Navigation for Ireland and work on the Newry navigation commenced in 1734 under Richard Castle, a renowned architect and engineer. Castle was dismissed in 1736 and the project handed over to Thomas Steers. Work was slow due to engineering difficulties and legal disputes but finally the canal opened on 28th March 1742. The canal, which ran from Newry to Lough Neagh via Portadown and the Upper Bann, was a major fete of engineering being the first summit canal to be constructed in the British Isles. (Image: Canal system surrounding Lough Neagh.)
The success of the Newry canal led to the construction of the Lagan Navigation which linked Lough Neagh with the rapidly developing port of Belfast via the Lagan valley. The route was surveyed in 1741 but it was not until 1753 that an act was passed to make the River Lagan navigable. Construction began in 1756 under the supervision of Thomas Ormer, the money for the scheme being provided by levies placed on ale and spirits within the district of Lisburn for a period of 11 years. By 1757 six miles of canal had been completed, but lack of funds stopped work until 1759 when grants from the Irish parliament allowed work to recommence. The navigation between Belfast and Lisburn was completed and open for business by September 1763.
The next section of the canal, from Lisburn to Ellis’ Cut did not commence until 1782 as landowners local to the route of the canal worried about flooding below Lisburn and the apparent unsuitability of the Lagan as a navigation route. They formed a commission along with merchants from Belfast to study the best route and raise money for its construction. The commission was replaced by the Company of Undertakers of the Lagan Navigation in 1779 in which the Marquis of Donegall had a controlling interest. With funding secured, the work commenced under the supervision of engineer Richard Owen and completed in December 1793, with the grand opening occurring on New Year’s Day 1794.