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The History Of The Royal Canal

with text by Dick Warner


THE ROYAL CANAL - The story is that the Royal Canal was born when a disaffected director of the Grand Canal Company stormed out of a board meeting shouting angrily: "Damn you all, I'll build my own canal!" This may be true but there's no definite proof. Surveys of various routes from Dublin to the north Shannon began as early as 1755 but it was 1789 before work started and by 1796 the canal had only reached Kilcock.

It reached Mullingar in 1806, where it was able to tap into a water supply from Lough Owel, and the western end of the summit level at Coolnahay in 1809. Between 1811 and 1813 the company was beset by financial problems and disputes about the route of the canal. In 1813 the Royal Canal Company was dissolved and the State, in the form of the Directors General of Inland Navigation, took over to complete the waterway at public expense. In 1817 the canal finally reached the Shannon at Tarmonbarry. The total cost of building it was £1,421,954.

By the 1830s it was doing quite well, carrying around 80,000 tons of freight and 40,000 passengers a year. But the railway age was about to start and in 1845 the canal was bought by the Midland Great Western Railway Company. They considered draining the canal and building a new railway along its bed but decided instead to build the railway beside the canal. The two run side by side from Dublin to a spot west of Mullingar. Competition from the railways gradually eroded the canal's business and by the 1880s annual tonnage was down to about 30,000 and the passenger traffic had all but disappeared.

There was a revival of horse-drawn barge traffic during the Second World War because of fuel shortages and in 1944 CIE took over the company. In 1951 the last independent trader, James Leech of Thomastown, retired and the canal started to slide into dereliction. In 1955 Douglas Heard on the 'Hark', with Ruth Delany on board, made the last officially recorded through trip from the Liffey to the Shannon on the Royal canal. He filmed the trip for posterity. In 1961 the canal was officially closed by CIE.

In 1974 a group of of volunteers from the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland formed the Royal Canal Amenity Group which hoped to save the canal from complete destruction. By 1990 they had seventy four kilometres of canal, from the 12th lock in Blanchardstown to Mullingar, re-open for navigation. In 2000 the canal was taken over by Waterways Ireland, a new cross-border body charged with administering Ireland's inland navigations. On October 1st 2010 the whole length of the canal was formally re-opened.

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Canal Statistics

Some information about the canal:


  • Initial Life 1798-1961

  • Revial 1974-2010

  • Official Reopening October 1st 2010

  • Length 90miles/146km

  • Lock Count 46

  • Speed Limit 6/kmh

Related Links

For more information about the canal: