After a gap of 55 years, the unromantically named “Barge No3” will take up where the “Hark” left off, and on September 30 become the first vessel in over half a century to navigate the Royal Canal all the way to the Shannon.
Renovated over the last number of years and launched in Thomastown, Killucan last week, No3 is presently in dry dock in the harbour in Mullingar, getting a final inspection before making the historic voyage next month that will see it travel the final 65km (40 miles ) downhill between Mullingar and the Shannon at Clondra, just the far side of Longford town on the N5.
No3 will leave Mullingar next week, arriving in Coolnahay harbour on Friday, August 20 and Ballynacarrigy on Saturday, before leading the Western Rally from Abbeyshrule the following weekend.
The former horse-drawn cargo barge, was up until a FAS scheme in the 1990s, just one of three rotting hulks in the canal east of Darcy’s bridge in Killucan. From September, it will be used as a training boat and museum by the Royal Canal Amenity Group (RCAG ). According to spokesman Colm Dardis renaming is less of a priority than getting it to this stage of renovation.
The great work over the last 36 years by the various branches of the RCAG means that over the next few years, the Royal Canal may actually thrive as a tourist attraction, and perhaps even make money for the first time in its 200-year history.
Originally mooted in the 1780s by a disgruntled director of the older Grand Canal as a more northerly trade route to the Shannon from Dublin, its construction between 1790 and 1817 was expensive and poorly planned.
Choosing a route through rock in Clonsilla, taking a detour to the estate of the Duke of Leinster in Maynooth and refusing the offer of a common approach to Dublin on the Grand Canal from Kinnegad via Edenderry, the canal, with its 47 loxks and 86 bridges, eventually cost £1,421,954 to complete.
It was moderately successful for the early part of the 19th century, and by 1833 the Royal Canal was carrying 134,000 tons of goods, and passengers could make Dublin from Mullingar in just eight hours.
Its demise began in 1845 when the Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the canal for just £290,000 - one fifth of what it cost to complete 28 years previously - and built its rail line alongside it.
Tonnage on the canal dropped to 30,000 by the 1880s, and to 10,000 tons by the 1920s. There was some increase when bringing turf to Dublin during the 1939-45 Emergency, but this dropped away to nothing shortly after, and when the “Hark” made its final voyage in 1955, the Royal Canal was closed by CIE.
It was allowed to go into serious disrepair over the next 20 years until the inauguration of the RCAG in 1974. In fact, without these volunteers and their lobbying, it would be quite likely the canal would have been filled in and used as a motorway to ease traffic congestion in north Dublin in the mid-70s.
The transfer of its control from CIE to the OPW in 1986 saw the Royal’s future as a resource secured, and it was planned to have it opened to the Shannon within 10 years. As we can see, it has taken a little longer than that, but next month should allow a little bit of history be revisited by the people of midlands Ireland for the first time in over half a century.