The town of Athlone lies at the heart of Ireland, with the majestic river Shannon meandering slowly through its centre. During the summers months many pleasure boats pass through Athlone or stay to enjoy the many delights the town has to offer, from music to theatre, food, sport and heritage. The fact that this is possible at all is due to the efforts and will of a group of people who campaigned to keep the navigation of the entire Shannon open to pleasure craft in the face of government desires to place low draft bridges along the length of the river during the 1960’s. That group, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, laid the foundations of an entire industry and way of life on the river which is still enjoyed today and continues to go from strength to strength.
There is a history of the Shannon preceding this movement with which we are interested in exploring today. Since the first arrival of people on the island of Ireland, the Shannon has been at the very heart of they’re lives. It has been a transport route, trade route, fishing ground, place to live, fortress, home. The Shannon itself is generally a slow moving, shallow river, falling only 18 metres (60 feet) in its first 140 miles. As a result, the river is, in places, as shallow as 2 feet.. Its importance as a transport route prompted the first attempts to improve the navigation channels came in the mid eighteenth century, around 1755. The Commissioners for Inland Navigation asked a Dutch engineer who had recently emigrated from England to Ireland to carry out various works on the Shannon.
This engineers name was Thomas Omer, a somewhat controversial figure, with doubts regarding his qualifications and knowledge of navigation systems being cast. A satirical article written in the Freemans Journal in 1770 cast aspersions on his engineering pedigree during his time in England. This article appears some years after his work on the Irish canal systems, suggesting that he was still involved with the Grand Canal system preceding 1768. Omer was involved in the building of the canals at Jamestown in the north and other works between Lough Ree and Lough Derg. In 1757, Omer began work on the canal at Athlone with the objective of bypassing the town, where the river was very shallow, with rapids and un-navigable shallows at the bridge area of the town.
The canal was built in 1757 at a cost of 30,000 pounds. It ran from north to south, bypassing the town of Athlone on the western side. It was approximately one and a quarter miles long and had a natural drop of four feet from top to bottom. To overcome the drop, a full scale lock was placed at the southern end of the canal, measuring nineteen feet wide by one hundred and twenty feet long. This would allow large cargo vessels to navigate past the town. At the northern end of the canal, a “paddle and rymer” weir was installed. This was designed to provide some protection for the works downstream during winter flooding.
Now, a “paddle and rymer” weir involves placing a large timber beam across the bottom of a canal or river. Another beam is placed across the navigation above the one on the bottom, out of the water. Vertical beams, or ‘rymers’ are then placed approximately two feet apart, resting against the horizontal beams, forming a type of grille. Rectangular ‘paddles’ on long poles are then slid down between the rymers, restricting the flow of water and forming a weir. The amount of paddles can be varied depending on the restriction of water required. These weirs were also known as ‘flash locks’, because any boat wishing to pass the weir would have to basically be ‘flushed’ through the weir in a flash of water. They were a dangerous method of navigation control as they required great timing, skill and strength to operate. A boat wishing to pass downstream would have to position itself correctly while the correct amount of paddles were removed at the correct time so as not to ‘drain’ the channel above the weir. The boat would then rapidly be flushed past the weir. Any boat wishing to proceed upstream would have to wait until the flow of water had subsided enough to be pulled through using manpower, horse power and capstan winches.
The canal remained in full use as a navigation route until the 1840’s, when the Directors-General of Inland Navigation commenced a comprehensive programme of improvements along the entire length of the Shannon. As part of these works, the section of river passing through Athlone was drained, using the Athlone canal as a diversion for the river, and 1000 workmen cleared the stretch of river of all its obstacles and shallows. A large lock and weir was built in the town and the stretch of river became fully navigable. These works heralded the end of the canal as a navigation channel in the mid 1840’s. In 1850, a lock mill was built on the banks of the can, using the original navigation lock on the southern stretch as its mill race. Sometime later the Heaton family took over the mill and used it to process wool into the early twentieth century.
