The Ulster Canal rip-off

When Sir Richard Griffith, Bart, LLD, FGS, etc became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in Ireland, he delivered his Inaugural Address in the New Lecture Hall of Trinity College Dublin on the evening of 19 February 1861. As published in the Institution’s Transactions[1], the Address came to 28 pages and Sir Richard apologised for its tedious length.

However, I suspect that he will had few complaints about that length: it must have been a pleasant change for the members who, in the previous year, had (in what numbers we know not) sat through the 187 pages delivered over three evenings by his predecessor, Michael Bernard Mullins Esq, AM. He started on 8 November 1859, resumed on 13 March 1860 and concluded on 22 May 1860. He too concluded with an apology — for the omissions from his address.

He had, admittedly, undertaken a large task: a history of engineering in Ireland from the establishment of the Ballast Office Corporation in 1707 to his own day. He gave us a splendid overview of developments, with much attention to inland navigation.[2] But the waterway we now know as the Shannon–Erne Waterway came under the heading of Arterial Drainage, in a district “in which drainage and navigation are combined”.

Mullins said that the first attempt at constructing waterways in this area was in 1780, when there was a plan to link the Erne to Woodford Lake. That’s the small lake on the Erne side of Ballinacur Bridge, just after Haughton’s Shore and Garadice Lough. Richard Evans found

a great part of the canal excavated — one lot not touched — others not sunk to a proper depth — the lock at Carrowl [Corraquill] two-thirds built, and nearly as much cut stone on the ground as would complete it — the lock-house built, and the gates of the lock framed, and made of excellent materials; however, notwithstanding the progress made, the undertaking was not prosecuted.[3]

The eventual aim was to complete a waterway to the Shannon but, despite a favourable report from William Chapman, work was abandoned before 1794, when funds ran out. Chapman, incidentally, felt that it would be too difficult to provide a track-way or towing-path all the way; he suggested a narrow path for men to haul boats,[4] which I presume would have meant poling, rowing or sailing the boats across the lakes.

Mullins continued:

No further attention appears to have been directed to any of the projects in this locality until 1838, when the Shannon Commissioners were called upon by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Treasury to report on the practicability of making a canal between the Shannon and lough Erne, and, accordingly, a line of still water navigation was surveyed, and an outline of the proposed plan laid before them, by Mr. W. T. Mulvany. This survey led to no practical result at that period. However, on the passing of the Act 5 and 6 Vic, cap. 89, the Ulster Canal Company, with the view of obtaining a connexion between their navigation and the Shannon, applied to the Commissioners, and agreed to meet the expenses of an engineering enquiry, which was made in the years 1844 and 1845, and all the preliminary requirements of the Act having been complied with, the works of the combined plan were commenced in the summer of 1846.[5]

That one paragraph identifies the three sets of villains who imposed the cost of a useless waterway on the citizens on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The first villains

The first set of villains is those who drafted the Drainage (Ireland) Act 1842 (5 & 6 Vic c89) as amended in 1845, 1846 and 1847. I have not, alas, been able to find the full text of the act on the interweb, but Patrick Flanagan’s account of the relevant provisions[6] accords with the evidence of the “Memorials, Correspondence, Surveys, Valuations, and Reports, in relation to the Extension of Canal or River Navigation between Lough Erne and The River Shannon”[7].

The problem, as I see it, is that the 1842 act allowed anyone “having an interest” in land to be drained or rivers to be made navigable could ask the Board of Works to carry out a survey. The survey was in two stages; if a proposal passed the preliminary examination a more detailed survey was carried out. The applicant had to pay the costs of the two surveys but, if the proposal was accepted and the Board of Works decided to go ahead with the project, the applicant got the money back.

On the other hand, the costs of building the navigation[8] were to be paid by the areas through which the navigation passed; the 1846 act allowed Parliament to pay half or more of the cost. The original applicant did not have to pay anything (unless subject to local charges).

The second villains

The second set of villains is the Ulster Canal Company. They submitted their Memorial, seeking a link from the Erne to the Shannon, from their office in Austin Friars, London, on 9 October 1844.

The legislation allowed them to make a pretty safe bet: their lottery ticket cost them £350 up front, to pay for the surveys, but they got back the £350 plus a navigation that cost other people £228,651/10/5. Of that amount, £30,000 was paid by the counties of Cavan (33%), Fermanagh (9%), Leitrim (42%) and Roscommon (16%); the rest was paid by Her Majesty’s Government[9].

