The Ulster Canal

Vol. 8 No. 2 - 2003

The Ulster Canal

by Brian Cassells

With the dawning of this new millennium has come an awakening of the forgotten heritage of a bygone canal age. The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland has been successful in protecting the Shannon navigation, the Barrow navigation, the Grand Canal and other associated waterways South of the Border and they, with the Ulster Waterways Group, have managed to put the case for the re-opening of the Ulster Canal, right to the top of the cultural agenda.

The task north of the Border seems so much more difficult as we have virtually lost all of our historic canal culture. Hopefully things will change, sooner rather than later.

Half of the Ulster Canal is in Northern Ireland and half in the Republic. The partition of Ireland in 1921 did little to encourage any further investment in this exciting project; perhaps today things are different, perhaps this is the scheme on which to build co-operation-after all a linear waterway threatens no one, but can benefit all.

Map of Ulster Canal
Map of Ulster Canal

The Ulster Canal opened in 1841 and linked the two major expanses of water, Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. The original plan, as now, was to create a navigable waterway, to link the ports of Belfast and Coleraine with the River Shannon and onwards to Limerick or Waterford.

Shercock Bridge, Ulster Canal
Shercock Bridge on the Ulster Canal

It could be argued the success of the Ulster Canal depended on the completion of the Shannon Erne link, then known as the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal. This was opened to navigation in 1860; alas by the time it opened, the Ulster was virtually derelict. The canal was then closed for major repairs but, by the time it was re-opened, the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell Canal had all but been abandoned, The improvements did bring a limited increase in traffic but, by the turn of the century, the canal was again in decline.

Thus today the shoe is on the other foot; to further enhance the success of the Shannon Erne we need to complete the missing link. We need to re-open the Ulster Canal. The potential economic benefits for the corridor are enormous, farm diversification, service industries, tourism initiatives - the list is endless.

Benburb Gorge

The canal is 46 miles long with 26 locks. It left the River Blackwater just below the village of Moy and climbed through 19 locks to the summit on the far side of Monaghan, descending through 7 further locks, dropping down to the Finn River where it enters Lough Erne near the Quivvy Waters.

Shortly after leaving the Blackwater, the canal ascended seven locks, through the Benburb gorge, arguably the most spectacular yet the most difficult engineering and costly aspect of the waterway, then on to its first border crossing at Middletown. This stretch was one of the most picturesque stretches, journeying through the estates of Lord Caledon, the Stronge estate at Tynan Abbey and the Leslie estate at Glaslough. The rise to Monaghan necessitated the building of 7 locks in quite close succession; the canal then skirted the town and headed for the village of Smithborough. Outside Monaghan a feeder was constructed to create a water supply from a small lake known locally as Quig Lough. The canal then winds its way to Clones through some striking rural countryside, then weaves in and out of the border four times before reaching its destination.

In 1794 the Lagan Canal had reached Lough Neagh and much discussion ensued as to how to complete the infrastructure. Early in the 19th century, the engineer, John Killaly, employed by the Directors General of Inland Navigation, was directed to investigate the building of the link. Killaly had already worked on the Royal Canal, built to link Dublin to the Shannon. His original proposals were to build navigation with dimensions similar to those he had built on the Royal.

The total cost was to be in the region of £223,000, nearly twice the original estimate. This seemed a strange proposal from someone of the ability of Killaly as the proposed dimensions were some 18 inches narrower than the narrowest locks on the Lagan, Tyrone and Newry navigations; to build a navigation which was not compatible with those directly dependent on it seemed a rather foolish proposition. He also questioned if the water supply of Quig Lough would be adequate and suggested deepening it, though this was never done.

Milltown Bridge, Ulster Canal
Milltown Bridge on the Ulster Canal

Despite much local support the scheme did not see fruition for a further 13 years. In the meantime financial wrangling put further pressures on the proposals and what was eventually proposed was more like an exercise in cost cutting.

Projected returns were based on tonnages carried on the Grand Canal, the most successful of the navigations. The original contract had been given to a contractor named Henry Mullins and Mc Mahon; they withdrew and the contract was awarded to William Dargan, also known for contracts associated with the railways.

