IWAI - The Shell Guide to the River Shannon
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The Shannon Navigation

Ruth Delany

From Battlebridge just south of Lough Allen to Killaloe at the southern end of Lough Derg a distance of some 186km, the Shannon falls only about 12m it meanders its way south, wide and slow-flowing with only a limited number of shallow stretches.
Since early times the River Shannon offered such a fine natural waterway that it was put to good use not only by the native population for the carriage of goods but also by Viking invaders who used it to penetrate deep into the country, hauling their long-boats up over the shallows. However, it was not until the eighteenth century that people began to consider ways of improving the navigation.

The Canal Age
Some of the early estimates for such works are an indication that the natural obstructions were not looked upon very seriously: Dr Bolton, Archbishop of Cashel, said he would undertake to make the river navigable for vessels of up to 30 tons for just £3,000; and a petition to the Irish parliament in 1697 spoke of a cost of £14,000 to make a navigation from Carrick to Limerick.

In fact, it was to prove a great deal more costly and difficult than these early waterway entrepreneurs suggested. Although legislation had been passed in 1715 authorising a number of navigation works including the Shannon, it was not until the 1750s that work actually began. In Britain waterway construction was left to private enterprise, but in Ireland the early navigation works had to be undertaken by a board of Commissioners of Inland Navigation funded by special levies. They did succeed in completing the first watershed canal in these islands, the Newry Canal, but progress in creating a waterway network would have been very slow had it not been for a fortunate set of circumstances. The Irish parliament found itself enjoying an annual surplus revenue and they determined that, rather than hand this money over to the English king, they would in future spend the money on public works and manufacturing enterprises. It was this financial bonanza in the 1750s which led to the first work on the Shannon.

The Avonmore - one of the early steamers which plied the river Early Shannon Works
Work commenced at Meelick in 1755 under the engineer, Thomas Omer, who is thought to have been Dutch and who had been invited to come to Ireland by the commissioners. He made a canal with a lock to overcome the fall of 2 m. From Meelick he worked upstream making short canals with single pairs of gates, or flash locks, at Banagher and Shannonbridge where the fall was not so great. He reached Athlone in 1757 and here he had to construct a longer canal and a conventional lock with a fall of over 1m. By the 1780s the navigation had been extended to Carrick with similar works at Lanesborough, Tarmonbarry, (where an alternative route using the River Camlin was used), Roosky and Jamestown (where a canal was constructed to bypass the great loop of the river). In the meantime work had begun at Limerick under another foreign engineer, William Ockenden. This was a much more difficult undertaking because the river fell about 30 m over a distance of 24 km and progress was so slow that this work was eventually handed over to a private company which did not fare much better. Omerís work was to prove equally unsatisfactory and when the directors of the Grand Canal Company had almost completed their canal to the Shannon, they were forced to take over the middle Shannon from Portumna to Athlone and reconstruct the works, putting in conventional locks to replace Omerís flash locks. In 1800 when the Union of the Dublin and Westminster parliaments took place, a new body, the Directors General of Inland Navigation, was created. They were obliged to complete the Limerick to Killaloe navigation and they also carried out some restoration work on the north Shannon. In the 1820s they extended the navigation into Lough Allen by means of a canal.

Hamilton Lock, Meelick, one of the early Shannon Navigation locks built in 1755 and extensively restored in the early 1800's By this time many of the works had been allowed to deteriorate and the limited number of traders using the system were constantly suffering delays. The whole situation changed when steamers were introduced to the river in 1826 making movement much easier. Up to this time boats had to be sailed or poled when the wind was contrary. The government came under increasing pressure to improve the navigation and build larger locks to accommodate the steamers which had been brought to the river in sections and were reassembled at Killaloe. At a time of great unemployment and distress in the country, the government took over the entire system and authorised Shannon Commissioners to reconstruct the works completely to much larger dimensions.

The Shannon Commissioners' Works
These works were carried out in the 1840s, at a total cost of £584,805 17s 9½d. The engineer was Thomas Rhodes and there was an average of 2,000 men employed at any one time. It is these works which form the Shannon Navigation which we still use today. Rhodes had to construct The opening of the Shannon Commissioners' new bridge at Banagher on 12 August 1843 drawn by the contractor, William Mackenzie (James Scully) a completely new canal with the great Victoria lock at Meelick; he abandoned the short canals at Banagher, Shannonbridge and Lanesborough removed the shallows to make a navigation channel in the river at these places. At Athlone, Lanesborough, Tarmonbarry and Roosky he again used the river, making locks where necessary, and he had to widen and straighten the canal at Jamestown. Elevations of some of the Shannon Bridges in 1833 before the work of the Shannon Commissioners took place (National Library of Ireland) He constructed weirs at each of the places where there were locks and he had to rebuild most of the bridges. He extended the navigation into Lough Key but virtually no work was carried out on the Lough Allen Canal or at the southern end between Limerick and Killaloe, where the smaller locks made it impossible to bring in larger boats from the sea.

The Railway Age
Ironically, the steam which had changed things so dramatically on the Shannon also heralded the Railway Age and by the time the navigation works had been completed there were lines in operation to Limerick and Galway and a line was extended to Sligo by 1862. The passenger traffic on the river rapidly declined and by the 1860s the fine steamers were laid up; those too large to be removed from the Shannon were eventually allowed to sink at Killaloe. The tonnage carried, which had risen to nearly 100,000 tons per year, fell away to half this figure by the 1880s. In 1897 the Shannon Development Company was set up and passenger steamers returned to the river but the service was not a success. It was reduced to a summer schedule in 1903 and even this ceased in 1914. By this time the tonnage carried had stabilised at an average of 70,000 tons, most of which was between the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour and Limerick, and a large proportion of this was Guinness stout, which was specially brewed to mature en passage. Battlebridge, one of the few early Shannon bridges which was not replace by the Shannon Commissioners Pleasure traffic on the river fell to a low ebb in the 1950s following the war years and there was a threat to replace the opening spans with low fixed bridges. An Inland Waterways Association of Ireland was formed, modelled on the IWA in England, and CIE was persuaded to put passenger boats on the river which required a minimum clearance of 4.3m, thus ensuring that the navigation was kept open with at least this headroom. It was only just in time: there had been a small increase in commercial traffic during the war years but when CIE withdrew the carrying service in 1960 only one trading boat continued to operate on the river.

The Shannon Fights Back
Despite the gloomy forecast of a well- known operator from the Norfolk Broads that the Shannon would have no future unless an umbrella could be erected over it, a few small operators began to offer boats for hire with success and soon the potential of the river came to be appreciated. The government made available a fund of £140,000 to improve facilities and encourage the setting up of larger firms. The number of private boats steadily increased. The IWAI runs two major rallies and a number of smaller Cruises-in-Company each year and the association continues to play an active role in ensuring that the unique quality of the river is retained in future development plans. It is interesting for the visitor to the Shannon today to trace some of the early works, and details of these will be found in the Gazetteer section.


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