Leech of Killucan: horse-drawn boats on the Royal

This article originally appeared in Inland Waterways News Vol 30 No 4 (2003) and later on the website of the Heritage Boat Association. The substance has not been changed although some references have been updated. I am grateful to Niall Galway for arranging and recording the interview on which this piece was based.

Bog ore on the Royal

In 1946 the English canal and railway enthusiast L T C Rolt came to Ireland, hired a boat and travelled the Shannon, the Grand and the Royal. The Royal had been bought by the Midland Great Western Railway in 1845, thus providing itself with land on which it could lay its tracks. The MGWR did itself engage in canal-carrying for a short time, from 1871 to 1886, but after that there were only independent traders, all said to have used horse-drawn boats: forty in the 1880s, thirteen in 1922 and, by the time Rolt got there, only two, although there had been more during the Emergency (World War 2).

The last of the two traders, James Leech of Killucan, abandoned the trade in February 1951. In 1955 Douglas Heard’s boat Hark was the last to be issued with a permit to traverse the canal, and it was officially closed to navigation in 1966.

Leech of Killucan thus has a special place in the history of the Royal Canal. Rolt met him near Moyvalley as he was bringing a cargo of bog ore into Dublin. The boat was drawn by two horses, which were so surprised at seeing a boat — and one with an engine at that — that they almost bolted.

Canal traders

James Leech has gone to his reward but his son, Willie, was still with us in 2003 [he died in 2006], and may have been the only man left in Ireland with experience of using a pair of horses to pull a canal-boat. Willie’s grandfather had owned four boats on the canal. His father had operated two boats during the Emergency but used only one of them after that, although he still owned the second. The two boats can still be seen on the canal, near D’Arcy’s bridge, where they were abandoned over sixty years ago.

Trade had been good during the Emergency, with turf and timber to be carried. Afterwards, though, the decline in trade, the worsening state of the locks and the return of competition from road transport made it impossible to continue. Caffrey, the other trader, gave up in the late 1940s.

Willie Leech remembered some of the other traders. Kellys had two boats in Kilcock; Greene bought one and the Leeches bought one. Lar Leech had two boats, but ended with one: his family was connected to Willie’s some way back. There were very few pleasure boats, especially during the Emergency.

The trade

Willie remembered going west in 1938, when he was 16. They drew coal to Mullingar for St Loman’s Hospital and for St Finian’s College. There were harbours at the Dublin bridge and at the next bridge. It could take three men two days to unload their usual 50-ton cargo with shovels. They had their own carts and horses, but would hire in the town to do the job.

As well as coal, porter, turf and timber, they also carried bags of cement. Turf and cement had to be covered; there were rings along the gunwales for securing the cover. Turf was piled much higher, but the crew still had to be able to see over it.

If the boat was idle, they had to pay 6d a day in lay-by charges. The engineers were sticklers for the rules: even when a dam at Cloncurry, east of Enfield, closed the canal for months, they still had to pay the lay-by charges.

The boats

The Royal locks are larger than the Grand’s — 75′  X 13.3′ as opposed to 61′  X 13′ — and the boats could be larger too. After a brief period during which steam was used, the trading boats were thereafter horse-drawn: Willie said that the banks were not fit for engines.

On deck, the boats had a timberhead [“the top end of a timber, rising above the gunwale, and serving for belaying ropes etc”] each side, stem and stern. They carried mooring ropes, a stop rope on deck, a boat hook and a pole for pushing out.

The family’s boats had a cabin at each end, accessed by ladders. The three-person crew would sleep at one end, with the stern cabin used for (their own) turf or for the hay for the horses. They would cook on board; the funnel sat down on a pipe from the stove to deck level. They cooked what they could get: spuds, steak and onions, stew or coddle.

Willie and two brothers worked with their father; when they were running two boats, they might employ one or two lads. The brothers continued going west of Mullingar right to the end.

Working with horses

Of the crew of three, one would be with the horses, one would steer and one would be in the cabin; they would spell each other during the day.

Willie said that it was very easy to steer with the two horses. The main trackline, about thirty yards long, went from the lead horse to the timberhead (round the centre, then one turn around the two horns). About a quarter of the way back, a flyline was plaited in to the trackline; it led to the second horse, which would be right at the tail of the first.

The horses knew every inch of the route, including the drinking-places, and would stretch the line to get to rest and water. They seemed to enjoy their work — Willie described them as prancing, mad to go — but they had to be looked after at the end of the day. The Leeches had their own hay, and could buy more in the city.

Their last mare was bought from Kennedy’s Bakery, where she had worked on the bread cars and got foundered from heavy going. Willie’s father bought her and got her good quick. That mare knew her way as well as the humans did. On one occasion they got held up in Dublin, with the boat needing repairs. They couldn’t keep the horse in Dublin, so they brought her to Blanchardstown. They got a bus to the 13th Lock while the mare, in blinkers, walked out. Then the same procedure to Moyvalley and finally home to Kinnegad, where Willie got on his bike, went back and found the horse grazing one mile beyond the last bridge.

Rules of the road

When two boats met, the loaded boat got preference. The empty boat would free the trackline, letting it off from the stem, then steer around the oncoming boat and edge in to the bank.

The stopropes were used in locks. The trackline might be freed, but that was more likely if the lock was followed by a bridge: if the horses couldn’t walk under the bridge, they would free the line and pull across, then throw it in.

