Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Feb/March 2016 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
The idea of linking Dublin to the River Shannon by means of a waterway had been first mooted as far back as the early 1700’s. It was not, however, until 1804 that the proposal came to fruition with the completion of the Grand Canal.
An extension of the navigation to Ballinasloe had been proposed even before the main line had reached the Shannon. In 1807 the canal company decided to apply for a loan to construct a canal to Ballinasloe, which would be a continuation of the existing Grand Canal from Shannon Harbour.
Work began in 1824 with up to 1,000 men employed under the supervision of architect John A. Killaly. The canal was fourteen and a half miles long, twelve of which were through bogland, and had two locks, one at the junction with the Shannon and one at Kylemore. Because of the difficulties presented by the nature of the terrain, the project excited widespread interest internationally in engineering circles and attracted numerous visitors from abroad. Completed at a cost of £43,485, it opened to traffic on 29th September 1828.
Initially, and for many decades thereafter, the barges were drawn by horses following a tow-path parallel to the waterway. (Grooves worn by the tow-ropes in the stonework are still visible beneath the arch of Poolboy Bridge.)
By the 1840’s over 14,000 tons of goods were being carried annually and passenger boats were catering for a large number of travellers. In 1834, fly-boats had been introduced, which were less cumbersome than their predecessors. A boat travelled daily to and from Dublin, with extra services laid on during the October Fair Week. One of these boats could carry up to 80 passengers, with accommodation divided between a first-class and a second-class cabin. Passengers sat facing one another on upholstered benches attached to the walls. A long, narrow table occupied the centre of each cabin.
Second-class passengers could buy stout and cider, but not wine or spirits, which were reserved for their fellow-travellers in first-class. Smoking was prohibited in every part of the vessel.
Meals served on board were substantial, though scarcely calculated to appeal to fastidious palates. In 1843, a traveller on the Ballinasloe boat reported:
“The dinner was a solid meal. It consisted of bacon, legs of mutton, beef, potatoes and beer, and was disposed of in such a manner as to show that those who partook of it must have right good stomachs. After dinner, whiskey punch supplied the place of coffee.”
A trip from Dublin to Ballinasloe could be something of an endurance test to judge by the following account in an 1848 novel by Anthony Trollope:
“I will not attempt to describe the tedium of that horrid voyage, nor will I attempt to put on record the miserable resources of those, who, doomed to a twenty-hour sojourn in one of these floating prisons, vainly endeavour to occupy or amuse their minds, but I will advise any, who, from ill-contrived arrangements, or unforeseen misfortune, may find themselves aboard the Ballinasloe canal-boat, to entertain no such vain dreams. Reading is out of the question. I have tried it myself, and seen others try it, but in vain. The sense of the motion, almost imperceptible but still perceptible; the noises about you; the smells around you; the diversified crowd, of which you are a part; at one moment the heat this crowd creates; at the next the draft which a window just opened behind your ears lets in to you; the fumes of punch, and the snores of the man under the table - these things alike prevent one from reading, sleeping or thinking.”
Passenger services on the canal were withdrawn in 1852, a year after the opening of Ballinasloe railway station.
The boggy nature of the canal banks meant that they were very vulnerable to malicious attacks, and numerous breaches were made in the 1830’s, usually by people living in the area who hoped to be employed in the repair work. The response of the authorities was to arrange for around-the-clock police patrols to discourage acts of sabotage. Three barracks to house the constables were erected at intervals along the route of the waterway. These continued to be manned up the 1860’s.
Traffic in general merchandise on the canal ended in 1956. The Guinness barges, however, could still be seen chugging along the waterway up to a year before its closure in 1961. Rumour had it that the thirsty boatmen enjoyed an unofficial perk whereby they levied a toll of a few pints of porter on every cask of Guinness, which in those days was transported in wooden barrels. A gimlet was used to bore a hole, and a measure of beer was extracted, after which the keg was bunged with a sliver of timber hammered home with a mallet.
Today parts of the canal have disappeared in bog workings, the section through Kylemore has been used to lay a light railway, and the Ballinasloe end has been filled in. The shell of the Guinness store, a mooring-ring in a wall, and the ruins of the harbourmaster’s house opposite the Shearwater Hotel are all that is left to remind us of what was once a busy traffic terminal and the westernmost limit of the Grand Canal.