Filling (in) the Royal

In his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), John Maynard Keynes wrote this:

If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory) there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is.

Given that sixteen of Ireland’s twenty-nine active landfill sites are expected to be full within the next three years, and that the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, has held up the construction of the Poolbeg incinerator for so long, it may be that the Irish government would welcome the availability of a pit that could have bottled banknotes thrown in to it, and then covered with rubbish, so that the private sector could dig them up again [this begins to sound familiar …].

The Irish government has experience of running tendering processes, and the state has people who know how to manage dig-outs, so there is no doubt that this Keynesian economic stimulus could be managed successfully.

The Royal Canal, running westward from Dublin to the Shannon, provides an ideal pit, dug out at taxpayers’ expense and, in October 2010, officially reopened with a hooley at the western end and much rejoicing. It should not take long to prepare the bottles of banknotes, so the process of filling the Royal in again could start almost immediately.

Alternative uses

Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources amongst competing ends. The money (does anyone know how much?) spent on restoring the Royal Canal is a sunk cost: no matter what happens now, that money is gone and cannot be retrieved. However, further capital expenditure may be required — on water supply and at the Dublin end of the canal — to make it more easily usable, while the running and maintenance costs also have to be met.

Keynes did not think that his bottle-burying proposal was the best option:

It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but as there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.

Similarly, I can think of a more sensible alternative to filling in the Royal — getting lots of boats to use it — but I haven’t seen evidence that that is going to happen.

What’s the plan, man?

Now, I am neither active in user groups nor a confidant of Waterways Ireland, so it is quite possible that folk have developed, or are developing, some plans to increase use of the Royal and Grand Canals (and the Barrow): plans that involve boats rather than, say, cyclists or walkers, who don’t actually need a functioning canal, just wayleaves and interesting artefacts to look at. I’d like to see such plans published on the Waterways Ireland website, but I haven’t found anything there. And, as I noted elsewhere, WI’s Lakelands and Inland Waterways Strategy has nothing to say on the subject. Maybe it’s a Fourth Secret of Fatima, like the houseboat policy ….

So what should be in such a plan? The key ingredient is that there must be hire-boats and enough potential hirers to make the hire-businesses viable. Once Celtic Canal Cruisers ceased operating on the Grand Canal, the canal began to suffer from the reduced traffic, with few boats moving other than in spring and autumn. Some people reckoned that the shortage of hire-boats meant that weed was not kept down in the warmer months: the more the weed grew, the fewer boats wanted to move during those months, so the more the weed grew ….

But apart from the weed, there simply isn’t enough movement on the Grand and there are relatively few boats, and those small, on the Royal. Some more folk may be expected to participate in the IWAI Dublin rally; some boats will probably try the western end of the Royal; hardened waterways enthusiasts will want to complete the whole circuit, following in the footsteps of L T C Rolt.

That’s not enough, though: to maximise usage you need hire-firms and hirers.

Hirers

I have written elsewhere that British narrowboat-enthusiasts are an important and a distinctive market for Irish canals, and Waterways Ireland seems to have come around to that view (at least to some extent). It issued a press release earlier in 2011 saying:

Waterways Ireland is exhibiting for the first time at the Boat & Caravan Show in Birmingham from the 22nd-27th February in Hall 1, stand no1235. […]

Waterways Ireland has recently completed the restoration of the main line of the Royal Canal. 2011 will offer the first opportunity in 50 years for boats to travel the 350km loop of the Grand and Royal Canals and the Shannon Navigation.

So WI was promoting the “loop”, “triangle”, “Irish ring” or “Green & Silver route”. The recent reopening provides a basis for a marketing campaign and the availability of a loop or ring makes the Irish canals much more attractive to the British narrowboater.

It was disappointing, then, that a recent issue of a British waterways magazine carried a letter from a reader who had heard that the Royal Canal had been reopened, wanted to hire but was unable to find a firm willing to rent a boat to him.

If would-be hirers find it difficult to hire, the word will spread. Such momentum as the reopening of the Royal (extensively covered in the same magazine) might have generated will be lost and a second publicity campaign will be required at some stage in the future — when budgets are likely to be smaller than they have been.

Hindrances

To what extent is the Royal really open? The Heid Fector said in Waterways Ireland’s Annual Report for 2009 (the most recent available):

Wae finished oor brig construction programme on the Royal Canal this year an noo luk forrit tae the Canal openin agane in 2010.

That’s the Ulster-Scots version. In English, it means that the Chief Executive said:

We completed our bridge construction programme on the Royal Canal this year and now look forward to the reopening of this Canal in 2010.

Later in the report we read:

Continued progress was made to provide an adequate water supply to the Royal Canal. This project was developed in conjunction with Westmeath County Council, with various route options being considered.

When an annual report talks about “continued progress”, you know that whatever it is hasn’t been finished. I gather that a supply from Lough Ennell has been secured but that it is not yet connected. It seems that, until it is, there will be a limit to the number of passages that the Royal can cater for. However, I have not found any official statement on that matter, on WI’s policy for allowing passages or on the rule to be applied in deciding who can travel. It would be nice if clear information could be provided on the WI website. But it may be that WI plans a further marketing campaign once the water supply has been secured.

