The Royal Canal was raised in the shadow of its big brother. In the 1750s the idea of a waterway linking Dublin to the north Shannon was rejected, and instead the more southerly Grand Canal was built.
In the 1780s a director of the Grand Canal Company quit to build a rival waterway. But the route of the Royal Canal wasn’t precisely planned, the project amassed huge debts, and the founding company was ultimately dissolved. The Royal Canal finally met the Shannon in 1817, costing far more than its rival. It never saw as much traffic either.
I followed the towpath east from Blackshade Bridge, Co Meath on a cold January afternoon, the sky coated with cloud too thin to dull the clear winter light. The canal was frozen shut in parts, while in places it seemed ice-free until I got close enough to see a film of cellophane-thin ice.
I day-dreamed of skating down the canal rather than walking beside it.
The canal bridged the Boyne on a limestone aqueduct, then passed under the Ribbontail footbridge, built to bring Massgoers to the church in Longwood. It may have been named after the Ribbonmen, a secret agrarian society that fought for farm workers’ rights.
In his book Irish Popular Superstitions, William Wilde described the departing journey of Longford emigrants on Royal Canal packet-boats.
“Their friends followed for a considerable distance, many, brimful of whisky as well as grief, crowding upon the bridges, and sometimes pulling the boat to the brink by the tow-rope, for the purpose of sending a message to one of their transatlantic friends,” he wrote. “All gradually fell back, except one very old woman, who, with her grey elf-locks streaming in the wind . . . ran after the vessel which contained her only son.” The canal welds human and natural engineering together. It’s layered with wildlife habitats but never too wild. Instead human design makes it seem sedate: the flat level, the straight channel, all those right angles.
The drone from the nearby M4 was constant, but it just made the canal seem more secret.
The Dublin-Sligo railway line follows the canal too.The Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the whole waterway in 1845 to build a track on the land beside it. But the arrival of trains to Ireland undercut the canal boats – even the light “fly boats” took eight hours to ferry passengers from Dublin to Mullingar.
CIÉ closed the Royal Canal in 1961. The western end dried up, locks decayed, and there were even plans to build a motorway on the Dublin city section. But campaigners fought to save to it, and in 2010 the full canal reopened. The towpath is now a long-distance walking trail, the Royal Canal Way, running from Dublin to the Shannon.
I passed Furey’s pub at Moyvalley and walked into Enfield in declining light. But you don’t have to follow my route to the letter: the train stops plenty between Dublin and Enfield, making day-walks between stations easy.