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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Five

                      Water Transport

Summary of chapter. This chapter continues with the transport system, in particular with water-borne transport. As Ireland was an island shipping was all important for trade. Steam navigation brought immense improvements. Inland navigation was less important because most of Ireland was a low plateau and rivers were navigable for only short distances from the coasts.

(i) Investment and Return

(ii) Shipping

(iii) Navigational Hazards

(iv) Ports

(v) Inland Navigation

(vi) Steam Navigation

(vii) Aeronautics


(i) Investment and Return 

When examining economic structures we can assume fairly strict proportions between the various elements. Capital is required to develop trade. As trade increases so will capital increase to develop ports, ships, roads, or canals. As these latter increase we expect trade to increase, at least until some limit is reached. As the economy grows each element should grow and contribute to further growth. Capital and investment opportunity alike depend on the state of technology.  

The capital can come from existing savings within the country, or it can come from investors from abroad. Governments too can inject money for development, either by direct grants or by spending more money in the country (on the military establishment for example) than it removes in taxes. If financial institutions are developed it is easier to raise capital. It was always the policy of the Government in the nineteenth century to promote financial institutions, and also to promote the inflow of capital.

It happens not infrequently that new inventions make previous techniques obsolete before the investment in them can be fully recouped. Irish canals, if the railways had not come when they did, could have been of immense benefit to the country. But no huge accessible deposits of minerals generated an immediate large volume of trade. Increase in trade had to depend on the slowly spreading commercialisation of agriculture so returns on investment were slow. This discouraged investment in canals. The railway companies came along and reaped the fruit of the investment in canals. The canals themselves would have been even less profitable had it not been for the investments of the tollroad operators. So although the canals themselves were not very profitable to the shareholders the country as a whole benefited. The Government then was right to spend large sums on the canals.

The great outlay of public money on improving the Shannon was also justified. But if anyone could have seen far enough into the future they would have developed the port of Dublin along the North Wall instead of building two other ports at Howth and Dunleary. Clearing the old quays of Dublin proved superfluous, but at least this resulted in good straight roads through the city centre. 

Whether there ever was an economic return on the investment (in the sense that increased profits would cover the initial cost plus interest) in harbours, fishing piers, and roads, along the south and west coasts may be doubted also. The local landowners were probably wise financially not to build them themselves. By modern analysis Governments can reasonably count as return any increased income from the area, in the form of increased taxes on spirits and tobacco, or petrol, etc. But even so, the expenditures or the far west and south were probably never recovered. (The same is true of many parts of Scotland whether the investment was made by individuals or governments.) The standard of living was made higher than it would otherwise have been and so the investment was a form of welfare. Still, all investment in pre-Famine Ireland was expected to bring a strictly economic return. Investment in lighthouses was undertaken as much for humanitarian reasons as economic ones. [Top] 

(ii) Shipping 

The size of ships grew considerably in the nineteenth century as first steam was applied to propulsion and then iron was used in the construction of hulls. During the War ships sailing to the West Indies might not exceed 200 tons, and so could enter most Irish ports. As a general rule ships engaged in coastal trading were around 100 tons, and those engaged in foreign trade were around 200 tons. 

By the year 1850 ships of 1,000 tons were becoming common. Such tended to sail to the larger ports, and after 1850 direct trade between smaller ports in Ireland and foreign ports virtually ceased. The increase in the size of ships had to be accompanied at every stage by a corresponding increase in the depth of water available at the various ports at which they called. In the eighteenth century when carriage on land was very difficult both at home and abroad, and it was essential that ships visit many small ports an increase in the size of ships was inadvisable.

It would seem that most of the ships entering Irish ports were foreign registered. In 1804 the total of Irish registered ships was 1,061 with a total tonnage of 58,000 tons. Irish shipowners began to build up their fleets until in the record year of 1849 there were 2,000 ships with a total tonnage of 269,742 tons registered in Ireland. 

The port of Dublin, like other ports was crowded with the brigantine-rigged colliers of between 100 and 150 tons. With this rig the masts were set far apart permitting large hatches. Steam did not displace sail in this trade until the end of the century. 

