The Doonbeg Ship Canal

Doonbeg, on the north (Atlantic) coast of Co Clare, is nowadays known primarily (to Google) as the location of one of those places where people go to commit golf. Those who cater for that activity can afford their own advertising, so here are links to the community development website and a tourism website.

In the early nineteenth century, there was a proposal to make a canal from Doonbeg (or Dunbeg), on the north coast of County Clare, to Poulnasherry (again, there are various spellings) Bay on the south coast, west of Kilrush on the Shannon Estuary. On the Google map, follow the N67 road around to Moyasta, home of the West Clare Railway, which is near the head of Poulnasherry Bay.

Poulnasherry Bay from Blackweir Bridge

Hely Dutton’s statistical survey

The earliest mention I’ve found is in Hely Dutton’s Statistical survey of the county of Clare, with observations of the means of improvement; drawn up for the consideration, and by direction of the Dublin Society of 1808. This was one of a series of county surveys commissioned by the Dublin Society (now the RDS). The irascible Dutton spared nobody, and his report is both readable and entertaining.

Here is what he wrote about the proposed canal:

A proposal was made some time since to cut a canal from Poolanishary harbour, about twelve miles from Loophead, across the bog to Dunbeg; this, as the ground is soft and the distance only six miles, could be easily accomplished, and, if for no other purpose, would be highly useful for carrying limestone to improve the bogs; but whether the idea of uniting the Atlantic to the Shannon in this direction, by a cut large enough for vessels of 300 or 400 tons, as proposed, would be adviseable, I am not competent to say; if practicable, it would save the sometimes tedious and dangerous passage round Loophead: possibly the Atlantic ocean would be a dangerous sea to meddle with, as Dunbeg harbour is by no means a safe one; it is, however, the only one between Loophead and the bay of Galway, a distance of upwards of forty miles, except Liscannor bay, which with its present very useless quay cannot be depended on for any thing but fishing-boats.

Dutton doesn’t say who was behind the proposal or whether any engineer had assessed it or drawn up plans.

I don’t know what tons he means, but if he’s referring to something like gross register tonnage, and if I’ve got the sums right, then the vessels would be carrying 840–1120 tons (if filled with water), which is enormous compared with the 50–60 tons carried by vessels on the Grand Canal. Assuming a beam of 16 feet (see below), I tried using Builder’s Old Measurement to see what length a vessel would have to be to rate at 300 tons; I came up with about 230 feet, which is enormous. If you can check and correct my workings, please do so.

The only possible cargo Dutton mentions is limestone, presumably to be chipped off the Burren and to be used in reclaiming the bogs, but limestone was also available from the Shannon Estuary. He was right to warn about the dangers of the north coast of Clare.

John Graham and Mason’s Parochial Survey

William Shaw Mason’s  A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey of Ireland, drawn up from the communications of the clergy was published in three volumes between 1814 and 1819. The Rev John Graham, AM, late Curate of the Union, wrote about the “Union of Kilrush, Killard, Kilfieragh, Moyferta, and Kilballyhone (Diocese of Killaloe, and County of Clare)” in Volume 2, published in Dublin in 1816. Here is what he said:

A proposal was made some years ago to insulate that part of this union which was anciently called Western Corkavaskin, and is still called “The West,” by cutting a canal from the head of the great strand of Poulanishery, to the bay of Dunbeg. This might save the tedious passage from Limerick or Kilrush, to Galway, Killala, or Sligo, by Loops-Head and round Malbay. The intervening ground is level, and scarcely five miles across; so that this might be easily done, if it were advisable to do it. But the Atlantic ocean manifestly requires the strong barriers of cliffs and sand banks by which it is repelled here; and therefore, in the conjunction of an equinoctial tide, with a storm from the north-west, an opening at Dunbeg large enough to admit vessels of three or four hundred tuns burden, might prove the means of inundating a great part of the barony of Moyarta.

The distance across the peninsula is given as five rather than six miles, but otherwise this account is very close to Dutton’s. The same size of vessel is mentioned but, again, there is no mention of promoters or engineers and none of cargoes. Graham raises a further problem, that the canal might allow the Atlantic to flood the area.

Although Graham’s account was published in Mason’s 1816 volume, it may have been written earlier. I say that because it does not mention the most comprehensive proposal for a Doonbeg Canal, that of Thomas Colbourne, which was published in 1814.

