Report by Sandra Millsopp
The inland waterways of Ireland were the subject of the Bangor Historical Society talk on 10th December. Our speaker, Brian Cassells, was a former president of the Inland Waterways Board. He began by explaining how he had become interested in waterways. He came from the Montiaghs just outside Lurgan and enjoyed a rural upbringing. Lough Neagh was about 100 yards away, while the Upper Bann lay about a mile away. Thus he developed a lifelong interest in boats and waterways, although he worked as a teacher. He gained a healthy respect for water, especially after a friend was drowned on a boating expedition that Mr. Cassell’s mother had forbidden him to go on.
Mr. Cassells is involved with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland which had been founded some sixty years ago, mainly to ensure that the River Shannon was kept free for navigation at a time when bridges were being built across it. As a result the new bridges were of sufficient height to enable boats to pass underneath.
He said that he had a dream that eventually people would be able to travel from Coleraine to Belfast, the Erne, then the Shannon and on to Dublin by canal. He believes that canals should be reopened and pointed to the success of the Shannon waterway and the enormous number of continental visitors who came to travel on it. Northern Ireland lagged behind in this aspect of tourism and needed to restore and reopen its canals.
The main focus of Mr. Cassell’s talk was the waterways of Ulster: the Lower Bann reaching to the north coast, the Lagan Canal, the Newry Canal, the Ulster Canal, the Coalisland Canal and the Ballinmore-Ballyconnell Canal.
Mr. Cassells then began to take a detailed look at the Lagan Canal illustrated by photographs. The canal linked Belfast to Lough Neagh and two main sections of it survive: from Belfast to Sprucefield and from Moira to Lough Neagh. The route of the middle section from Moira to Sprucefield was used for the M1 motorway. The speaker thought it might be possible to replace the lost section by utilising the river and building two weirs and two locks. If this work was done the Lagan Canal could be reopened.
The Newry Canal is the oldest summit canal in the British Isles and was built between 1731 and 1742 from Portadown to Newry. We were shown a picture of Campbell’s Lock just outside Scarva and told how it had reawakened the area. At a lock outside Poyntz Pass the lock gates were still in existence – tribute to the work of the joiners who had constructed it. The walls also were in remarkable condition. Another picture was of a lock keeper’s cottage belonging to Mick Waddell. His mother was the last lock keeper at the site. The barges on the canals were known as lighters in Ireland and Mr. Waddell told stories about the men who worked on them. One man had a small cabin at the front of the lighter. He never washed and did not take his shoes off for 17 years. Another local character fished off the back of his lighter and whenever he was asked how many fish he had caught, always replied eleven. Mr. Cassells pointed out that the windows of the lock keeper’s cottage were designed so that the lock keeper could see up and down the canal as well as straight ahead.
The next picture was of the Camel Back Bridge – the only original one dating back to 1742 and the oldest surviving canal bridge in the British Isles. Mr. Cassells pointed out the signs of neglect: the missing stonework on the right-hand side and the crack in the middle. If something was not done soon, this important piece of canal heritage would not survive. He had written to government departments about it, but so far nothing had been done.The next photograph was of a bothie opposite Mick Waddell’s house. Lightermen would stable their horses on the ground floor and sleep in the loft. Unfortunately the structure is now covered with briars. Moneypenny’s Lock is the last one on the Newry Canal at the Portadown end. Craigavon Council has restored the bothie there, although now it is slated rather than thatched. It is used as an interpretation centre.
Mr. Cassells then turned to the Lagan Canal. Two engineers were responsible for it. Thomas Omer designed the section from Belfast to Sprucefield, while Richard Owen was responsible for the work from Sprucefield to Lough Neagh. Omer was originally from Holland, while Owen came from Lancashire. Mr. Cassells pointed out that all the great engineers learnt their trade in Ireland, including Thomas Telford. We were shown a picture of the Broadwater which lies in the vicinity of Aghalee. Up to 200 swans winter there. It was the summit pond for the canal. Owen lived in the area and wanted to be buried in the corner of Soldierstown graveyard overlooking the Broadwater. He is reputed to be buried upright under a flat slab. The next picture was of George Weir’s lock house. It was like the one which we had already seen on the Newry Canal, but narrower. Some of the old canal’s infrastructure survives and we were shown a picture of an old sign. Thomas Omer was responsible for Shaw’s Bridge, now over 200 years old. It replaced a wooden bridge and was named after a general in Cromwell’s army.
