In 1498, during the mayoralty of Andrew Lynch, an attempt was made to open a passage from the River Corrib along the Sandy River and through land to Lough Atalia, thus connecting the river to the sea.
The idea of a canal was mooted by the distinguished engineer Alexander Nimmo in 1822. The advantages were obvious, if steam boats could travel from Galway Docks up to the Corrib, the commercial importance of the city would be increased and a valuable communication with the hinterland would be established. An extension of the service was envisaged and indeed embarked on with a canal bed dug linking Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, but this project was never completed. As the old saying goes, “It would not hold water”. An even further scheme linking Lough Mask and Lough Carra never got beyond the drawing board.
Most of what we now call Woodquay was under water in Nimmo’s time, so his plan was to start the canal from roughly where McSwiggan’s is today, run it along Eglinton Street and down the west side of Eyre Square to the docks. The costs were prohibitive and there was a lot of opposition from landowners along the route, so the plan was abandoned.
The canal was eventually dug out on the western side of the city as a Famine relief scheme, and provided much needed employment at the time. It began near the Corrib Club and entered the sea at the Claddagh. Work started in March 1848. The total quantity of excavation they dug out was chiefly rock, about 55,356 cubic yards. Much of this was used as filling for terraces in UCG which was being built at the time, and to fill in the causeway behind Claddagh Quay. This brought in about £400 which helped defray costs.
The canal is roughly three quarters of a mile long. The tidal basin (built to cater for the 300 boats operating from the Claddagh at the time ) is 470 feet long and 170 feet wide, and there is 1,000 feet in length of quayage. The ascent from this basin to the level of the lake is accomplished by one lock, 130 feet long and 20 wide, with a lift of 14 feet. The depth of navigation is six and a half feet. Included in the project were five swivel bridges, a lock at Parkaveara, and another at the basin. The work had to be done without any detrimental effect on the mills or fishery interests.
The canal was a work of great utility both in draining and regulating the surplus waters of the lake, and permitting ingress from the sea. It helped lower the winter flood levels of the lake. It was also a feeder channel to the Gaol River and the Western River and the various mills they helped to power. Another part of the overall project was the construction of a deep tailrace from the distillery at Newcastle to the old marble factory to discharge into the river near the old Hygeia building, also the construction of Steamers Quay and culverts to allow tailraces to run under headraces. About this time (1851 ) O’Brien’s Bridge was built, and in the early 1850s, a pedestrian bridge was built where Wolfe Tone Bridge is today. Thus there were significant changes made to Galway’s waterways at that time.
Water was let into the cutting for the first time on September 15, 1851. It could accommodate vessels of up to 125 feet and of a 20 feet beam. The canal was formally opened on August 28, 1852. Initially it was a success. In 1880, £370 was collected in tolls. In 1904, 3,194 tons were carried through and the revenue was £992, but by 1915, there was almost no commercial traffic. In 1954 the swivel bridges were found to be in a dangerous condition and were replaced by fixed bridges. This effectively finished the canal as a navigation channel, but it remains an important feature of our city. Our photograph is from the National Library and was taken c1900.