In 1817 3,483 ships with a total tonnage of 340,000 tons entered the port of Dublin. Most of them were colliers from the coast of Cumberland. In 1829 Dublin was the fifth port in the United Kingdom after London, Liverpool, Bristol, and Hull, and was still in fifth place in 1840 when Glasgow had displaced Hull. However, in terms of absolute tonnages handled the British ports were far ahead of Dublin. In 1851, in terms of volume of trade Dublin was the largest Irish port, followed by Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Londonderry, and Waterford in that order. Belfast had however already overtaken Dublin in terms of the value of the goods traded. [Top] 

(iii) Navigational Hazards 

The chief hazards of navigation are not to be found in the open sea for a well-maintained wooden ship was virtually unsinkable, but in the approaches to shore. The rocky western coasts were lee shores, but the eastern coasts were not much safer for they abounded with sandbanks. The Irish coast between Drogheda and Wexford was particularly dangerous because the port of Dublin could not be entered when the wind was in a particular quarter. Dunleary harbour was first built as a refuge harbour for such cases of emergency. 

The Barbary pirates and Algerian sea-rovers and the buccaneers in the West Indies who had afflicted merchant ships around 1700 had by 1800 ceased to be a menace. (The Americans in 1801 had to send their little navy to deal with them.) In time of war French privateers were more of a problem and the convoy system was in operation to the West Indies. During the American War of 1812-14 American privateers, often crewed by Irishmen, appeared in the Irish Sea. But in general the Royal Navy proved an effective protection. After 1815 the British Government declared all seas open to all ships, and the Royal Navy policed the oceans and tried to keep them free from pirates for the next century 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Government gave great priority to the construction of lighthouses, virtually the only form of fixed navigational aid available. The earliest lighthouse in Ireland dates from the twelfth century. It was maintained on Hook Head at the entrance to Waterford harbour by the Augustinian Canons. Such lighthouses consisted of a large fire that could consume up to three tons of coal on a long wild night. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the stone-built tower with oil-lamps, reflectors, Fresnel lenses, and rotating mechanisms were introduced.

Responsibility for lighthouses was vested first in the Barrack Board, and then in 1796 in the Revenue Board. In 1810 the Corporation for Improving the Port of Dublin (the Ballast Board) was given responsibility for all Irish lighthouses, buoys, beacons, and landmarks. Finally in 1867 the Commissioners for Irish Lights took over from the Ballast Board. 

The nineteenth century lighthouses were of the rock tower type following the pattern of that built by Smeaton on the Eddystone Rock in 1759. The great majority of Irish lighthouses were designed and built by the Ballast Board's engineer George Halpin and by his son also called George. Between them they built fifty five lighthouses beginning with that on Inistrahull, off Malin Head, Co. Donegal. The most famous, as well as the most difficult to construct, was the Fastnet Light on the Fastnet Rock, off the southernmost tip of the island, and in the path of all traffic coming from America (Hague and Christie). 

A self-taught machine-maker from Belfast named Alexander Mitchell invented the 'Mitchell screw pile' for the construction of lighthouses on sand. Enormous screws were screwed into a sandy or gravelly bottom if no rock foundation was possible. Though successful elsewhere it proved a failure on the Kish Bank outside the harbour of Dublin where a lightship had been anchored since 1811 (DNB Mitchell). The Ballast Board itself was financed by a levy on shipping but the Government seems to have paid for the lighthouses. 

The provision of lifeboats was left to voluntary organisations. Early in the century some gentlemen in Co. Louth organised a lifeboat service on a rota basis among the fishermen on their stretch of coast. 

A hydrographic survey of the Irish coast was begun in the 1820's at the same time as the great Ordnance Survey on land. It lacked an organiser of the same stature as Major Colby but was eventually finished by the Admiralty to the most exacting standards. [Top] 

(iv) Ports 

A port is almost by definition a seaside settlement at which trading vessels regularly call. Most Irish ports originated in the Norse or Viking period. The Norsemen selected as sites for ports places with three essential features. Their flat-bottomed ships should be able to reach the spot fully laden at high tide; there should be a convergence of inland routes towards a shallow ford; and there should be a defensible spot nearby.  

