The Story of the Errina Canal
Some time ago the Errina canal was described on social media as Ireland’s hidden Amazon as navigating through the canal was met with barriers of fallen branches and overgrown vegetation. For about 120 years the canal served as a working waterway and transport route linking the Shannon as a navigable route from Killaloe to Limerick City.
The Limerick Navigation project was proposed as a means of transporting goods and people safely on the Shannon River to and from the port of Limerick. Its purpose was described as connecting the western part of Ireland with Dublin and giving the opportunity for trade and emigration to Liverpool and onwards. The history of the canal is chequered and seems to have been beset by problems from the beginning according to documentation from the time. While the Limerick section was the first to be completed, the section from the cutting below O’Brien’s Bridge to Plassey was problematic and the whole project took years to complete. The following account examines the section from where the canal was cut at Errina to Clonlara village.
Building the Canal
The Limerick Navigation project was proposed to cover a distance of 12 Irish miles (17 miles) so that boat traffic could travel safely between Limerick City and Killaloe while avoiding the rocks, shoals and river rapids on the lower Shannon. The first phase of construction under engineer William Ochenden (he died in 1761) on the Limerick Navigation began in 1757 and the Limerick to Plassey canal was completed.
An Act of Parliament in 1767 established the Limerick Navigation Company and set out the expenditure and tolls for the project. According to a report written 19th May 1800 by Tim Mackey and Thomas Vereker on behalf of the Limerick Navigation Company, the total cost to date was expected to be £25,423-12-7d. Parliament had granted a sum of £16,600 and private funding of £8,300 had been raised.
The Errina canal section that was constructed in the late 1700s from the Shannon River to Clonlara caused a number of problems. The original cutting into the canal from the Shannon was at right angles and boats could not negotiate the turn safely. To rectify this a curved cutting was be made to the north of the original. The remains of the original cutting are still visible on the right side of the canal as you look towards the Shannon and fills with water when the river is high. Originally there was a high towpath from Errina Bridge to the Shannon. Very long ropes had to be used to haul the boats.
After repairing subsidence in the winter of 1799/1800, a lower towpath was constructed. This path is still in use by walkers and cyclists. This section of the canal was “inadequately cut and was known as ‘Browning’s Contract’…….never sunk to a sufficient depth nor properly finished” (Charlotte Murphy, 1980, p52).
Three locks were constructed on the Errina to Clonlara canal section. They consisted of two single lock chambers at Monaskeha and Clonlara and a triple lock (with shorter chambers than the others) at Errina – this was later changed to a double lock to accommodate larger boats.
A humpback bridge was built at Clonlara over the canal incorporating a Sheela-na-gig believed to have originated from a local castle. This bridge was replaced in 1974 by a bridge still in use for modern day traffic.
In the early 1800s an RIC Barracks was built on the left at Clonlara bridge and an engineer’s house on the right to supervise traffic on the canal. These buildings are still used as family home today.
Twelve milestones were erected giving the distance from Limerick at one side and the distance to Killaloe at the other. Two of these remain visible on the Errina Canal between Clonlara and the Shannon.
Errina Bridge was constructed of local stone and could accommodate a dam if flooding of the Shannon drove excess water down the canal. In 1809 a dam was put across the canal to facilitate upgrade works and repair the locks after a heavy flood burst the banks at Errina and washed away Errina Lock amongst other damage. Houses for the lock keepers were also constructed.
Use of the Canal 1799 to 1930
The canal opened in 1799 though only a few boats availed of the route. Yet the canal was in a declining state by 1802 (Charlotte Murphy, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, (1980), Vol.22, 06,). The first lockkeeper at Errina lock was Thomas Brown and the Brown family remained as lockkeepers until 1904. The Brown family also had the contract of operating the barges on the canal until it closed.
After the canal banks and locks were repaired in 1808-1809 the canal continued to operate, though from records it was never very successful. However it gave employment to the lock-keepers, who had a combined yearly wage of £68 (Mackey and Verekeer Report, 1800), and to those who worked on the boats.