Thomas Colbourne and The Bogs Commissioners

There is a superb account of the background to, work of and reports by the Bogs Commissioners on the History Ireland website. Thomas Colbourne‘s report on the bogs of West Clare appeared in Appendix 4 of the Third Report:

The Third Report of the Commissioners appointed to enquire into the nature and extent of the several Bogs in Ireland and the Practicability of Draining and Cultivating Them Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be printed, 28 April 1814 reproduced in Reports (Ireland) from Commissioners Session 4 November 1813 — 30 July 1814 Vol VI First Part

Appendix, No 4 The REPORT of Mr Thomas Colbourne, on the District, No 10, in the Western Extremity of the County of Clare: — With one Engraving; viz

Pl VIII — MAP of the Bogs in the West Part of the County of Clare

The Commissioners’ main concern was with draining the bogs, but Colbourne had been instructed to report on the possibility of constructing a canal (perhaps a narrow canal), so his report included this section:

CANALS

In laying out the line of canal from Poolanishary harbour to Dunbeg, or from the Shannon to the Atlantic, I was aware, that it would be much more expensive than had been reported. I was informed, that an offer had been made to open it across for a few thousand pounds; however, I have made the estimate for a large canal, with a view to accommodate the present sailing boats employed on the Shannon, who have considerable beam; and the locks for them should be 16½ feet wide, with a bottom breadth of canal (in most parts) 24 feet. Six feet depth of water on the cills, and seven feet in the canal, this amounts to about £15,000 per mile, in which there are eight locks of considerable fall, in four miles, and some deep sinking (in bog) in order to place the locks on good foundations. There is a better line of canal to the eastward of the one estimated, and could be executed for something less; it is marked on the maps by a red dotted line.

A canal, according to the 6th and 8th articles of your instructions, with a bottom breadth of 14 feet, and locks 70 feet chamber, and 7 feet 3 inches wide, could be executed across Monmore bog for about £30,000, and its advantages in the improvement of the bogs, would be very great indeed. And its principal use hereafter would be confined to the carriage of manures, and the future product of these extensive bogs; as the Shannon boats, or the fishing boats, could not navigate on a less dimension than I have estimated; and which would ultimately be of the greater benefit to the country. It would open a communication from Limerick to Galway, without the circuitous and dangerous passage around Loophead; and the navigation being complete from Dublin to Limerick, a (nearly inland) water carriage would be opened between Dublin and Galway. Limestone might also be brought coastways from Burrin.

It is probably that some of the main drains (after the drainage was complete) might be useful for small boats or flat-bottomed floats, for the purpose of transporting clay and manures through the bog, and for making roads on the edges of the main drains, for communicating with the different divisions o farms, etc etc.

Colbourne seems to have felt that a narrow canal would be useful for carrying manures (fertiliser) in to the bog and turf out. He also points out that the drains could be accessed by smaller boats. However, a wide canal would allow the Shannon Estuary sailing boats (turf carriers, fishing boats) to travel between the estuary and Galway Bay.

He provided estimates of the cost of construction:

ESTIMATE

ESTIMATE of a proposed CANAL from Poolanishary Harbour on the River Shannon (across the Bog of Monmore) to Dunbeg Harbour on the Atlantic.

Colbourne left us a map, and I photographed a copy of it on the wall of the Seol Sionna project.

Colbourne’s map

It’s hard to make out the details, so here is a close-up of the canal section of the map.

Colbourne’s canal routes

I’ve marked the main route, the one to which the estimate applies, in yellow, with the positions of the locks underlined in purple: I’m guessing that Lock 1 is at Poulanishary. The cheaper alternative, the eastern route, is shown in red, but no locks are marked. Colbourne did not say why he did not provide an estimate for the cheaper route.

John Killaly and the Employment of the Poor

The last appearance of the Doonbeg canal proposal, as fas as I know (and, gentle reader, if you know better, speak — or at least leave a Comment below), is in John Killaly’s reports on Clare in this document:

EMPLOYMENT OF THE POOR, IRELAND

COPIES OF THE REPORTS made to the Irish Government by the Civil Engineers employed, during the late Scarcity, in superintending the Public Works; — and, An Account of the Appropriation of the Sums expended, to provide Employment for the Irish Poor, during the last year. Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be Printed, 16 April 1823.

It included reports from John Killaly, Civil Engineer, …

… on the Public Works for the Employment of the Poor in the Central District.

