Steam on the Newry Canal

I wrote here about Simon O’Regan and the screw steamer that he demonstrated at Portobello, on the Grand Canal in Dublin, in August 1850. Amongst his passengers on that day was William Dargan, who was said to have been impressed by O’Regan’s invention.

Dargan, of whom a biography is due to be published in May 2013 [it is mentioned by Amazon but not yet by the publishers Lilliput], had worked on the improvement of the Newry Ship Canal between 1842 and 1850 [Tony Canavan Frontier Town: an illustrated history of Newry 2nd ed in cooperation with Choice Publishing Ltd 2009]. Dargan had also worked on the Ulster Canal, as principal contractor under William Cubitt who took over after Thomas Telford died in 1834 [W A McCutcheon The Canals of the North of Ireland David & Charles, Dawlish 1965].

Dargan was also the principal carrier on the canal through the Ulster Canal Carrying Company, which used the Newry Canal to connect to the Irish Sea and, at least in 1851, had two steamers, the Sea Nymph and the Hercules, serving the Newry–Liverpool route [The Liverpool Mercury 12 March 1851].

McCutcheon says that it is not clear whether Telford or John Killaly was to blame for the decision to build the Ulster Canal’s locks narrower than those of any connecting waterway: 11′ 8½” as opposed to 15′ on the Newry Canal, 14′ 10¾” on the Lagan, 14′ 10″ on the Tyrone. Disappointing traffic — the result of the necessity for transhipment, the shortage of water and the absence of cargoes — persuaded the Board of Works to lease the dreadful thing to Dargan in 1851. He thus controlled both the Ulster Canal and its trade. Cargo for Belfast was transferred to rail at Portadown; Dargan had built the line from Portadown to Lisburn (en route to Belfast) and later the line from Portadown to Drogheda. He also owned land around Lough Neagh and operated a towing steamer on the lake [McCutcheon pp 129–130] that links (or separates, depending on the weather) the Newry and Ulster Canals via the Upper Bann and Blackwater rivers respectively.

Lough Neagh and associated waterways

Lough Neagh and associated waterway

That is by way of background for Dargan’s interest in O’Regan’s canal steamer. I am grateful to John Ditchfield for pointing me to an article about what happened next.

From The Freeman’s Journal 4 November 1850


A discovery, that promises to be of great importance, has recently been made by a Mr O’Regan, a native of Cork, who for the last seven years has been manager of the Ringsend Iron Works, Dublin. It consists in the application of steam, as a motive power, to lighters on canals; the result of which will be, to expedite the transit of heavy merchandize, and decrease the cost of its carriage. Some experiments were tried on the canals at Dublin, at one of which Mr Dargan, the celebrated contractor, was present; and he was so much pleased with what he saw that he resolved to afford Mr O’Regan a better opportunity of testing the merits of his discovery.

Accordingly, Mr O’Regan came to Newry, and, having fitted up one of the lumber boats with his machinery, several experiments were made on Wednesday and Thursday last to see how it would work. The result was completely successful. On the first day the boat, being unladen, attained a speed of four miles an hour; and on Thursday, having on board a cargo of thirty tons, and running only a short distance, the rate of going was between three and four miles. This speed can be maintained both day and night; and as half a ton of coals will supply the engine for twelve hours, and as only an additional hand will be required on board each lighter, it is obvious that important advantages must arise from this invention.

The chief objects that Mr O’Regan had to keep in view were to make the machinery sufficiently compact, simple, and cheap to answer the end designed. After repeated experiments, and the expenditure of a considerable amount of capital, he has succeeded in accomplishing his purposes; and it reflects much credit on his perseverance and spirit — not to speak of his mechanical skill — that he has completed his invention out of his own resources, without aid from government or any other quarter. The machinery occupies a very small space at the stern of the boat; and it is so simple in its construction that any smart lighterman, after a few lessons, can regulate it.

The expense of introducing it into lighters will be a mere trifle. A small steam-engine drives a wheel, which communicates the power to a screw attached to the stern of the boat, immediately before the helm. The motion made by the revolutions of the screw in the water is so gentle that the banks will not be injured, the waves subsiding before reaching them. The upper part of the funnel can be taken off, so that the boat can pass underneath bridges; and a whistle, similar to that on railways, is attached to the engine, for the purpose of giving warning to the lock keepers of the approach of the boat.

We understand that Mr Dargan intends to have eight lighters immediately fitted up with the necessary machinery, for the purpose of plying on the Newry Canal. The one in which the experimental trips were made, started yesterday morning with a load for Enniskillen.

The Freeman’s Journal gave the Newry Telegraph as its source.

There are some interesting points about this report.

The first is that the steam engine was fitted in a lumber [cargo] boat rather than, as in Dublin, a passage [passenger] boat. There was only ever one regular passage boat service on northern canals, run by the Quakers of Moyallon on the Newry Canal from 1813 onwards, and clearly Dargan’s interest was in carrying cargoes.

The second is that it would be nice to know how a screw propeller was fitted to an existing boat “immediately before the helm”.

The third is that a Newry-Canal-sized boat “with a load for Enniskillen”, on Lough Erne, would not have got there, being too large: it would have had to tranship its cargo to a smaller boat.

The fourth is that it would be interesting to see how a steam-powered canal boat coped with Lough Neagh in anything other than fine weather.

The fifth is that I have not yet found any information about whether Dargan did actually fit up eight more lighters: in other words, whether O’Regan’s invention was successfully adopted.

My OSI logo and permit number for website


3 responses to “Steam on the Newry Canal

  1. Have you seen this amazing Upper Bann > Newry Canal > Newry Ship Canal video?

  2. Thank you for that. bjg

  3. A report in the Southern Reporter And Cork Commercial Courier dated 19 Aug 1851, quoting the Northern Whig, states that “a boat fitted up with Mr O’Regan’s machinery has, for some months, been plying on the Newry Canal, to Mr Dargan’s perfect satisfaction … Our townsman, Mt Coates, has given the project his warm approval, and it was on his adjudication that £250 was awarded to Mr Coates for the application of his mode of locomotion on the Newry Canal”

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