As time went on ships tended to become larger, round bottomed, and keeled, all of which added to their draught, while at the same time the navigable channels tended to silt up. By the seventeenth century ships were unable to proceed fully laded into Dublin or Cork so they had to be partly loaded or unloaded by means of lighters further downstream, or off the seashore. 

In the eighteenth century works were undertaken to improve the ports by the provision of deepwater channels, docks and quays. A dock is an artificially enclosed body of water where the water level is maintained at a constant height. A quay is a vertical wall with deep water at one side permitting ships to come close to the shore, and with a hard surface on the other side permitting carts to come close to the ships. Quays are often provided with warehouses. Quays and warehouses usually surrounded docks, and the dock area itself was usually surrounded by a high wall to prevent theft that was a noted feature of life on the waterfront. If there were no docks, or in addition to them, the quays lined the navigable channel of the river on each side. Docks were much more costly but had the advantages that the water level remained fixed and pilferage was lessened. 

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was an enormous increase in spending on port improvements and the shape of the Irish ports as we now know them dates from this period.

Dublin, the chief port of Ireland, had probably the worst natural harbour. Not only was the Liffey badly silted but also there were dangerous sandbanks just offshore. The Kish Bank was so placed that in certain states of the wind and tide a ship could neither reach to open sea nor the safety of the river mouth but was infallibly blown ashore. On a stormy night, 18 November 1807, three troopships filled with recruits were thus caught and driven ashore with great loss of life. 

Several attempts had been made in the eighteenth century to improve the port. The first was the building of the North Wall in 1714. The most noted was the great South Wall driven out into the open sea to try to channel the river and deepen it through natural scour. Post Office packets then started landing mails and passengers at a spot on the wall called the Pigeon House (named after an innkeeper called Pigeon) to avoid delays caused by navigating among the mudbanks. Towards the end of the eighteenth century various surveys were made of the port with a view to further improvements including one by William Bligh RN The Grand Canal was connected by an extension with the Liffey at Ringsend, and a large dock was provided, unfortunately on the opposite side of the river from the new Customs House. The Customs House itself was moved in the 1790's from its site on the present Wellington Quay near the Castle to the present Customs House Quay opposite Trinity College into a splendid new building designed by Gandon. (The Royal Canal on the opposite bank was also connected by an extension with the Liffey near the Customs House, and the various railway companies placed their dockside terminuses near the same spot on the North Wall. By the beginning of the twentieth century the 'North Wall' was virtually synonymous with the port of Dublin.) 

In the nineteenth century work was commenced on docks on the north bank of the Liffey and St George's Dock beside the Customs House was opened in 1821. A second wall on the north side was built and this effectively increased the scour, and made Dublin a deepwater port. The old separate quays along the river were taken over, cleared of ancient clutter, and rebuilt forming continuous quays and roadways for several miles through the centre of Dublin.  

Early in the century the Post Office began to develop the harbour of Howth some miles from Dublin as its packet station. Howth Head provided a clear landfall in bad weather, the Kish Bank was avoided, and there was sufficient depth of water to admit packets on most days of the year. As the old harbour at Holyhead was unusable on the same days this was not considered a disadvantage. As usual in Ireland, those who preferred other harbours denounced the project as 'jobbery' i.e. giving contracts from which supporters of the Government would benefit. However, in this case the choice seems to have been made fairly on grounds of costs and advantages. The growth in the size of ships was not foreseen, still less the possibilities of steam ships. Work commenced on the new packet harbour in 1807 five years before the launch of the Comet and nine years before a steamboat made a dash across the Irish Sea in good weather. The new harbour cost 300,000 and was used until superseded by Kingstown (Dunleary) in 1833 

