Neglected and long forgotten ... but could Ulster Canal be brought back to life?
Published 27/04/2013 | 04:20
Brian Cassells has spent much of his life campaigning to have the Ulster Canal re-opened to navigation for the first time since before the partition of Ireland.
Now he's delighted that restoration work is to start on the first seven miles of the waterway. But he's also urging politicians at Stormont to wake up to the potential that the project could hold.
This week Environment Minister Alex Attwood announced planning permission to restore the stretch between Lough Erne and Clones, a scheme that has been funded by the Republic.
The plan is to construct the existing canal route and towpaths for public access on both banks, along with road bridges. Two existing canal bridges and a double lock will be restored at Gortnacarrow that will allow a rise from the River Finn to the canal section, along with a marina and parking spaces.
But there is little sign to date that the the remaining 39 miles of the canal will be re-opened any time soon, former Inland Waterways Association of Ireland president Mr Cassells said.
If the Executive committed to the plan, we could see cruisers navigating all the way from Coleraine through Lough Neagh and Lough Erne and into the Shannon and then continuing through the southern canal system to Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
"This is one of the most exciting projects of all the waterways in Ireland," he said. "It's the completion of the missing link in the waterways, allowing navigation from Coleraine through Limerick, Dublin and Waterford."
Waterways campaigners are now lobbying Stormont to look at pressing ahead with Phase 2 – possibly focusing on the other end of the canal where it leaves Lough Neagh at Coney Island, Mr Cassells said, describing the £120m for the entire project as a "fairly modest amount of money". "Stormont hasn't yet grasped the vision that this investment can create.
"Tourism is the only industry for the future of Northern Ireland and it has so much to offer," he said. "We would like to see a commitment from the Stormont Executive to look again at the section from Coney Island through the Backwater as far as Benburb."
Once the first stretch is complete, boat traffic will be able to travel from Quivvy Lough at Upper Lough Erne up the River Finn to Gortnacarrow, navigating along the Co Cavan border at Castle Saunderson, which is being restored by the scouting movement in the Republic.
From Gortnacarrow the canal travels northeast to Clones, crossing the border three times. The restored route will be 14km in total with 5.5km of river navigation and 8.5km of canal. The work is expected to cost €35m (£30m) and take around three years.
"This creates a new destination for the boating fraternity both from the Shannon and the Erne," Mr Cassells said.
"It opens up an area that has been very much starved of inward investment and a very exciting new paradise for boats, walkers and ornithologists. But it's not all about boats – it's about getting people into the countryside, out walking in a healthy environment, and a catalyst for development.
"About a third of the canal has been filled but that in itself doesn't constitute a problem – it preserves the original features and it can be dug out.
"The important thing is that the route is intact and a lot of bridges are still there and are in good condition. Many of the locks have survived, although not all in good condition, and will require rebuilding.
"The potential to develop small businesses in that area is huge. There are small farms in an area that is suffering from poor investment and farmers that can diversify into services such as looking after boats, not to mention the hospitality sector, B&Bs, small shops. This is vital to an area that has been starved of funding."
The Ulster Canal opened in 1841 and linked Lough Neagh with Lough Erne. The plan was to create a navigable waterway connecting the ports of Belfast and Coleraine with the Shannon and onwards to Limerick or Waterford. It is 46 miles long with 26 locks. It left the River Blackwater below Moy and climbed through 19 locks to the summit on the far side of Monaghan.