The boat needed a pass for each journey. His father dealt with that, collecting it from an office at Spencer Dock, across from the sea lock. The boat’s measurements would be recorded and the weight and charge calculated. At their usual load of fifty tons, the boat would be three feet down all around, and the markings would show that.

Bog ore to Dublin

Rolt defined bog ore as

a limonitic deposit of bogs and stagnant pools which occurs where the water in the locality is, or has been, charged with salts of iron.

It was used for producing sword blades in Scandinavia from the seventh to the tenth century but from about 1863 onwards it was used in Europe for purifying coal-derived “town gas”. The Dublin Gas Company, based beside the Grand Canal basin in Ringsend, would place the bog ore on a grid; the gas would come up through it. When the company had finished with it, it was mixed as fertiliser.

When the company needed a load, their agent would get word to James Leech, who in turn would contact the three families, a mile and a half beyond D’Arcy’s Bridge, who supplied the ore. They would dig out the sticky ore, which looked like wet clay; some was red and some darker. They brought it by horse and cart to the canal, where it was loaded on to the boat using barrows on planks. In good times, two loads per month might be needed.

It was a three-day trip to the Gas Company. The first night was spent near CloncurryBridge, with stabling at a farmer’s yard. The second was at Mary Brady’s, 13th Lock, beyond Maynooth. The third was spent in Spencer Dock, with stabling at Summerhill or with relatives at Ballybough.

So how do you get a horse-drawn boat across the Liffey from the Royal to the Grand? They manhauled the boat down Spencer Dock; then a Port & Docks tug would pull the boat from one sea-lock to the other, going with the tide and using the larger lock to get into the Grand Canal Basin. The Gas Company was at the far end of the basin, so they manhauled the boat again. Willie said that it was easier to pull in deep water. The ore was unloaded by crane and the Gas Company hired horses to bring it from the boat to the gasworks.

On the Grand

After the trade ended, Willie worked for CIE (and its successors) on the repair boat. In 1980 the weeds on the Grand were very bad; the Royal crew was moved to the Grand to help out and never made it back, except for occasional small jobs. As a result, Willie, having started on the Royal, actually retired from the Grand after thirteen years there. He and his wife Eileen were fifty years married in 1999 and lived at Killucan, back on the Royal again.


12 responses to “Leech of Killucan: horse-drawn boats on the Royal

  1. Catherine Anderson

    Its great to read this. I am related to this man through my fathers side of the family my name is Leech very proud to read all this and for my family to be part of Irish History.

  2. Catherine: thanks for that. The Leech family were very important to the Royal Canal. bjg

  3. Pingback: Willie Leech interview | Irish waterways history

  4. Hello I have just stumbled across this wonderful article and I believe that James Leech was my Great Great Grand Father< James Leech Junior Willies Brother had a son Patrick who was brought to New Zealand after James Junior died in the first world war 1917. Patrick was my Grand Father who also had a son called Patrick, my father. I would like to make contact with any of the direct descendants of this family that might still in the Cloncurry Kildare area please.
    Kind regards Wayne Johnson
    Auckland, New Zealand

  5. Wayne: I’ll pass your message on to a man who might know whether there are any relatives around. Is it OK to give them your email address? bjg

  6. Thank you so much and I to just found this email in my junk mail and yes please hand my email address on. Kind regards Wayne J

  7. Thanks. I haven’t yet found any useful information for you, though. bjg

  8. I am the grandaughter of Margaret Leech. She was a sister Walter Leech. There are more brothers too but have no information. My Mother Eithne was born in a large house on the Royal Canal at Northstrand. I was told that my mother’s grandmother also Margaret Leech was a trader on the Canal and owned a considerable amount of boats. I’m sad to see that no women get a mention on the history site yet I’ve been told this great Grandmother Margaret Leech was the owner of this business. I’ve been told she was unable to read or write but this business was hers. I know little but would love to find out more.

  9. Thanks for that. I haven’t come across the elder Margaret before but maybe your comment will lead to others from knowledgeable folk. Have you any approximate dates for the elder Margaret’s ownership? Might she have been related to the Lar Leech whom Willie mentioned? Or might she have been one of the “relatives at Ballybough”, which is close to the North Strand?


  10. Hi just reading the above information as I am doing a little research on the Royal Canal and the traders. I am related to the Leech family, my mother was Patricia Leech now Clarke, daughter of Walter, who was the son of James Leech and his second wife Margaret Durkin. I believe that Margaret Durkins family were initially the traders and owned a lot of property in and around North Strand, Summerhill and surrounds. In Waynes Johnsons comment above, wonder if this is the James he was talking about, who would be by Great Grand Father.

  11. Very interesting; thank you. bjg

  12. Hi Brian
    doing some research on Caffrey ,who had barge on Royal canal,vegetables gardens near Croke park and lived at Newcomen bridge 1854.My g grandfather was Michael Caffrey married Julia Flynn 1853.
    my grandfather was John Caffrey believe boatman and coal merchant married Margaret Keegan from Killucan,West Meath in 1894 in Rathwire. In 1905 when last child john was born father profession was a boatman.

    If the address was newcomen Bridge where home be.
    I heard speak of living at Russell cottages in 1900.6 richmond parade in 1895. Could there have been a few caffrey families involved.
    Denis Caffrey

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