This is about some proposed canals — all to the same place – that were never actually built.
In 1803 the Grand Canal Company leased a coalfield in Queens County (Laois: just north of the Co Kilkenny border), in the hope of creating extra traffic for its canal. It planned to construct a branch canal from Athy, where the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal met the Barrow, and to have a tunnel into the coalfields that would help drain the mines as well as carrying coal. That scheme was abandoned in 1805.
Coal was sold at the pits: most of it was used in the area but some was carted, mostly to Athy, where the Company built a coal-yard. From there it was carried by canal to Lowtown, the junction of the Barrow Line with the canal’s main line. The Company built another coal-yard there, at what is now Lowtown Marine, from which coal could be carried east into Dublin or west to Tullamore or even to Limerick. Coal was also carted to Carlow and Leighlinbridge on the Barrow Navigation, and to Kilkenny. A small amount of the coal sent to Dublin went further: to America.
Lowtown Marine at the former coalyard
The Grand Canal Company’s coalfields were at Doonane (which had been the site of the first steam engine in Ireland). In 1814 the engineer Richard Griffith, Inspector General of His Majesty’s Royal Mines in Ireland and Mining Engineer to the Dublin Society, wrote:
This bed of coal has also been worked to a considerable extent in the Doonane royalty, but the old colliery of Doonane has been abandoned since the year 1798. Subsequently, in 1803, the Grand Canal Company, (the present lessees of the royalty) discovered a detached bason [sic] of the coal on the lands of Boulavoneen, in extent about 60 acres. This colliery has now been worked seven years […].
Nearby, the Company established a village called Newtown, which is nowadays on the N78 road, south of Moscow and north of Geneva. The name Moscow appears on the Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1906 but not on that of 1839: it refers to the area around a junction on the N78 (the road from Athy to Castlecomer and Kilkenny), a short distance north-east of Newtown crossroads, and seems to be regarded locally as a somewhat insulting alternative to Newtown.
Looking north-west from the open space at Moscow
The open space (Green Square?)
Looking south-west: the GAA grounds
Looking south to Newtown Cross
The suggestion on the Bilboa web page (Bilboa was another mining village) that the name reflected the proletarian militancy and class consciousness of the miners, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, seems unconvincing to me, given that the name predates the revolution. Furthermore, the theory does nothing to explain the name of Geneva, further along the road, just before Crettyard and the county boundary. Are we to suppose that the miners in the Geneva pit were noted for diplomacy and international cooperation?
Here are some photographs (taken with the kind permission of the landowner) of the artefacts in a field just off the road on the Athy side of Moscow. I am guessing that the chimney-like object is an airshaft, but I don’t really know.
Airshaft (?) near Moscow
The stonework of the airshaft
Item in the same field as the airshaft
Base for a machine? Near the airshaft
The company also tried to drain the Corgee and Rushes collieries, found coal at Kilgorey and sank three pits (one of them drained by a steam engine) at the Moira colliery a mile south of Wolfhill.
The Geneva Stores, between Geneva crossroads and Crettyard
The Geneva Stores
The Grand Canal Company, in 1811, employed at its collieries one manager, one clerk and cashier and five other clerks, four overseers, an engineer and three engine men to look after the steam engine, four smiths and two helpers, two carpenters, two sawyers and a cooper, a storekeeper, a surgeon and twenty watchmen (the numbers of colliers and workmen are not stated).
This pub identifies the Newtown crossroads. The grid pattern of the roads, as shown on the early maps, can still be seen, but there are few reminders of the coal-pits
Newtown crossroads showing the R430 to Swan and Abbeyleix. Along that road, the first and second left turns go to Doonane
The collieries were on the Leinster coalfield, whereon Castlecomer — a short way to the south, in Co Kilkenny — was the main town. The coal produced was anthracite, called stone coal; it could not compete on price with the imported coal from Whitehaven and elsewhere, but it was highly valued for malting and was also used by smiths and in other rural industries. As Griffith wrote:
The principal markets for stone coal are Kilkenny, Carlow, and Athy. That brought to Kilkenny and Carlow is used in those towns, and their immediate neighbourhoods. The coal brought to Athy is chiefly sent by the Grand Canal to Dublin, Tullamore, and even by the river Shannon to Limerick. In distant places the coal is used only for malting, for which purpose it is peculiarly adapted, as it neither flames nor smokes. Stone coal is also shipped at Leighlinbridge on the river Barrow, for the supply of the Ross and Waterford markets. The culm or soft coal [slack or coal dust] of the Leinster coal district is chiefly used for burning lime, and for this purpose it is sent for by the farmers of all the surrounding counties, but particularly from the mountainous district of the counties of Wicklow and Wexford.
Could this (in Newtown) be from the mining era?
In 1813, a committee was appointed by the House of Commons to review the affairs of the Grand and Royal canal companies and the state of Irish inland navigation. It recommended a grant of £150,000 to the Grand Canal Company, but included this amongst the conditions:
That their Colliery shall be sold, and the sum it produces be applied, as soon as it can be disposed of at the fair value, to the liquidation of the principal of their debt.
In its first seven years, the colliery (and a farm) cost over £95,000 and earned revenue of just under £39,500. And even though, by 1812, its income was
nearly, if not quite, equal to the necessary expenses of their establishment, and the present interest of their debt
the committee felt that the situation was
too precarious to enable them satisfactorily to rest upon such a foundation, the substantial and extensive public advantages which depend upon the solvency of that Company.