Dargan was the main contractor building the Kibeggan Branch of the Grand Canal; sad to say Killaly would not see the fruits of his labours as he died in 1832, followed by Tedford a year later. Another engineer, William Cubitt, perhaps better known for his association with railway building, was appointed to progress the scheme.

Whoever made the decision to reduce the lock size remains a mystery. In reality the width of the smallest lock, at the Lough Erne end of the navigation, was 11 ft 8 ins. This meant cargoes being shipped from Belfast or Newry would have to be unloaded from one lighter to a different one to complete the journey. It is fair to say the first ten years of trading were disastrous; the fact cargoes had to change boats and the lack of water depth for the four summer months only proved it was going to be impossible to repay the loan. The Board of Works assumed responsibility for the canal and eventually it was leased to its builder, William Dargan, who was probably the main carrier.

Faced with the threat of competition from the railways, Dargan transferred his lease to the Dundalk Navigation Company. In less than ten years the lease was again transferred back to the Board of Works. Again extensive work was required. By this time the Ballinamore to Ballyconnell navigation had opened and the directors were optimistic. It took eight years to carry out the necessary repairs and by this time the Ballyconnell navigation was impassable.

Lagan Navigation Company takes control

Eventually the Lagan Navigation Company was persuaded to take control. It is fair to say moderate success was achieved but receipts would not cover expensive necessary maintenance mainly due to the lack of water. The Lagan Navigation Company was refused permission to abandon the navigation, but eventually it closed itself. The last lighter to sail the canal was in 1929 and the canal was officially abandoned in 1931.

The majority of the stone for building the locks and bridges was quarried at Benburb and the bed of the canal was lined with puddle clay to ensure it was watertight. Regretfully, the puddling was defective which meant the canal was not watertight, especially in the limestone gorge area at Benburb. The canal has some interesting aqueducts which remain intact today. These are at Caledon, Middletown, Clones and over the Finn River. One very striking feature of the waterway is the delightful lockkeepers' cottages, all of which survive today in various forms of preservation. Today, ownership of the canal bed in the Republic is in the hands of Monaghan County Council, whereas in Northern Ireland it was sold to any farmers who wished to purchase their adjoining section. Regretfully, approximately 10 miles of the original navigation have been filled in and some of the original hump-backed bridges have been replaced with low level structures.


Restoration is by no means an insurmountable task - indeed the surveys undertaken by the two Governments show it is a perfectly feasible project. The problems associated with the original navigation are relatively easy to overcome with modern engineering techniques; what then is the reason for the delay? The project depends on the will and commitment of the two governments; much of the required funding should be forthcoming from European and American sources, but the project needs a Political champion. Sadly to date no one has had the courage to step forward.

Here is a project that threatens none but benefits all; indeed it would inject resources into an area that has been starved of inward investment. The new cross-border body set up to manage our waterways, Waterways Ireland, has within its brief the development of the Ulster Canal. All waterway enthusiasts await the day when again we can sail from Coleraine to Limerick.

Brian Cassells
Vice President - Inland Waterways Association of Ireland

  • Ireland's Inland Waterways: Ruth Delany
  • The Inland Waterways of Ireland: Jane Cumberlidge
  • The Canals of the North of Ireland: W. A. Mc Cutcheon
  • Article: The Ulster Canal - First published in Waterways World by Dr Ian Bath
  • Lough Neagh as the hub of Ulster's Network of Inland Waterways by Judith Annett
  • Executive Summary of the feasibility into the re-opening of the Ulster Canal
Further reading
  • Booklet: Clones to Coleraine, an Ulster Waterway: Ulster Waterways Group
  • Booklet: Coal Canals of the North of Ireland: Ulster Waterways Group
  • Booklet: Once again upon the Lagan: Ulster Waterways Group
  • Once upon the Lagan: May Blair
  • Shannon Erne Waterway: Dick Warner
  • Where the Finn and Erne meet: John Joe McCusker
  • The Newry Canal: A Short History 1730-1980