We could go further back, and blame the proprietors of the Lagan Navigation (Belfast to Lough Neagh). According to W A McCutcheon, they supported the building of the Ulster Canal (Lough Neagh to Lough Erne):

They realized that the shortness of the hauls on the Lagan Canal militated against successful commercial barge traffic and by lending their support to the proposal for the opening up of water communication between Lough Neagh and Lough Erne, and ultimatelty to the Shannon and Limerick, they hoped that the fortunes of their own concern would be advanced by the creation or encouragement of regular long-distance lighter traffic in heavy, bulky goods and merchandise[10].

The Ulster Canal Company then proceeded to make a mess of its own navigation, notably by building its locks narrower than those of any other major navigation in Ireland and by making insufficient provision for a water supply at the summit. Barge traffic was, McCutcheon says, negligible, and in 1851 the Board of Works took it over, spent more money repairing it and then leased it to William Dargan, the principal construction contractor.

Dargan, according to McCutcheon, kept traffic away from Belfast and the Lagan Navigation, using instead the Newry Canal to the port of Newry. A cargo leaving Enniskillen on Wednesday evening would reach Newry on Friday and be on sale in Liverpool on Monday.[11] (Cargoes of cattle from Ballinasloe, up a canal on the west of the Shannon, could reach Liverpool in three days.)

McCutcheon includes the absence of a “connecting waterway to the Shannon[12]” (the Junction Navigation, later the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal, later still the Shannon–Erne Waterway) amongst the reasons for the failure of the Ulster Canal to take traffic away from the roads in the 1840s. But what reason was there to believe that there would be any significant traffic between the Shannon and the Erne?

The third villains

That’s where the third set of villains, the engineers, comes in. Skipping the eighteenth-century engineers, we can start with W T Mulvany, who produced a report in 1839 on three possible lines for canals linking the Shannon and the Erne.

Then, in 1845, John McMahon (formerly of Henry, Mullins & McMahon) wrote a report for the Board of Works, in response to the Memorial of the Ulster Canal Company. I haven’t seen Mulvany’s report, but McMahon [names as MacMahon on the printed papers] quoted some of it.[13]

There were two problems:

  • the underestimate of costs
  • the overestimate of traffic.

McMahon reckoned that:

  • if only the navigation were developed, it would cost £103,000
  • if only the drainage were tackled, it would cost £23,267/5/10
  • if the two were done together, the total cost would be £110,301/4/4, saving £15,966/1/6 on the costs of two separate projects.

The actual cost of the navigation works was £228,651/10/5, over twice what McMahon had estimated[14].

That might not have mattered very much if his estimates of the traffic had been at all realistic, but they were not. His assessment should serve as a warning to Irish governments of the perils of relying on business cases (“Give us some plausible reasons we can cite to justify this spending”) rather than proper risk-weighted cost-benefit analyses. Essentially, he seems to have assumed that all available traffic would be carried by water:

  • the Arigna iron mines would be reopened and the iron would be carried to Belfast
  • coal from Lough Allen would go the same way
  • as the peasants and small farmers of Ulster were giving up drinking whiskey, they would want to make their houses more comfortable, so they would want to roof them with slates rather than thatch, and the slates would be Killaloe slates from Lough Derg on the lower reaches of the Shannon
  • local traffic would include flags and sandstone[15].

That lot of wishful thinking would add up to two boat-loads daily from the Shannon to the Erne and one coming back; say 900 altogether in a year. In fact, only eight boats are known to have paid tolls between 1860 and 1880, although other boats passed through without paying.[16]

W T Mulvany’s report, quoted by McMahon, was even more imaginative. He reckoned that the potential traffic included butter, eggs, pigs, fat cattle, sheep, hides, wheat, oats, barley, flour, meal and yarn from the northern reaches of the Shannon to Newry and Belfast, some of it for export to Scotland. The distillery at Belturbet would want Lough Allen coal and there would be a demand for bricks manufactured from the fireclay available there.

Timber would come the other way. Belfast and Newry would also supply “general merchandize, groceries, manufactured iron goods, linen, flax-seed and British coals”, while Enniskillen, Clones and Belturbet could send whiskey, porter and beer to the Shannon. From the southern end of the Shannon, Limerick would send timber (imported from America) to supply the counties of Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh. It would also send wheat and flour upriver, with slates and marble from Killaloe.

