Historical account of Royal Canal runs deep


BOOK OF THE DAY: Irelands Royal Canal 1789–2009By Ruth Delany and Ian Bath, The Lilliput Press 336pp, €30

SOME YEARS ago, we had breakfast on the M50, between the two busy carriageways. As we tucked into our sausages, bacon and eggs, washed down with champagne, we could see buses, cars and trucks circling above us.

We were on a boat on the Royal Canal aqueduct crossing the M50 at its junction with the N3. Just before breakfast, we worked the boat down through the 12th lock at Blanchardstown. Afterwards, we descended through the 11th to turn, looking across fields, to Dunsink Observatory.

Canals allow us to see familiar places from unusual angles: Croke Park from below, Mullingar from behind. Our breakfast would not have happened without the campaign by the Royal Canal Amenity Group and the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland to have the Royal restored.

This book appears just before navigation on the Royal Canal is due to be restored from the Liffey to the Shannon. It is 220 years since work began, with a badly planned, badly costed scheme to build a second canal where there was scarcely traffic for one.

It was supported by government and employed many people in construction, but some of the work was poorly carried out and costs exceeded estimates. The Royal Canal Company relied on a state guarantee of support, but it raised unauthorised loans and had huge borrowings that it could not repay.

In 1813, it was nationalised and the government, under the auspices of the Directors General of Inland Navigation, undertook to work out the project. They completed the canal and handed it over, debt-free, to the New Royal Canal Company in 1818.

After completion, the Royal Canal had just under 30 years of trade: its operations in the 1820s and 1830s are amongst the most interesting parts of this book, with occasional attacks on its infrastructure by starving peasants seeking work.

But the company sold out to the Midland & Great Western Railway Company in 1845: that company did not have to buy land from landowners, so it could lay lines quickly and cheaply. The canal’s long decline thereafter, culminating in closure in 1961, is described in less detail.

The text up to the time of closure is similar to that of the book’s last edition, although it has had a thorough edit. Thereafter, the material is new, as Ian Bath gives an exhaustive account of the restoration process. Volunteers used political lobbying, set up AnCO and Fás schemes, raised funds and linked local communities. Eventually, the State took over again and the canal is controlled by Waterways Ireland, a cross-Border body.

But the book does not cover its contemporary uses. What about those who have swum in the canal? The canoe-polo players of Kilcock? Those who walk dogs along its banks?

The mid-term evaluation of the National Development Plan criticised the cost of the inland waterways sub-measure, said “it pre-empts valuable resources that could be used to further regional balance and tackle social exclusion” and recommended that waterways should not be given a high priority. In straitened times, enthusiasts will have to justify public spending on their hobby, but where is the plan or the cost-benefit analysis for future operations on the Royal? It’s great to have it restored, but what happens next?

Brian J Goggin is a writer and editor