The collieries were profitable, and only tolls (£22,457/17/8½) provided a larger income. However, the Grand Canal Company had borrowed money to buy the collieries and its total interest bill for the same period was over £32,000. Although the committee was complimentary about the Company’s current management, it was scathing about their predecessors:
They applied the funds placed in their hands for the maintenance and extension of their navigation, to speculations, which, however plausible in themselves, were remote from its concerns, and widely foreign to the principles of their incorporation.
If the collieries were profitable, it was not as a result of outstanding managerial competence. Richard Griffith was scathing about the Grand Canal Company’s efforts:
During the last twelve years more than 200 pits and boreholes have been sunk in the royalty of Castlecomer, and by the Grand Canal Company in the royalty of Doonane. […] The inconsiderate trials were made under the direction of a succession of English and Scotch coal viewers and agents, at the expence [sic] of the Grand Canal Company, who thus threw away many thousand pounds in sinking and boring for coal […]. Many fruitless trials for coal have been made in the days of ignorance by country gentlemen and farmers, in the strata beyond the outgoing of the lowest workable bed of coal; but within these twelve years none have been attempted, excepting by the Grand Canal Company. […]
South of Doonane, near Doonane Bridge, the old map shows Clogh Brewery, which may have been in the building on the right
Here is the rear of the building (photo taken with the kind permission of the current owner)
Part of the problem was that the Grand Canal Company’s pits at Doonane were operated using old-fashioned methods:
The system of working that has been followed at these several collieries, is perhaps the most improper and expensive that could have been adopted. The appearance of the surface in every part where the coal has been wrought, bears a strong resemblance to a rabbit warren; there being a continued succession of hillocks and holes. Indeed the number of pits that have been sunk may justly be compared to the perforations in a cullender. […] it is to be regretted that in these times, when in England the art of coal working and mining machinery have been brought to the greatest perfection, that the Kilkenny collieries should have continued without any improvement in the underground workings, for the last hundred years […].
The church at Doonane
Cottages at Doonane
The miners seemed to proceed without sufficient understanding of the structure of the beds of coal. And they used a large number of shallow pits instead of a smaller number of deep pits, which could use machinery efficiently and which would require fewer watchmen. The Grand Canal Company’s methods were especially to be regretted:
I cannot help regretting that the Grand Canal Company should have commenced, and persisted in following the wretched system of the country, in their colliery on the lands of Boulavoneen, now called Newtown. This coal varies from 3 feet to 3 feet 4 inches in thickness, and is solid from top to bottom. The engine pit is 68 yards deep, and the shallow pits, to the rise, are from 25 to 30 yards. […]
This colliery, which originally consisted of about 60 acres of the best coal ever discovered in the Leinster district, has now been working seven years, and many pits have been sunk and wrought out, in which, as is usual, half the pillars have been left behind. Had this colliery been properly commenced, the whole of it might have been worked from the engine pit, enlarged to twice its present dimensions, and divided into three compartments, through two of which coals might have been raised by a winding steam engine, and the water through the third.
There are several much more extensive collieries at Newcastle on Tyne, worked advantageously from one pit, where the coal is nearly at the same depth below the surface as at Newtown, namely between 60 and 70 yards. But at Newcastle horses are used under ground to draw the coal to the pit bottom. Had this system been originally adopted, the quantity of coals raised per acre would have been much greater than at present. The expence [sic] of sinking the numerous pits, the erection of horse gins, and all the apparatus belonging to a pit, would have been saved, as also the whole of the horses at present employed at the different pits to raise the coal. Pillage would have been completely prevented by an enclosed yard round the pit, and instead of the present requisite number of watchmen, one would have been sufficient.
It would be endless to enter into any further detail of the savings that would have attended the adoption of the improved mode of working. I shall conclude by recommending strongly to the Grand Canal Company still to exert themselves to change the present wretched system, and if they attempt nothing else, at least a proper plan of ventilation might without risque [sic] be adopted, so as to prevent the necessity of sinking any new pits, many of which, on account of the depth, would be very expensive.
The non-existence of the canal
Clonbrock Farm, where the mine manager lived
Although the engineer John Killaly had
laid out a canal […] from the river Barrow, at Gore’s Bridge, by the city of Kilkenny, to […] Castlecomer
as well as another from Athy to Kilkenny, neither canal was ever built. There were also proposals for a canal from Monasterevan (on the Barrow Line) to Portarlington and Mountmellick, with a branch to the collieries and another to Roscrea (and with links to the Shannon near Birdhill and to the upper reaches of the Suir). But the Leinster coalfields never got a canal. In the summer of 1827 the Grand Canal Company began work on a canal from Monasterevan to Mountmellick, with a new aqueduct at Monasterevan to replace the old system of locking down into the river and up again on the far side. But this canal was not intended to reach Castlecomer: rather it was seen as part of a line to Roscrea.
At around the same time, the Grand Canal Company surrendered its lease of both its colliery and “a large tract of ground”; they were taken over by its former manager, John Edge, who attempted to collect arrears of rent due from various under-tenants. He also sacked 600 out of 800 colliers. The Company made no further attempts to develop Irish coal.
The photographs on this page are the product of a half-day drive around the area and by no means provide an exhaustive account of the mines or the surrounding area. I saw no notices or signs identifying any mining artefacts or calling attention to the area’s history, although Castlecomer Discovery Park, further along the N78, does celebrate the history of mining in the area. I was told that subsidence is a problem: that the ground does occasionally open up.