Slates, corn, turf and other goods were ferried between Killaloe and Limerick. Guinness used the canal to transport its product from Dublin to Limerick and this continued until the demise of the canal. In 1834 parts of the Telford organ for St Mary’s Cathedral were transported through the canal on their journey from Dublin to limerick by barge as was the bell for St John’s Cathedral in the 1860s ( Seamus O’Cinniede). Local folklore tells of goods purchased in Dublin by Clonlara residents and brought to Errina Lock for unloading.
Boats from Killaloe brought passengers who were emigrating on ships from Limerick. Seamus O’Cinniede notes that records stated 14,600 passengers were carried on the canal in 1836 – the year the operation of the Limerick to Killaloe Navigation was transferred to the Shannon Commissioners.
The banks of the canal were rented by the Commissioners of Public Works. Griffiths Valuations (1847 – 1864) lists the tenants of the canal banks as: Michael Gully – Coolisteige and Monaskeha, Patrick Gully – Clonlara, James Brown – Errina, Patrick Keogh and James George – Drumeen. In 1934 tenants were offered 99-year leases after the closure of the canal. Descendants of some of these tenants are still working the canal banks.
In the 1901 census the lockkeepers were: John Browne – Errina Lock, Bridget McEvoy -Monaskeha Lock, Patrick Keane – Clonlara Lock . Tenants of two lock houses had changed by 1911 David Madden – Errina Lock, John Goode – Clonlara Lock.
Tales of the Errina Canal
Lil Browne 1889 – 1974 (my grandmother) was one of the children born at Errina Lockhouse. She often told us that the canal was very important to the local people. The tow path was the walking and cycling route to Limerick and to school.
One woman who lived on the Errina (Lisduff) side of the bank used to carry a sack of meal from Limerick on her back, resting at every milestone on the way.
She remembered all kinds of goods being brought on the boats – from farming equipment to coffins. All the feed for the horses was brought by boat and unloaded at the lock. Lil told of her father and brothers having to get up at 4am to ride a horse to Limerick to guide barges back to Killaloe. At that time telegrams on the times of the boats were delivered from Castleconnell Post Office. The telegram boy (who later became my paternal grandfather) said he loved coming over on the ferry to deliver telegrams as John Browne always rewarded him and gave him a half-crown at Christmas! Another story told to me was of a young boy from the Gillogue area who used to get a lift to school in Clonlara from Gillogue lock on the barges.
The canal also took the lives of several people. Lockkeeper James Browne drowned at Errina Lock in 1884. Two of John Brown’s sons drowned, Ned aged 15 was found in the canal at Errina in 1908 and John, aged 32, drowned while guiding a horse drawn barge to Killaloe during flooding in 1924. Lil also spoke of a young man who cycled the towpath from Limerick and fell into the canal at Errina bridge. A child of the Madden family also lost his life in Errina lock as did a local man Peter Egan in 1964.
Demise and closure of the canal
The advent of the railways and the opening of a railway line to Killaloe in the 1840s led to faster and more convenient transport between Limerick and Killaloe. This led to a decline in the use of the Errina canal. The building of the Ardnacrusha Hydro Electric Scheme in the 1920s led to the closure of the canal. Water levels below the newly built weir at Parteen reduced the flow of water and boats could travel by engine power alone to Limerick on the Headrace Canal.
The last barge travelled on the canal in 1933 before a permanent dam was constructed at Errina Lock that blocked the passage of boats. My mother told me she remembered her family gathered on the bank waving goodbye as her uncle guided the horse and the last barge on the canal. Today the canal is obstructed by fallen trees and vegetation though the towpath is well used by walkers and cyclists. It is also an important habitat for native wild birds and animals such as waterfowl, swans otters and badgers.
- Afloat.ie/inland/brian-goggins-inland-blog, 6th January 2020
- Delaney, Ruth, (2008) The Shannon Navigation, The Lilliput Press, Dublin
- Murphy Charlotte, (1980) The Limerick Navigation Company 1697-1836, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, Vol 22, 06.)
- Mackey T. and Vereker T., (1800) Limerick Navigation Statement of Accounts
- www.waterwaysireland.org Archive, 12th December 2019.
- Brian J. Goggins, Castleconnell
- Freddie Bourke, Yardfield, Clonlara
- Michael Sheehan, Cloonomra, Clonlara
- Colin Hogg, Errina, Clonlara