The loss of the troopships in 1807 concentrated attention on the need to provide an artificial 'asylum harbour' to the south east of Dublin. This was envisaged as a breakwater, or preferably two, behind which sailing ships who could not make the harbour mouth could shelter. Mixed up with this were various proposals for a deepwater port for Dublin joined to it by a further extension of the Grand Canal. Finally, a site was selected at Dunleary (the Irish version Dun Laoghaire is pronounced as Dunleary in a Dublin accent), and was envisaged initially as merely an asylum harbour without any port facilities. Work on it was commenced in 1817, ironically the year following the first crossing of the Irish Sea by steamboat. At first only the two enclosing pier walls were built, but the artificial harbour between them was the largest in the world. Even at lowest spring tide it could float a frigate or a fully laden merchantman, and when the tide had flowed for two hours a ship of the line (about 2000 tons) could enter. Steamship captains preferred it so quays and port facilities had to be provided. King George IV landed at Dunleary in 1821 and the name was changed to Kingstown in his honour. The first railway in Ireland was built to link the harbour with the centre of Dublin. When the railway line was completed from London to Liverpool the Post Office switched its steampackets from the Holyhead to Howth route to the Liverpool to Kingstown route. When the track to Holyhead was completed in 1850 the London and North Western Railway procured packetsteamers hoping to get the mail contract on the Irish Sea. When they failed they ran a rival passenger service from Holyhead to the North Wall. The contract for carrying the mails was given to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company (largely for political reasons). The British Post Office switched the mail route back to Holyhead-Kingstown in 1848. 

The main quays in Belfast in the eighteenth century lay along the banks of the little tributary of the Lagan, the Farset that ran along the present High Street. In the nineteenth century the Farset was culverted and the quays moved to the banks of the Lagan itself. A new Customs House was built and a new commercial district grew up on reclaimed land around it. More important for the development of Belfast as a port was the excavation of the 'cuts' through the mudbanks to provide a straight course for the Lagan to the sea. The spoil from the cuts formed Dargan's Island, later Queen's Island, and here the ship building industry developed. The nature of the riverbed was such that dredging could produce any depth of water required, and the position of the island at the head of the dredged channel facilitated launching. Eventually, the Titanic of 66,000 tons was launched from there. 

The fortunes of the port of Newry were somewhat different. Two centuries earlier Newry had been a more important port than Belfast, and it was selected as the terminus for a canal linking Lough Neagh, and coalfield at Coalisland, with the sea. The Newry canal terminated at a spot on the Clanrye river which sea-going vessels could reach at high tide. Unlike at Belfast it was decided not to make a deepwater cut but to provide a large freshwater dock area and to extend the canal seawards until deep water was reached. The banks of the canal within the town were lined with quays and warehouses. The docks and canal extension were completed early in Victoria's reign, the docks being named the Albert Basin, and the sea lock the Victoria Lock. Further development was restricted by two factors. There was a bar across the mouth of the harbour that restricted the size of vessels entering the port, and hills surrounded the town making the construction of railways difficult. Newry was allowed by Parliament the first chance to build a railway inland to Enniskillen. If it failed to build it within a certain time, and it did, a Dundalk company was to be allowed the chance. 

Its local rival Dundalk though it never became a major port, was one of the great success stories of the nineteenth century. Dundalk's problem was not the familiar one of a winding approach through mudbanks, but an equally winding approach through golden sandbanks. In the eighteenth century this channel was marked with 'perches', long poles to which oil-lamps could be attached at night. Sir John MacNeill, Ireland's leading engineer, lived nearby and personally supervised the improvements to the port. The trade of Dundalk was only half that of Newry in 1830 but by 1850 was rapidly overtaking it. Dundalk was to become a major rail-centre with tracks leading out from the town in four directions, and also a centre for railway engineering. 

Drogheda was one of the chief ports in medieval Ireland, but it too found it necessary to dredge and straighten the winding channel of the Boyne and extend its quays. Dredging commenced about 1830 and trade through the port commenced to increase. 

Londonderry is strictly speaking the correct name for the city owes its origins to the efforts of the London Livery Companies to develop the lands granted to them following the confiscations in the early seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century there were considerable imports and exports in connection with the linen industry. It was also, beginning before 1800, the first Irish port to handle emigration on a large scale. In the nineteenth century agriculture in its hinterland became more diversified and so too did trade through the port. As usual, the river was dredged, the quays rebuilt and extended, and a small canal inland towards Strabane was dug. 

Waterford had been since the Middle Ages one of Ireland leading ports, with three rivers running inland from it, but it faced the usual difficulties in the nineteenth century. Exports of agricultural products remained large. The usual improvements were undertaken and trade continued to increase up to the Famine. 