He first mentioned the canal in a report of 23 June 1822 from Ennis:

Sir,

[…]

A few of the works most feasible, for which estimates have been furnished, and whose execution would, in my judgment, be attended with the greatest national as well as local benefits, exclusive of their affording the largest field for the extensive employment of the labouring classes, I take the liberty of enumerating, at the same time respectfully premising, that the unceasing attention I have bestowed in endeavouring to carry the wishes of his Excellency into operation, by giving prompt employment to the poor, has prevented me from examining with sufficient accuracy the projects marked thus (*), but my opinion of the advantages resulting from their execution is decided.

* Northern line of road between Ennis and Kilrush, which has been partly executed, will require to complete it, about £10000

Improving the navigation of the Fergus, from Clare to Ennis, with other improvements £10000

* Improving the mail-coach road from Limerick by Ennis to Galway, laid out by order of the Postmasters General £20000

Improving the navigation of the Shannon between Parteen and O’Brien’s Bridge £10000

* Proposed canal from Dunbeg bay to Poolnisharry harbour £40000

I shall proceed, without loss of time, in reporting specifically on the other papers in reference to me.

And have the honour to be, &c
J Killaly

A Mangin, esq

On 8 July 1822 he gave more details about the proposed canal. He included a proposal, on which I have found no information, that the canal start in Moore Bay, ie Kilkee, and “Garnan” (which I take to be Garraun, close to Blackweir Bridge) at Pooolanisharry. You can see both areas on the OSI map here, but you’ll have to zoom in to read Garraun. That proposal might have helped Kilkee’s tourist trade, but it is hard to see what other purpose it might serve.

Sir,

In reference to that part of my report of the 23rd ultimo, respecting a proposed canal from Dunbeg bay to Poolanisharry harbour, I beg leave to state that I have minutely examined the line laid down by Mr Colbourn, when engaged in surveying under the Bog Commissioners in this district; and also that proposed by some other engineer, for opening a communication between Moore bay on the Atlantic, and a branch of Poolanisharry harbour near Garnan; both these projects being with a view of enabling vessels to pass into the Shannon from the westward, without encountering the tedious and frequently dangerous passage round Loop-head, &c &c.

With respect to Moor [sic] bay, although the line of canal from thence to Poolanisharry would be somewhat shorter than that proposed from Dunbeg harbour, still the uncertainty of procuring a sufficient supply of water for its summit level, standing as it would 40 feet higher than the summit of the Dunbeg line, added to the circumstance of the bay, as it now stands, affording neither shelter nor anchorage, induces me to submit that this project, if not altogether impracticable, is at all events, from the foregoing statement, not worthy the attention of his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant.

Killaly rejects, as too expensive, the idea of a canal all the way across the peninsula; instead he proposes going some of the way, into the large bogs of Monmore (or Moonmore or Moanmore) to enable turf to be extracted more easily for sale in Limerick.

Dunbeg harbour in its present state, affords tolerably good shelter and safe anchorage for vessels of light draught of water. The expence, however, of forming a navigable communication with the Atlantic, even at this point, would be very considerable, and the benefit likely to result from its accomplishment, (owing to the state of the fisheries on the western coast) I fear very remote; I am therefore of opinion, that were a canal constructed to allow the Shannon boats to pass from Poolanisharry harbour into the bog of Moonmore, in the direction of Dunbeg bay, an important benefit would at once be conferred on the most distressed district in this county, having an overstock of population labouring under the severest privations, without means, without employment, and in many instances, without food. Its execution, besides affording an immediate and extensive source of occupation to the working classes, would also create (by opening to them the Limerick turf market, for the produce of their bogs), a new and profitable field for the future exercise of their improved skill, increased capital, and consequent industry.

The expense of construction (exclusive of the purchase of land), I estimate as follows:–

960 perches of canal, through clay, gravel, and loose rocks, average 14 feet sinking, at £12 per perch £11520
Five locks, with gates, &c &c complete £12500
Three bridges £1500
Supply cut &c &c £480
£26000
Incidents and superintendance, 15 per cent £3900
£29900

Killaly commented on the difficulties of life in the area:

The barony of Ibrickane, containing an area something under 50 square miles, in which the proposed work is principally situated, is peculiarly unsuited to agricultural purposes, stretching, as it does, a sterile soil upwards of 16 miles along the Atlantic, exposed to the baleful influence of its withering blasts, which are known frequently to destroy in one night the most promising crops, to which the industrious peasant and his family cheeringly looked for their future support. It is equally unfavoured with respect to the produce of its bogs; the roads, although numerous beyond parallel, are in most (indeed I might say in all) cases impassable for carriages conveying any burden; no market is therefore accessible to them, if they even could command the funds necessary for the cutting of turf; and notwithstanding their shores abound with the raw material from which kelp is manufactured, the transport of that article becomes so expensive, for the reasons already stated, as to render it nearly as unproductive a class of labour as any other within the scope of the wretched inhabitants of this portion of the county of Clare.

