The Ulster Canal at Milltown, Benburb Co. Tyrone

This canal, a small part of which has been reclaimed and can be seen at Milltown, was opened in 1841. It opened up a direct link between Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. It was hoped by itís designers that it would be a through route to the Shannon.

The Lagan canal had reached Lough Neagh in 1794 and as early as 1814 the engineer John Killaly was instructed to investigate the possibility of linking Lough Erne into the system.

Killaly envisaged a canal thirty-five miles long with twenty-two locks, built to the same dimensions as the Royal Canal. The principal reservoir for the summit level was to be Quigg Lough, a natural lake near Monaghan town.

It was considered a favourable time for a public works project as there was much poverty and emigration from the area. Despite public support and the backing of the local land owners progress was slow. Killaly died in 1832 and was succeeded by Telford and then Cubitt, working to but modifying the original plans.

Cubitt was asked to cut costs and a decision was made to build the canal to narrower dimensions. The smallest lock was now to be 11ft 8inches (3.6 metres) wide, the narrowest lock in Ireland. This was to have disastrous consequences. It meant that most of the boats from other Ulster water-ways couldnít pass through it. Most goods had to be transhipped causing delays and adding to freight costs.

At Benburb the river Blackwater flows through a deep limestone gorge, a section that gave the builders of the canal particular difficulty. The canal was cut through the limestone for a distance of 350 yards and in one place to a depth of 41 feet.

The sides and bed were then lined with puddle and protected by a facing of rubble wall. For a mile the canal has a staircase of seven locks. The locks and bridges were built of fine quality Ashlar limestone, cut from a nearby quarry at Benburb. Indeed this quarry provided the stone for the landing quays, locks and bridges as far up the canal as Monaghan. The bridge and lock in the photograph is built cut dressed stone of a very high standard of craftsmanship.

From the summit at Monaghan the canal dropped down through seven locks to join Upper Lough Erne at Wattle Bridge. The work was completed in 1841 at a total cost of £230,000.

Imperfect puddling and an inadequate water supply, particularly west of Clones in the Summer months, became apparent almost at once. The anticipate traffic failed to develop. Only the Lagan and Newry Navigation systems enjoyed any degree of success. The waterways constructed in the 19th century had little chance against the growing popularity of the railways.

The engineering cheeseparing in construction precluding the passage of the larger barges in use on the Newry and Lagan systems, the inadequate water supply, the complete failure of the canal link through to the Shannon and the demographic changes brought about by the famine of 1845-47all contributed to the lack of success of the Ulster canal. By 1913 the Lagan navigation company had given up itís struggle to maintain the canal and it became impassable beyond Clones. The partition of Ireland in 1921 accelerated the end. The last trading boat used the canal in 1929 and in 1931 it was officially closed and the land sold off.

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Ian Bath - The Ulster Canal Waterways World Journal - February 1993

W.A. McCutheon - The Industrial Archaeology of N.I. H.M.S.O.

 

Lesley Garvin: Archaeology of Historic Ireland Module, Armagh 1999