Though a monastery earlier existed on the site, Cork was developed as a trading port by the Danes for the usual reasons. Though Cork harbour is a capacious, sheltered deep-water harbour, the island on which the port stood was a considerable distance upstream in the Lee. As in Dublin lighters had to be used frequently in the eighteenth century. About 1790 the channel was dredged to allow ships of 300 tons instead of 150 tons to reach the quays on a spring tide. The work of dredging and quay-construction was renewed about 1820 enabling large ships to reach Cork. In 1826 a steam-dredger of 12 horsepower was purchased and commenced the dredging and straightening of the channel.  

Already, during the War, the Government had developed Cove (Irish Cobh pronounced the same) on an island in the outer harbour of Cork as a deepwater port, usable at every state of the tide, for supplies to the army in the Peninsula. Cork harbour was very suitable for this for the passage to Lisbon avoided the westerly winds up the English Channel. Ultimately masters of sailing ships preferred Falmouth in Cornwall. The deepwater harbour at Cove, (later Queenstown after Queen Victoria) rivalled that at Kingstown (Dunleary), and was later used by transatlantic liners and became the great departure point for emigrants to America (Marmion). 

Limerick seemed to have many advantages from its position on the Shannon. But the river above the city, despite its size, was not navigable, and the wide estuary downstream from the city had only a narrow winding deepwater channel that had to be negotiated in the teeth of the prevailing winds. Even when steamships were developed it was much further from British markets than Cork, while transatlantic ships preferred to call at Queenstown. Proposals to construct a navigable channel along the course of the Shannon were among the first envisaged for improving river transport. But the difficulties exceeded the engineering abilities and the financial capacity of the eighteenth century. About 1830 the Lord Lieutenant approved plans for the construction of a dock, to be called the Wellesley dock, and a new bridge over the Shannon. Most of the money was spent on the bridge so work on the dock proceeded slowly. Nevertheless the port facilities were eventually brought up to contemporary standards. 

Galway was the only large port to adopt the dock principle for its main harbour. Its area covered six acres with sixteen feet of water on the cill, and with 3,110 feet of quays. When relatively small steamships began to cross the Atlantic many wished to see Galway grow into a great terminal. But the shipowners preferred the longer voyage to Liverpool. 

These descriptions of selected ports give only a sample of all the works of improvement carried on around the coasts where numerous piers, quays, docks, deep channels, port facilities, lighthouses, buoys and marked channels were provided, as well as improved access roads. In many cases the great development of the railways made most of these of use only to fishermen and to local traffic. [Top] 

(v) Inland Navigation 

Few Irish rivers were navigable to any extent, and even if a large navigable body of water existed, like Lough Neagh, there was little commercial reason to use it if there was no navigable channel to the sea. As noted earlier, there was almost always a break in navigation close to the coast as the rivers fell off the Central Plateau. Because of the nature of the central plateau, Strafford before the Civil War envisaged a system of waterways on it, but nothing came of the project. Attempts to make the Shannon navigable proved beyond the capabilities of those who tried early in the eighteenth century, so the Newry canal, commenced around 1730, was the first commercial waterway into the interior. Other canals and improved river navigations were started in the eighteenth century. The Newry canal was very defective and much money had to be spent on improvements in the nineteenth century. 

The Canal Age may be said to have commenced properly in Ireland in 1800 resulting in the development of two systems of interconnected waterways. The smaller of the two, the northern system was confined to Ulster. The other was centred on Dublin, reached the Shannon at two points, the Shannon itself being made navigable along most of its length, and the Grand Canal was linked to the rivers of south Leinster. 

The canals were constructed by promoters who formed a company and had an enabling Act passed through Parliament. Funds were raised through the sale of fixed-interest debenture stock. An engineer surveyed the line and drew up the plans. Tenders were invited from contractors to dig the channel and to construct the locks etc. 

