The Royal Canal
The Royal Canal is a man-made waterway linking the River Liffey at Dublin to the River Shannon near Tarmonbarry, with a spur branching off to connect with Longford town. It is one of two major canal navigation systems in Ireland, the other being the Grand Canal.
The canal system allowed producers in the midlands and in the west of Ireland safe, reliable and direct access to markets in Dublin and beyond. The route was laid out in 1755 by Thomas Williams and John Cooley for the Commissioners of Inland Navigation, however it took some decades to raise funds and begin construction.
In 1789 a Parliamentary Grant of £66,000 to supplement the £134,000 of private funds raised, and work began in earnest in 1791. By 1817 the Royal Canal was complete, including the terminus at Richmond Harbour in the village of Clondra.
The architect for the project was the John Killaly (1766 – 1832) and the contractors who undertook the works in Longford were Henry, Mullins & MacMahon.
The Longford town spur was opened in 1830. During its heyday, the Royal Canal carried 80,000 tonnes of cargo and 40,000 passengers per annum.
Unfortunately, the good times were not to last and the canal was sold to the Midland Great Western Railway (MGWR) in 1845. The railway laid their track alongside the canal as far as Mullingar, capitalising on the existing trade and communications network.
The ability of the railway to transport larger quantities of goods at a faster pace hastened the long, slow death of the Royal Canal. The sale of the canal coincided with the onset of the Great Famine which saw the death of up to 1 million and the emigration of 1 million more between 1845 and 1855, precipitating a sharp decline in the prosperity and population of rural Ireland.
Despite a spike in trade during World War 2 – or ‘The Emergency’ as it was known in neutral Ireland – trade continued to decline on the canal until its official closure in 1961. A restoration programme began in 1988 and was completed in 2010.
Flora and fauna
The Royal Canal is an important part of the natural environment of County Longford, forming the habitat for a number of species of plants, grasses, animals, birds and fish, including swans and otters. Crested Dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus), Quaking Grass (Briza media) and Sweet Vernal-grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) are typical species found on the towpath.
The canal and its towpaths are open to the public for walking. To navigate the Royal Canal visit www.waterwaysireland.ie or www.iwai.ie for details.
The Royal Canal, its towpaths, harbours and bridges may be accessed by public transport from nearby towns and villages. Some connections may, however, be 1Km or more in distance from the nearest town or village. Ask the driver to bring you as close as possible on a request stop if possible.