The fall of the canal
With the only use for the canal being a supply to the mill on its southern stretch, the canal began to fall into disrepair. Over the years, low span bridges were built over the canal at the northern end, the galway road bridge, and the southern end, south of the mill, Mick McQuaids bridge. A railway bridge was also built across the canal in the 1850’s but this was a high level bridge. As the years passed, the canal fell into further disuse and became a repository for litter and waste, so much so that it warranted questions in the Dail. One Earnest Blythe replied that, “I do not feel justified in recommending the expenditure of public funds to remedy the consequences of unlawful action on the part of the residents of the district. I am, however, having a further inspection made now, and I will give careful consideration to the report when it is received.”
During its sad and slow decline, one interesting development pops up on the banks of the canal. In an edition of the Westmeath Independent newspaper dated 1910 heralded the opening of a skating rink on the canal. As the paper puts it, “One would imagine that the woollen business and their building operations would be sufficient to occupy the most enterprising minds at one time, but Messrs. Heaton were not to be restricted to such narrow limits, and the latest fruit of their enterprise is the provision for Athlone of a commodious and well-arranged skating rink,”. The rink was built directly over the canal itself, offering the marketing angle, “Rinking has for many years been a very popular form of amusement in most of the cities of the United Kingdom and Dublin can boast of as many as eight rinks.” Also, the paper said the new rink was “a spacious and well ventilated structure”, 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, but without any internal pillars.
The floor was supported by strong steel girders. The floor of the rink was of block maple laid on a deal and felted floor, supported by the girders. Entrance to the rink is by a turnstile and visitors could avail of a cloak room, cafe and lavatories as well as a skate store. An advertisement in the same issue of the paper indicated the rink was open for three sessions daily, from 11am to 1pm (admission free, skates 6d), 3pm to 6pm and 7.30pm to 10.30pm (admission 6d, skates 6d). The Athlone Brass and Reed Band were advertised as playing at the evening sessions.
The canal again features in the Dail questions in July 1926 when Sean O’Leidin asks why no steps have yet been taken to close up the disused canal in Athlone which has become a nuisance. Perhaps the final ignominy comes for the canal in 1982 when the government issued an abandonment order for the canal, releasing the board of works from any liability for its maintenance or upkeep. The stretch of canal between the Battery Bridge and the old mill was filled in and a children’s recreation area placed on the ground.
Since its final demise after the abandonment order of 1982, the Athlone canal has sat quiet and mostly forgotten. For those of us who grew up in Athlone in the 1970’s, the canal evokes fond memories. Walking along its banks to school in the Dean Kelly NS in the Batteries in January as mist rose from the water was a magical time. Or climbing into the ruin of the old mill as children and swinging from the remains of the mill wheel over the water, trying not to fall in. In the years before that stretch was filled in, all the big kids would congregate under the original old bridge by the Batteries for a morning smoke before school. In the northern stretch of the canal are the inhabitants of Talbot Avenue on the East side and Iona Park on the west. This stretch of canal is home to dozens of fishing boats belonging to the local residents. From the Galway road bridge, down to Mick McQuaids bridge in the south, barely any water is still visible. The canal is still playing a prominent part in the lives of the people who live on its banks, but unfortunately not in a good way. Illegal dumping in the canal has exacerbated already serious winter flooding problems for residents as well as associated hygiene problems.
So what does the future hold for the Athlone canal? Well, of late, interest in the canal has been increasing and people have begun to discuss possible futures for the canal. The Athlone Canal Group is actively involved in trying to secure the future of the canal. There are efforts being made by Tidy Towns group to clean sections of the canal and some funding from the town council to provide for cleaning. Waterways Ireland are also involved in discussions about the future of the canal and potential tourist development. Some of the ideas being mooted include reopening the filled in stretch of canal, developing canal walkways, small boat hire facilities, public mooring facilities on the open northern and southern stretches of the canal. While its future is not yet secure, we can only hope that this piece if our history can be preserved and even rejuvenated and give back to the people of the town all the benefits that active and vibrant canal systems can bring to urban life.