Mr. Cassells then referred to May Blair’s book on the Canal – Once Upon the Lagan. It started as a school project but grew into a great love of the area. We were shown a picture of the bridge which was the scene of the last hanging in Lisburn. The criminal involved was a notorious robber who was taunted by the crowd as he died. Another photograph showed one of Omer’s lock houses. It had a characteristic recessed arch around the doorway. There is a similar one at Drumbridge still in its original condition. Omer worked all over Ireland and used the same design in other places such as the Shannon.
Lough Neagh has been called “Ulster’s inland sea”. It has only two large islands: Coney Island in the south and Ram’s Island in the east. Both were once ecclesiastical sites and have round towers. Both were once owned by noble families in the 1800s and used as holiday homes. Coney Island was once the property of the Earl of Charlemont, but it now belongs to the National Trust. Their warden has been researching the history of the island. He discovered the land steward’s diary which contained detailed notes on the island. It revealed that Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson spent some time there and no one knew. The speaker showed a photograph of the round tower on the island where one of the Earls of Charlemont and his horse are supposed to have been buried.
Ram’s Island was owned by the O’Neills of Shane’s Castle in the 1800s. The family house on the island was burnt down during the war years. It has been suggested that airmen from nearby Langford Lodge broke in and the thatched roof caught fire. The River Bann and Lough Neagh Association has rented the island from Lord O’Neill and is restoring it so that visitors can come. A line drawing showed the house in the early 1800s when water levels in Lough Neagh were higher. The level of the lough has been lowered three times and is now 9 to 10 feet lower. Mr. Cassells told one story about the island in which Laura Bell, reputedly an illegitimate daughter of Lord Conway of Lisburn, was alleged to have been kept a prisoner there for three weeks by one of the O’Neills. Later she went to London where she was supposed to have become, at various times, a writer, a friend of Gladstone, a prostitute and a preacher. Other people associated with the island were Robert and Jane Cardwell, who lived a simple life there without television, radio or newspapers. They grew most of their own food. Robert lived to be 96 while Jane died at 102. Their coffins were taken by boat to be buried in Glenavy churchyard.
Mr. Cassells turned next to the Ulster Canal, which was designed to link Lough Neagh to the Erne. He explained that the main reason for building the canal was coal. The Dublin merchants had to import all their coal from Liverpool. Many of the sailing barges carrying the cargoes of coal were lost on the journey across the Irish Sea. It was thus desirable to find a source of coal in Ireland. It was then discovered in Drumglass townland at Coalisland. Financiers were keen to put up money to build canals to transport the coal to Dublin. Mr. Cassells told how he had had the opportunity to talk to a senior civil servant about building a new bridge at Maghery. Later a world conference on waterways was held in Dublin. Delegates spent time in the north. The minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure was keen to announce a new project to the delegates. The civil servant mentioned the Maghery bridge so the minister was able to announce the replacement of the bridge where the canal meets the River Blackwater.
Although the coal mined at Coalisland was full of ash, the colliery was relatively successful. A member of the Coalisland Waterways branch had done research on the colliery and discovered that English financiers had been brought over because money was needed to deepen the shafts. In order to convince them that the coal was of good quality, English coal was deliberately put into the mine. The colliery was not very successful. The seams were shallow and the area contained faults due to earth movements in the past. These affected the coal seams in the rock.
We were shown various pictures of the Ulster Canal. One was of a lock where the side wall had been removed. It had been built with beautiful cut black stone from Benburb. The canal was not a success. Its locks were too narrow: only 12 feet when most Irish canals were 15 feet wide. This meant that cargoes had to be transferred into narrower boats when they reached the Ulster Canal. It was also lined with a small thickness of puddling clay. In addition, its opening had the misfortune to coincide with the coming of the railway. Further photographs showed lock keepers’ cottages and neglected areas of the canal where locks had been filled in, garages built on the bed of the canal and petrol pumps placed on a bridge at the border. Plans are being made to restore the canal and gradually reopen it.
Mr. Cassells gave a fascinating talk which showed the importance of ending the neglect of this aspect of our heritage and turning it into a positive draw for tourists.
Mr. Brian Kennedy, a committee member, proposed the vote of thanks to the speaker for a most interesting talk.