The Lower Bann Navigation and McMahon Scheme
The Lower Bann was Lough Neagh’s only natural outlet, entering the sea at Coleraine. In theory it should have proven an ideal transport mechanism but in reality it was largely unnavigable due to a rock barrier at Portna and seasonal flooding. Heavy rain would see a surge of water from the eight main rivers (Main, Six Mile Water, Crumlin, Glenavy, Upper Bann, Blackwater, Ballinderry, Moyola) and numerous small rivers and streams which flowed into Lough Neagh. This not only caused massive flooding in low lying areas along the lough shore but also along the Lower Bann as the excess water surged out of the Lough. It is estimated that 6,000 acres of land were seasonally flooded rendering them unusable. To combat these problems and improve navigation along the Lower Bann a scheme was devised whereby the water level of the Lough would be controlled by means of weirs and locks located along the river from Toome to just below Coleraine at the Cutts. (Image: Toome lock)
A bill was passed in 1842 by Sir Robert Peel to improve the drainage, navigation and mill power of Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann, with the government being in control of carrying out the work. This led to a survey of the Lower Bann being undertaken in the summer of 1843 by Francis Giles and James McCleery (engineer to the Lagan Navigation Company). A meeting was held in Coleraine January 1844 to report findings of the survey to the public and an initial cost of £41,000 was announced. This was later revised to £25,000. A petition to lower the Lough and improve navigation of the local waterways was organised in the spring of 1844 by Lord Lurgan, a major landowner on the southern shore who had spent a vast amount of money to improve the drainage of his land there, and presented the proposal to the Commissioners of Public Works in Dublin. In the November of the following year a second petition, organised by the clergy of Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic churches, urged commencement of the scheme as Famine Relief work, providing employment within the district for those suffering failure of the potato crop.
A more detailed survey of the Lough was carried out in 1846 by Board of Works engineer John McMahon. His report proposed lowering the Lough to the summer level of 1826, some 6ft below the then surface level; limiting its rise to 1ft; dredging the mouths of both the Upper and Lower Bann; and removing the rock barrier at Portna. Ancillary works included reducing levels on the existing canals of Coalisland, Lagan, Newry, and Ulster; and realignment and deepening of the River Blackwater. Work began in 1847 under the supervision of engineer Charles Ottley but progression was hampered by an insufficient supply of labourers. According to the annual reports of the Irish Board of Public Works, emigration and competing employment opportunities from the railways were the main cause. Also, the labourers consisted of weavers, fishermen and farmers etc. with seasonal obligations and would therefore not be continually available. Despite these difficulties the work was completed in July 1858 at a total cost of £251,167, far greater that the McMahan original estimate of £183,775.
The Larne to Lough Neagh canal was proposed by James Farrell who commissioned engineer John Rennie to undertake a survey of the route. Rennie’s report proposed to construct a canal from the mouth of the River Larne to the Six Mile Water at Ballyclare, and from there to Templepatrick entering Lough Neagh approximately 1mile south of Antrim, a total distance of 18miles. Unfortunately landowners on the proposed route were not minded to subscribe and the scheme was shelved due to lack of funding.
Decline of the canals
It took until 1858 for the navigation system centred on Lough Neagh to be completed by which time it was realised that there was insufficient industry to maintain it. Only the Lagan and Newry enjoyed any commercial success. The main problem was the inability of the local commissions to maintain and repair the canals and thus they became un-navigable as evidenced by the Newry canal whose inland section had fallen into ruin by the mid 18th century. The local commissions had been established by the Irish parliament in 1787 to manage the waterways in a bid to devolve the cost of maintenance. However, centralised control was restored after the Act of Union in 1801, with the creation of the Directors General of Inland Navigation, their main role being to improve the cost-effectiveness of the canals. Improvements were carried out and efforts made to attract regular traffic saw an increase in tollage receipts. However, by 1858 there was a decline in traffic caused not only by economic and demographic changes. One such change was the demise of the Tyrone collieries after 1840. It had been estimated that the output volume of the collieries would be sufficient to supply the industries of Dublin and Belfast and more importantly at a cheaper rate than coal imported from Britain. However the coal proved to be inferior and difficulties in extracting the coal, and its transhipment from the mines to the Coalisland Basin meant for an insufficient supply and ensured that Tyrone coal was more costly than the imports. Other changes in the predominance of sea ports would also prove a problem. The port of Newry suffered from a suitable depth of water and despite improvements from the early to mid 19th century was overtaken by Belfast as the major port and industrial centre of the north. As a result the Newry canal began to decline; being overtaken by the Lagan canal in terms of transport volume, which enjoyed success until 1880’s when competition from the railways rendered it all but obsolete. It was the emergence of the railways as a preferred method of transport that proved the nail in the coffin for the canals.
The majority of the canal routes have either fallen into disuse and disrepair or have been filled in, such as the section of the Lagan Canal between Sprucefield and Moira over which the M1 motorway now passes. Despite this many organisations such as Friends of Coalisland Canal, the Ulster Canal Trust and the Lagan Restoration Trust fight tirelessly to maintain and restore what is left of our canal systems. Waterways Ireland have plans to open up the canals and re-link the navigation systems of the North and South of Ireland and it was recently announced that funding has been granted to begin work restoring the Ulster Canal between Upper Lough Erne and Clones.