the proposed Clones Sheugh) it was a link between two busy boating areas, rather than a dead-end canal. Even so, several of the businesses that were started in the early years have since vanished, although there are some new ones like Ballinamore Marina.

On a recent visit (from Leitrim to Haughton’s Shore and return), though, I felt that the waterway had an air of neglect. This view may have been formed by two nights (one on the outward, one on the return journey) at Keshcarrigan in the rain. Some improvement work was started at the harbour some time ago, but it seems to have been suspended or abandoned: fencing, equipment and materials were left on site. Given that Keshcarrigan was one of the areas afflicted by post-Celtic-Tiger ghost estates, the state of the harbour does not encourage visitors, despite the pleasure of staring at what appear to be the resident boats (one of which, sporting a “For sale” notice, was occupying one of the few long spaces and monopolising one of the few shore-power sockets).

Ballinamore, however, was much more cheerful, especially with a festival going on (the rain drowned the nighttime noise of the funfair), and Haughton’s Shore was peaceful, with not even one dancing van.

But the infrastructure seems to need attention. The paint on many of the navigation markers had faded, although admittedly that rarely caused a navigation problem.

The waterway seemed to me to have become shallower in places (we were told that we would meet even shallower bits if we went on to Ballyconnell), even making allowances for a dry summer. It felt as though there were bars of sand or clay underneath when coming out of locks (going down), but even on some of the stretches between locks the water felt shallower than it should be. This is of course only a series of impressions, but I would be interested to know whether the waterway’s profile has changed since it was rebuilt. It would not be surprising to find that it had: the passage of boats, and especially of those travelling fast, may have undermined the banks. I do not know what programme of dredging Waterways Ireland carries out.

The worst feature is the trees, which don’t seem to have been cut back for some time. They need a large amount of serious industrial-scale equipment to be applied to them for weeks or months.

In some places, large branches had fallen in and not been removed. In others, there was less than the width of the boat between the trees stretching from the two sides. They seriously impeded the ability to see the lines of bends, to judge the approaches to bridges or even to spot oncoming boats: for most of those we met, we had very little time to react (so it was just as well that, except for the lake sections, we didn’t get above tickover speed for the entire journey). Had there been kayaks or other small craft using the waterway, I suspect we wouldn’t have seen them until the last moment.

In some places the trees stretched out so far that it was hard to stay in the (presumably) deep water in the centre of the channel. But the really challenging part was when trees impeded the approach to a bridge, making it impossible to line up properly. Several of the bridges are on sharp bends and, with a large boat, the trees caused severe problems.

The extent of the overgrowth is such that it requires a major commitment to tree-cutting. I can imagine that that would be hard to organise: the bird-fanciers have limited the cutting season to the more unpleasant months of the year, when days are short; getting to and from the cutting site takes several hours out of the limited working day; removal of cuttings would be a major undertaking. But something will have to be done: it’s already bad enough that I won’t return unless I know that the trees have been cut, and if they’re left for another year or two even smaller vessels will have problems.

Update 26 September 2018

Waterways Ireland’s Marine Notice 99 of 2018 says that “tree trimming and hedge cutting will be carried out at various locations on the Shannon-Erne Waterway” between September 2018 and February 2019.

This is good news; I hope that the shrubbery will be given a thorough cutting.

Fans of recreated recreational waterways might consider that they need serious amounts spent on maintenance. It is not clear that all proposed recreations could generate the traffic to justify the expenditure.


8 responses to “The Shannon–Erne Waterway

  1. Disappointing to hear of the lack of ongoing maintenance.

  2. Nice piece, though I would take issue with the ‘bird fancier’ comment. From reading your posts, you’re clearly a stickler for detail, so bird spotter (or even twitcher) might have been a better (tongue-in-cheek) insult. In reality, the restrictions on hedge-cutting are vital in preserving what little native wildlife we have left. I agree it needs to be done, and can and should be done when nesting season is finished – this time of year, as it happens. There is plenty of time to do it. Just no willpower it seems, or budget, or inclination. The slow and steady abuse of our canals has everything to do with Waterways Ireland, and bugger-all to do with birds, or the Wildlife Act.

  3. Thank you for the lovely post. I recently had the pleasure of kayaking along the Ballinamore stretch of the Shannon-Erne. I’ve spent the majority of my life kayaking along the Grand Canal and it honestly felt amazing to be on such deep water. My brother and I checked the depth in several spots and there is no comparison to what we’re dealing with on the Grand Canal, which is ridiculously shallow in spots and barely passable with the weeds in Summer. Do you have an idea what sort of maintanence was done back in the day when there was heavy commercial traffic on the Grand an Royal? Was it self-regulating or did they need to mechanically dredge it at times?

  4. Maybe FRONTEX staff can be used to cut trees, in addition to manning the hard border that will be placed down the middle of the Erne end of the waterway come Brexit.

  5. It would undoubtedly be easier to cut in high summer even than in early autumn. As the SEW has no towing-path along much of the route, access has to be by water, which means much time lost in travel to and fro. bjg

  6. Thanks. That’s useful. I’ve no way of measuring the depth and can rely only on the feel of the boat and the noise coming from underneath. I can’t go on the Grand or Royal: too high to get under bridges and probably too deep for the Royal, unless its water supply gets sorted out.

    Heavy traffic will to some extent keep the canal clear (certainly of weed); part of the problem with the Grand and Royal is that most of the traffic is, I think, in spring and autumn rather than in summer, when it’s needed to keep the weeds down.

    Your question about dredging in commercial days is a good one. I don’t know the answer: I don’t know what sort of dredging programme there was. Perhaps someone will write a paper about it some day …. bjg

  7. Pingback: Woodman, don’t spare that tree | Irish waterways history

  8. Pingback: Shave and a haircut | Irish waterways history

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