Their fisheries also, though several most productive banks lie off their coasts, add little or nothing to their scanty stock of comforts. No profits can be obtained in a trade where there is no skill exercised nor capital engaged. The singularly constructed and fragile boat, composed of wicker work, covered either with hides or canvas, in which the few squalid beings engaged in this pursuit, venture into a tremendous sea, is but ill calculated to advance their prospects. Without such a vessel, without food, and furnished only with the rudest implements of their calling, what can they produce? literally nothing in the way of traffic, not even, under present circumstances, what is equivalent to their own support.

He felt that the roads should be improved:

Feeling, therefore, that some new impulse and direction should be given to the pursuits of the peasantry in this district, with a view to their moral and political improvement. I have taken the liberty of submitting my ideas as to the utility of the proposed canal, in addition to which I would beg leave respectfully to suggest the propriety of improving the roads at present nearly impassable, which run along the heads of the bays of Liscannor, Seafield, Dunbeg, and Kilkea, with the road from thence to the market town of Kilrush, and also that from Liscannor bay by Innistymond, to the town of Ennis. These works would not only afford extensive employment to the poor during the present season of calamity, but, when perfected, and that our fisheries are put upon the judicious footing which I trust ere long the Legislature will effect, would open a facile communication to good market towns for the produce of a trade, which should, in this part of Ireland, if reasonably well managed, be exceedingly lucrative. The expense attendant upon the execution of these works I estimate at about £4000.

I have the honour &c
J Killaly

Wm Gregory esq &c &c &c

By 2 September 1822, it had become clear to Killaly that the government would not pay for the canal, so he suggested a quick and cheap alternative to help the turf trade:

Sir,

[…]

Presuming from recent circumstances, that but a limited sum will be allotted by Government for carrying on the works in question, and that their wish will be to render the expenditure of this money as generally beneficial as this allocation will permit, I feel it my duty respectfully to draw your attention to one of the schemes for general employment put forward in my report of 8th July last, namely, a canal from Poolanisharry harbour into Dunmore bogs towards the harbour of Dunbeg on the Atlantic, the expense of which I estimated at £29900, a sum so large that Government may not at this crisis consider it a wise measure to countenance; under this impression, I take the liberty of suggesting as a substitute, the construction of two small harbours or loading wharfs for turf, on the east and west sides of Poolanisharry harbour, and the perfection of three small lines of road, into the bogs already mentioned. The accomplishment of this measure, and the rendering passable the roads that have been partially formed across the bogs, will produce immediate and important advantages to a district at present the most distressed in the county of Clare.

The expense of those works I estimate at £5000.

I have the honour &c
J Killaly

Right hon H Goulburn &c &c &c

I don’t know whether Killaly’s proposed wharfs were ever built. The only quay I can see on the ~1840s Ordnance Survey map is a small one south of Cammoge. By the time the map was drawn, the Shannon Commissioners’ quay at Querrin was under construction, and much turf was sent from there (prehaps after being transhipped from smaller cots to larger sailing boats) to Limerick.

I have been told that there are some traces of work having been done on the Doonbeg Canal, but I have not myself looked for them. Such documents as I have seen (after cursory rather than exhaustive investigation) contain no suggestion that  construction ever began, but I would welcome further information. Please leave a Comment below if you know any more about it.

C20

During the second world war, Guy Liddell of MI5, the UK Security Service, wrote in his diary:

A [German] submarine base is said to exist near the mouth of the Doonbeg river in south west Clare. A submarine comes in 3 times a week and is camouflaged with a canvas screen.

T Ryle Dwyer Behind the Green Curtain: Ireland’s Phoney Neutrality During World War II Gill and Macmillan Ltd, Dublin, 2009 & 2010

The camouflage was so effective that nobody else noticed the submarine, which was no doubt being refuelled with first class turf from Poulnasherry Bog.

[estuary18]

3 responses to “The Doonbeg Ship Canal

  1. Pingback: Doonbeg | Irish waterways history

  2. hi, i’m currently making a radio doc for raidio corca baiscinn in clare about the doonbeg river, and am going to be touching on these canal projects and would love to find someone to interview about them. uould you be able to contact me at poetsoup@gmail.com?

  3. Will do. bjg

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