Decline of the Canals

Decline of the canals
It took until 1858 for the navigation system centred on Lough Neagh to be completed by which time it was realised that there was insufficient industry to maintain it. Only the Lagan and Newry enjoyed any commercial success. The main problem was the inability of the local commissions to maintain and repair the canals and thus they became un-navigable as evidenced by the Newry canal whose inland section had fallen into ruin by the mid 18th century.  The local commissions had been established by the Irish parliament in 1787 to manage the waterways in a bid to devolve the cost of maintenance.  However, centralised control was restored after the Act of Union in 1801, with the creation of the Directors General of Inland Navigation, their main role being to improve the cost-effectiveness of the canals. Improvements were carried out and efforts made to attract regular traffic saw an increase in tollage receipts. However, by 1858 there was a decline in traffic caused not only by economic and demographic changes. One such change was the demise of the Tyrone collieries after 1840. It had been estimated that the output volume of the collieries would be sufficient to supply the industries of Dublin and Belfast and more importantly at a cheaper rate than coal imported from Britain. However the coal proved to be inferior and difficulties in extracting the coal, and its transhipment from the mines to the Coalisland Basin meant for an insufficient supply and ensured that Tyrone coal was more costly than the imports. Other changes in the predominance of sea ports would also prove a problem. The port of Newry suffered from a suitable depth of water and despite improvements from the early to mid 19th century was overtaken by Belfast as the major port and industrial centre of the north. As a result the Newry canal began to decline; being overtaken by the Lagan canal in terms of transport volume, which enjoyed success until 1880’s when competition from the railways rendered it all but obsolete. It was the emergence of the railways as a preferred method of transport that proved the nail in the coffin for the canals.

The majority of the canal routes have either fallen into disuse and disrepair or have been filled in, such as the section of the Lagan Canal between Sprucefield and Moira over which the M1 motorway now passes.  Despite this many organisations such as Friends of Coalisland Canal, the Ulster Canal Trust and the Lagan Restoration Trust fight tirelessly to maintain and restore what is left of our canal systems. Waterways Ireland have plans to open up the canals and re-link the navigation systems of the North and South of Ireland and it was recently announced that funding has been granted to begin work restoring the Ulster Canal between Upper Lough Erne and Clones.