The other main obstructions are at the eastern end, between the River Liffey and Lock 1; I’ll cover them on this page.

Hire firms

To the best of my knowledge, there are six firms in Ireland that hire out steel boats. One is on the Royal Canal, three are on the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal and two are on the Shannon–Erne Waterway. If you know of any more, do please leave a Comment below and I’ll correct this.

It might be useful if I made a few comments on why some of these hire firms might be reluctant to hire a boat to someone who wanted to do the loop, triangle or ring around the Royal, Grand and Shannon.

Most of these firms are fairly small, with no more than half a dozen or so boats each; two have only one boat each.

Nobody knows how long it will take to complete the route. Nobody knows what difficulties may be encountered. Nobody can predict the conditions that will prevail on Lough Ree when a boat needs to cross it. And, as far as I know, the hire firms (including firms that are no longer with us) did not usually allow their boats in to Dublin (except perhaps for IWAI Dublin rallies in May each year).

So a small hire firm faces the prospect of having one of its fleet away for an unpredictable period, on an unfamiliar route, with unknown dangers (dragons amongst them, no doubt) on part of the route and known dangers on other parts. The known dangers include the crossing of the tidal Liffey in Dublin, perhaps meeting other and larger vessels, and the crossing of Lough Ree.

The Lough Ree problem is a significant one. There can be conditions in which Lough Ree is pretty well impassable for most boats, never mind narrowboats. The hire firm would need to be sure that the hirer could assess the weather, stay put if it’s too windy, prepare the boat properly for the crossing and handle the boat properly in rough water. All of that while a long way from the hire base, so that even ordinary breakdowns would take longer and cost more to fix.

Now, I can’t, don’t and won’t pretend to speak on behalf of hire firms. What I’m trying to do here is to explain some of the reasons that might have weighed with the firms to which that would-be hirer spoke.

My advice to would-be hirers is to talk to the hire firms, bearing in mind their likely reservations, and to be prepared to describe your experience, especially any on rough water. Note also the advice on this page.

My advice to the hire firms is to get together: check out the route, draw up common criteria, talk to Waterways Ireland about the ground-rules, work out fallback positions (in case boats can’t cross Lough Ree, for instance) and shared arrangements for servicing.

My advice to Waterways Ireland included this:

The WI Marine Notice 7/2007 made clear the system for getting boats through Dublin on the Grand Canal; a similar system will be needed for the Royal. And if traffic increases, the staffing requirement will increase too. It is essential that boats going through Dublin are properly escorted and are not subjected to attack: the internet can spread any bad news extremely quickly.

The Notice disappeared from the WI website; the link is to the IWAI site, where a copy is preserved. A new version, covering both canals, and based on the practicalities of getting a boat into and out of Dublin, is required.

Help

The Waterways Ireland website has little useful information about following the ring/loop/triangle route.

The Royal Canal Amenity Group website has no useful information and does not seem to be updated very often.

The Dublin Branch of the IWAI has much useful information; I have checked my own suggestions against theirs, and I provide a link to their pages from this page.

4 responses to “Filling (in) the Royal

  1. I guess I could (just about) be described as a ‘British narrowboat enthusiast’, in as much as I’ve enjoyed a holiday or too hiring one and having a nice holiday. I have to agree that all is not well with Waterways Ireland’s approach attracting my custom. Their website is a bit of a clunky mess – two years on from the full restoration of the Royal Canal, there’s are several places on their site which still indicate that the restoration is yet to happen! – it’s hopelessly out of date. Hirer sites are even worse – most have prices up for 2009/2010… a couple were dead links entirely, when I tried to get there from IWAI.ie. Some navigation notes seem to suggest that to complete the “ring” through Dublin, one needs to book passage through the inner city locks 2 weeks (!?) in advance. The overall impression is of amateurish businesses, whose websites make me question whether they’re even still trading. For a week’s cruising holiday I’d be giving around €1000 to these guys half a year in advance to book something! It doesn’t instill much confidence. The ridiculous thing is that keeping a website up to date and maintaining a professional image only costs a couple of hundred euros, not the millions required to restore the actual canals!

  2. Waterways Ireland are (finally) making some improvements to their website, but there’s a lot to be done!

    As far as I can see, there are two boats for hire on the Royal (I can email details if you want them), and Locaboat (the Penichette people) are to open a base at the western (Clondra/Shannon) end of the canal.

    The passage through Dublin is even more difficult than you suggest: the “Effin” bridge is lifted only once a month during the summer months. Assuming it works, which it failed to do for some weeks last year. IWAI Dublin Branch is the best source of up-to-date information about the bridge. My own attempt at explaining the complexities is here but I need to check and update it for 2012. Barge Hawthorn is currently on the Royal: having travelled from Clondra to Confey (near Dublin), it is now returning to the Shannon; see blog here.

    Some, but not all, of the Grand Canal/Barrow Line hirers will allow you to take a boat all the way around and some of the Shannon–Erne Waterway firms may do the same.

    bjg

  3. Pingback: A use for the Royal | Irish waterways history

  4. Pingback: Pull the plug: drain the canals | Irish waterways history

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