It is not clear why timber would come in one direction from Belfast and Newry and in the other from Limerick, presumably meeting half way along the Junction Navigation. Nor is it clear why the Belturbet distillery would want both expensive Lough Allen coal and cheap British coal.

Neither McMahon nor Mulvany cites any evidence to show that there was any carrier interested in conveying all those cargoes. On the Royal and Grand Canals, and on the Shannon, there were established carriers with established routes and markets; why would the cattle-breeeders of Roscommon, say, divert their traffic from Liverpool to Glasgow via the Junction Navigation, Lough Erne, the Ulster Canal, Lough Neagh and the Lagan or Newry Canal?

The other thing missing from both reports is any evidence of a demand for a waterway linking Belfast and Limerick. That notion seems to have been trotted out then, as it is today, to disguise the absence of any real justification for the proposed construction.

On the evidence of this navigation, engineers seem to be gullible innocents who should not be placed in charge of major public investments. Not, at least, unless they accept that, when they’re in a hole, they should stop digging.

Incidentally …

J F Burgoyne, Chairman of the Board of Works, wrote to Lord Eliot [Chief Secretary for Ireland 1841–1845] on 12 August 1844. His letter begins:

I return the printed paper on the project for uniting the navigations of Lough Erne and the Shannon, and thereby nearly all other navigations of Ireland, presented to you by Mr Pierce Mahony[17].

Mahony, a solicitor, was an MP, a supporter of Daniel O’Connell and an associate of Charles Wye Williams; he may have been a shareholder in or a director of Williams’s City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. If Williams thought there was business to be done on the Junction Canal and thence to Belfast and Newry, I would think more highly of the proposal. I would welcome more information both about Mahony’s paper and about his life in general.

It may not be irrelevant to note that the papers on the “Canal or River Navigation between Lough Erne and The River Shannon” were requested by Morgan John O’Connell, second son of Daniel O’Connell. Morgan John had been MP for Meath until 1840 and then became Assistant Registrar of Deeds for Ireland; is it possible that the request was made instead by one of his brothers, perhaps John O’Connell, MP for Kilkenny in 1845, or Maurice O’Connell, MP for Tralee? In any event, it suggests some O’Connell interest in the matter.


[1] Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland 25th and 26th session, 1859–60–61, Vol VI, John Falconer, Dublin, 1863

[2] “Address of M B Mullins Esq, AM, President, being an historical sketch of engineering in Ireland, delivered on 8 November 1859 and 13 March and 22 May 1860” in Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland 25th and 26th session, 1859–60–61, Vol VI, John Falconer, Dublin, 1863

[3] ibid

[4] Patrick Flanagan The Shannon–Erne Waterway Wolfhound Press 1994

[5] Mullins op cit

[6] Patrick Flanagan The Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1972

[7] Lough Erne and Shannon — Shannon Navigation: Return to Two orders of the Honourable The House of Commons, dated respectively 7 & 30 July 1845 … Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be Printed, 8 August 1845

[8] I omit the provisions for drainage schemes. Separate accounts had to be kept for drainage and navigation and, in the event, the two sets of works were initiated under separate provisions of the legislation [Flanagan 1972]

[9] Flanagan 1972 p76; I have rounded the percentages

[10] W A McCutcheon The Canals of the North of Ireland David & Charles, Dawlish 1965, p102

[11] McCutcheon op cit p109

[12] McCutcheon op cit p108

[13] “Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Drainage and Navigation District: Report of John McMahon Esq CE 30 May 1845” in Lough Erne and Shannon op cit

[14] Flanagan 1972 p76

[15] “Report of John McMahon Esq CE” in Lough Erne and Shannon op cit

[16] Flanagan 1972 p79

[17] Lough Erne and Shannon op cit


The construction of the Junction Canal (later the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal; later still the Shannon–Erne Waterway) at Aghoo

Lock gear on the Junction Canal

The Belturbet-built dredger



5 responses to “The Ulster Canal rip-off

  1. A very interesting piece of research and analysis. It would be good to see feedback from people familiar with the waterways.

  2. Another excellent article, Brian. Have linked to it from my own site.

  3. Pingback: » Blog Archive » The Ulster Canal Rip off

  4. Thanks, Ewan. bjg

  5. Thank you. bjg

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