Kilbeggan Challenge: Irish whiskey travels again by canal for the first time in over half a century.
Two specially selected nine year old single malt whiskey casks were moved by canal from Locke’s Distillery in Kilbeggan to the Grand Canal at Ballycommon on Saturday 29th August.
The event was organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the Grand Canal’s closure to commercial traffic in 1959, to celebrate the achievements of the boatmen who worked the commercial boats and to promote the restoration of the Kilbeggan Line and involved the combined muscles of Cooley Distillery, Offaly Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI), Heritage Boat Association HBA), 107B Barge Project, Kilbeggan Harbour Amenity Group and the Irish Whiskey Society (IWS).
The whiskey was expertly selected by seven members of the Irish Whiskey Society in May this year. The whiskey will be bottled as Locke’s “Grand Crew” Irish Whiskey. It is a single cask, single malt whiskey. It is being bottled at cask strength (almost 60% ABV) as this is the strength at which whiskey was typically shipped in cask by the canal.
The project involved the transportation of the casks from Locke’s distillery in Kilbeggan, to Kilbeggan Harbour via a vintage Leyland truck belonging to local man Joe Cleary escorted by outriders on some of Joe Clancy’s vintage bicycles . It was then transferred to a vintage replica cart belonging to Jim Murray who lives on the Kilbeggan line and was pulled by his Clydesdale horse called Ned who moved along the Dry Kilbeggan Line of the Grand Canal to Ballycommon.
Ned was followed by walkers from the various organisations and members of the public and the cargo were protected by some of Jims neighbours and friends on horseback including, Carina O’Donovan, Francis Dowling, Rebecca and Francesca Corr and Claire Bigot. Another neighbour John Monaghan joined the group on the part of the journey with a pony and trap.
At Ballycommon the Kilbeggan Line links with the Grand Canal, here the casks were transferred to the heritage 107B project barge which was moored on the Grand Canal. The 107B will transport the casks in association with the Heritage Boat Association and veterans of the commercial canal era, who will escort it to Dublin. When the casks were loaded all involved were treated to an advance tasting of the fine Grand Crew whiskey. The great day was rounded off with a barbeque on the banks of the Grand Canal.
As part of the day’s events, a bottle of Grand Crew (the promise of same) was presented by Tim Meehan of M.U.S.T. CCTV Tullamore to the 10th AXA/ AON annual across Ireland run which saw up to a thousand bikers pass through Kilbeggan. This is Ireland’s largest & longest motorcycle event of its kind and this year travelled from Dublin to Galway. The bottle was auctioned for €280 at their charity auction that night in Galway in aid of Make a Wish Ireland.
All involved on the day remarked on the potential of the Kilbegan Line and the shame that it has been allowed to deteriorate so much, the campaign to have it reinstated to a navigable waterway continues.
About the Kilbeggan Line
A canal link to Kilbeggan was first proposed in 1796. However, work only began on a canal in 1830 to link Kilbeggan with Ballycommon on the Grand Canal 5 miles east of Tullamore. The Kilbeggan Line is 8.2 miles (13.2km) long and has no locks. The canal was formally opened in January 1835 although this was a bit premature. It was only in 1836 that commercial traffic commenced.
Among the principal users of the Grand Canal were whiskey distilleries. Boats brought in malted and unmalted grain, coal to fire the stills and oak to make casks. Of course, the boats also transported the resulting whiskey to Limerick, Dublin, England and the Empire beyond. In addition to Dublin, the Grand Canal served distilleries at Kilbeggan, Tullamore, Banagher and Monasterevan.
The Kilbeggan line fell into disuse in the late 1940s. As early as 1970, the IWAI were negotiating with the Government and CIE to restore the Kilbeggan Line to use, going as far as seeking a transfer to its care. The Inland Waterways News of April 1970 reported that “The plan for IWAI to take over the Kilbeggan branch in collaboration with the local development association is still active, though no firm decision has yet been reached. IWAI representatives met the Department of Transport and Power on 24 March and doubts were expressed about the Association’s ability to maintain the ten bridges. CIE estimate that it would cost twelve thousand pounds to make the branch navigable again, but with volunteer labour, IWAI could probably do the job for a quarter of this figure”. The Offaly Branch of IWAI, the HBA, and the Kilbeggan Harbour Amenity Group have continued to champion the re-watering of this waterway, which, having no locks and no impediments to the navigation right-of-way is relatively straightforward.
With increasing competition from the road and rail network, CIE announced the closure of the Grand Canal to commercial traffic in December 1959. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary. However, contrary to the expectations of 50 years ago, the Grand Canal did not die, primarily due to groups like the IWAI and the individuals who continued to use the canal for leisure purposes and who campaigned to keep it in navigable condition
IWAI PRO: John Dolan 087 2252772
31 August 2009