I believe that the existence of a large number of surviving barges has distorted our understanding of Irish waterways history. The really important vessels on Irish inland waterways were not barges but cots — smaller wooden boats, which may have been sailed or propelled by a combination of oars and poles (quants, shafts) — but we simply have no idea of the extent of their use on inland waterways.
There is, I think, a standard set of understandings of what inland navigations or waterways are about: waterways are formally engineered, financed, operated. They have records: legal agreements and legislation, engineering plans, accounts and minutes, however incomplete. They exist within the modern world of engineering, business, government, regulation and (in the non-pejorative sense) bureaucracy.
Outside that, though, lies a set of waterways uses that is differentiated from the core by time, geography and function but also by what might be called a level of informality in designation, in operation — and in record-keeping. This second set is vernacular, subaltern, informal, unofficial, harder to investigate and harder, too, to evaluate: At least some of the industries and economies that used those waterways have left as few records as their waterways did, making it difficult to assess the importance to them of waterways transport.
I am inclined to believe that there is much to be learned about the use of rivers, estuaries and lakes before 1800. My own speculation about one river is here; I have been heartened to learn that in 1537 His Late Majesty Henry VIII FD provided for passage of “boates, scowts, wherries, clarans, cotttes, and other vessels” on the River Suir and other nearby rivers.
But it would be wrong to take 1800, or any other date, as a cut-off point.
This drawing, from a book published in 1854, shows Athlone, a significant town at around the middle of the River Shannon. The river was an official navigation, and had been improved throughout the 1840s; tolls were charged for passage through the locks and there were charges for the use of wharfs and quays.
There are at least six boats in the drawing. They are fairly small, but large numbers of them were in use; as late as 1913, one source says that there were 800 to 900 turf cots in the Athlone area.
But almost nothing of what they carried was recorded: most of the turf boats used neither the Athlone lock nor the official wharfs, so this traffic, there and elsewhere, existed in parallel with that carried on the “official” navigation, well into the twentieth century.
Some years ago I wrote (but did not publish) an article on waterways as obstacles to communication. It struck me that a canal facilitates communication along its length but hinders communication across it. If you live on one side of a canal, but (for instance) keep cattle on the other, and if there are no locks or bridges nearby, then the canal is an obstacle to communication.
There have been three unofficial responses to this. First, in a few cases canal-side residents or communities have erected bridges. Second, some have put concrete cattle-crossings in the beds of canals (perhaps without authorisation). Third, some have equipped themselves with small metal tanks and long poles or (the more sophisticated) with small boats to enable them to cross the canal. I believe that those responses are uses of the canals and thus deserve to be researched, although I don’t imagine that there will ever be more than an article or two in it.
On a similar note, I have written about swimming in the canals in Dublin. I think that more people have swum in them (bye-laws or no bye-laws) than have ever boated on them and I think that that use deserves to be recorded just as much as, for instance, the use of the Grand Canal to supply water to Messrs Guinness (and to the city of Dublin). Even illegal uses deserve to be covered: canals have been used to dispose of both rubbish and murder victims.
The dead person in the photo below was not a murder victim, but he lived on one side of the River Shannon and the graveyard was on the other. There seem to be about twenty people on the cot, as well as the coffin; health and safety had not been invented at the time. Cots were used to carry coffins in many places on the Irish waterways.
But of course the cots were not built solely for that purpose. They were the waterside farmer’s equivalent of the tractor and trailer: vehicles of all work, carrying hay from the islands, turf from the bogs, cattle to the markets, bricks for sale. This is a category of traffic that is neither commercial nor pleasure: it is the use of the waterways by people who live alongside them. Again, it has not been much studied, but at least before Hitler’s war there was much traffic of that kind on Irish rivers, lakes and estuaries. Some of it continues today; the vessel shown below is one of several used to ferry cattle to and from the islands of the Fergus Estuary, but more sophisticated equivalents are in use on the inland Shannon, the Erne and no doubt elsewhere.
Finally, there is the use of the waterways for resource abstraction: marl from the beds of lakes for use as fertiliser; diatomite from Lough Neagh for making explosives; sand from Neagh (where the trade continues) and from the Shannon, the Suir and elsewhere. There was the eel business (which again continues on Lough Neagh but not elsewhere): in the middle of the nineteenth century almost every river had an array of eel weirs and Ireland’s shortest canal was built to allow eel-boats to come alongside Banagher railway station. Eels (and salmon on the estuaries) were commercial businesses, not opportunities for sport, and other freshwater fish (trout, perch) were also caught and sold. All of these required the use of boats but were not conventional carrying businesses.
And I haven’t even mentioned the flying-boats ….
I believe that all of those are legitimate subjects of enquiry within the field of waterways (or inland navigation) history, even if not all fall within canal history. Some of them are — at least in Ireland — important enough to deserve book-length treatment whereas others need no more than an article or two. (I appreciate that they may be of less importance elsewhere.) There is still much to be learned about Irish inland waterways.