Seen from a towpath on the opposite side of the Grand Canal, the old hotel at Robertstown, County Kildare retains its charm. Originally opened in 1801, this hostelry attracted so much business that within three years it had to be extended. But with the advent of railways came a decline in canal business and by 1869 the Royal Irish Constabulary had been granted a lease on the premises. In the last century the building was used for various purposes; from the mid-1960s onwards it was the centrepiece of an annual summer festival in which the Irish Georgian Society became involved. Famously on one occasion a demonstration was given by Desmond Leslie of water-skiing on the canal. What made his activity distinctive was that Leslie was pulled by a horse being ridden at speed along the bank. Now the hotel is empty and falling into dereliction (all window openings are filled with painted boards). A five-year old planning application attached to the main door proposes a four-storey, 44-bedroom extension and sundry other changes but that option now seems unlikely. Although listed as a protected structure, the future does not look good for this important vestige of Irish transport history.
This is an engraving of Broadstone on the north side of Dublin dating from 1821 and based on a picture by George Petrie. The most prominent building is the King’s Inns, designed by James Gandon in 1800 and by that date nearing completion. It looks little different today but the surprise is to find a harbour immediately in front since this has long gone. As the picture’s caption reveals, the harbour was constructed to serve the Royal Canal, its site chosen because of proximity to many key resources such as the city markets as well as the Linen Hall and various penitentiaries and workhouses.
Although Broadstone Harbour is no more the Royal Canal survives, despite sundry attempts over the past 150-plus years to damage it irreparably. Linking Dublin to the river Shannon and intended to encourage greater trade between the west and east of the country, the enterprise was plagued with problems from the very start. Not the least of these was the presence of the rival Grand Canal which follows a similar route further south and on which work had started in 1757. Construction of the Royal Canal on the other hand only began in 1790 by which time the senior waterway was almost finished and already taking large quantities of commercial and passenger traffic. So when a group of investors established the Royal Canal Company, they had to petition the Irish Parliament for financial support, receiving £66,000 to add to the £134,000 already raised from subscribers.
Among the key shareholders of the Royal Canal scheme was the second Duke of Leinster, who insisted that the waterway pass by Maynooth, the County Kildare town beside his estate at Carton. This necessitated cutting through extensive rock at Clonsilla and creating an aqueduct to cross the river Ryewater at Leixlip, both of which added greatly to costs. By 1796 the canal had reached Kilcock and the first passengers were able to travel between this town and Dublin at a cost of one shilling and one penny, cheaper than a seat on the traditional stagecoach. However progress on moving the route further west was slow and more expensive than had been anticipated.
By 1811, despite being given almost £144,000 in government grants, the Royal Canal Company’s debts stood at £862,000. A parliamentary investigation into the business was undertaken and two years later the company was dissolved with responsibility for the project handed over to the Directors General of Inland Navigation who were instructed to complete work on the canal at public expense and with all due speed. In 1817 the Royal Canal finally joined the Shannon at a total cost of £1,421,954, seven times more than the original estimate. The following year a new Royal Canal Company assumed responsibility for the concern and built a branch line to Longford town which opened in 1830.
Now as then the Royal Canal runs for 90 miles (146 kilometres) through Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Longford. The main water supply comes from Lough Owel near Mullingar which feeds the canal’s highest level. Its creation involved the building of 46 locks, four aqueducts and 86 bridges.
By the mid-1830s, goods traffic on the canal had grown to 134,000 tons annually, and passenger numbers stood at 46,000 in 1837 by which time the journey between Dublin and Mullingar took an average eight hours. But even at its peak, the Royal Canal was never as successful as the Grand Canal. And the arrival of railways the following decade had an immediate and devastating effect. In 1845 the Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the canal in its entirety for £289,059 with the intention of laying railway tracks on top of the route. The government did not allow this plan to proceed, but it explains why trains heading west from Dublin do so directly alongside the canal for many miles. In 1877 the old Broadstone canal harbour was filled in and the site used as a forecourt for the railway company’s new termimus; a branch line of the canal had already connected it to the Liffey at what is now known as Spencer Dock.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canal went into steady decline, with the annual quantity of goods being carried on its route falling to 30,000 tons and passenger traffic gone. In 1938 ownership was transferred to the Great Southern Railway and six years later to the national rail company Coras Iompair Eireann. In 1955 the last boat officially to pass the length of the canal made its journey and the waterway was closed to navigation in 1961 after which it fell into serious disrepair. In the mid-1970s a group of enthusiasts started a Save the Royal Canal campaign and thanks to their sterling efforts, the route, which passed into the care of the Office of Public Works in 1978, was gradually restored. It took longer to refurbish than it had to construct: work on the last part of the Royal Canal was only completed in 2010.
There are many reasons to celebrate the Royal Canal the most frequently cited being that it is an amenity beneficial to the tourist industry. That is certainly true and boats navigating its length bring visitors and income to towns and villages along the route. But let us leave matters economic to one side, not least because for over two centuries the Royal Canal has failed as a viable commercial proposition, inevitably costing more money than it generates. Though it might seem perverse to do so, this aspect of the waterway should be judged a cause for celebration, especially in the present era when the merit of everything and everyone seems to be based solely on the grounds of cost-effectiveness. Applying that criterion to the Royal Canal makes no sense, but instead demonstrates the fatuity of assessing value on economic grounds alone.
What’s more important in this instance is that the Royal Canal provides an example of successful intervention in the natural landscape. We are inclined to believe all man-made intrusions damage the environment, but the Royal Canal offers conclusive evidence this need not be the case: far from impairing its surroundings, the waterway often enhances them. And that is what matters most: the Royal Canal as an object of beauty. The original scheme may have been ill-conceived and sometimes ill-executed, over-time and over-budget in its completion, but we are all now the grateful beneficiaries. That gives it a value beyond price.