In the northern system the first canal was the Newry Canal, built to connect the coalmines of mid-Ulster with the markets in Dublin. It was about 18 miles long, with a depth of five to six feet (quite good for the period), and a summit level 78 feet above sealevel, and 14 locks. The construction was poor and the canal was inclined to leak. Nor was adequate provision made to keep the summit level supplied with water in dry weather. In 1800 the canal was transferred to the Board of Inland Navigation and improvements were immediately put in hand. The declining trade on the canal revived. The greatest improvements took place between 1830 and 1850 when the canal had been handed over to local commissioners. The works were carried out under the supervision of Sir John Rennie, and trade increased until 1858 after which it declined on the inland section. The canal did not run as far as Lough Neagh itself but joined the navigable stretch of the Upper Bann at Portadown. Rivers like the Blackwater were also navigable for short distances, and a canal was in addition cut on the west side of the Lough towards Coalisland. Production of coal from this coalfield declined after 1850 (McCutcheon), but the finishing of a canal and river route to Belfast was a more important cause of its decline. 

The river Lagan had been made navigable for several miles inland from Belfast as far a Lisburn by 1763. By the end of the nineteenth century the Lagan canal had eclipsed the Newry canal. Just at the end of the Canal Age, about 1830, work was begun on the Ulster canal to link Lough Neagh with Lough Erne. Though it was completed it never became important as the railways took most of the traffic. 

The midland system was formed of quite a large group of interconnected waterways. The three rivers running inland from Waterford, the Barrow, the Nore, and the Suir, seemed to offer the best prospects for river navigations, but only the Barrow was made navigable along most of its course. The Barrow navigation could connect with the Grand Canal from Dublin, opened up the colliery district, and provided an outlet for the wheat grown in the region. It was commenced in 1759 but over 100,000 was spent on improvements in the nineteenth century. It was famous for the fact that haulage of barges by teams of men continued on it long after the practice had been discontinued in other parts of the British Isles. Navigation was always difficult over the upper stretches of the river. The railways and coasting steamships made it pointless. The Suir and Nore were made navigable for parts of their courses. 

The largest, and in many ways the most important waterway was the Grand Canal. It was begun in 1756 two years before the Duke of Bridgewater's canal inaugurated the Canal Age in England, and the first stretch was opened in 1759. It was intended to have two main branches, one to strike straight inland towards the collieries in the midlands, and the other to connect with the Barrow at Athy. The latter branch was completed first, Athy, forty three miles from Dublin, being finally reached in 1791. By the year 1800 the main branch had reached Tullamore, 65 miles from Dublin. In the middle of winter, on the 1st of January 1802 work was energetically re-commenced under the direction of the Grand Canal Company's own engineer, John Killaly. In October 1804 it reached the Shannon at Shannonbridge about 80 miles from Dublin. The summit level was at 278 feet, while the Shannon basin was about 150 feet above sealevel. Despite the difficulties of navigating the Shannon owners of livestock on land along the Shannon preferred to use the canal boats to send their livestock to the market in Dublin. The costs of canal transport were less than the cost of droving and the loss of weight by the beasts. At the Dublin end the canal was connected with the Liffey at Ringsend, and new quays, warehouses, and hotels were built. By mid-century 40 boats a day were passing the summit level. 

The rival Royal Canal had a more chequered career caused chiefly by mismanagement. It originated in a misleading (some said fraudulent) prospectus placed before the Irish Parliament. This claimed that a second canal could be built to the Shannon from Dublin in five years at a cost of no more than 200,000. In fact 260,000 were spent on the first fourteen difficult miles out of Dublin. By 1800 twenty miles had been cut westward from Dublin along a route about twenty miles from its rival. By October 1806 the canal reached Mullingar about fifty miles from Dublin, at which time the Company went bankrupt. The Government considered the undertaking to important to abandon, opening as it did a different stretch of the Midlands, so work was resumed under Mr Killaly's direction in 1814 and Longford and the Shannon were reached. Its summit level was at 322 feet. A spur too connected it with the Liffey near the Customs House, and new quays, warehouses and hotels were built. 

The railways were to prove far more popular in the second half of the century, but it was the canals that opened up the Central Plateau to the commercial culture. Passengers were carried as well as goods. Not only could people travel in considerable comfort, but also the frequent service enabled messages to be sent easily and frequently. The archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray, could easily deal with the affairs of his diocese when staying with friends on holiday. 

The canal barges were draw by horses. Attempts to use paddles resulted in excessive wear on the banks. In the second half of the century screw propulsion was used. 

From 1750 onwards river navigation was improved on various rivers for several miles inland, and the Boyne and Slaney up to twenty miles. Among the other rivers were the Lagan, the Barrow, the Nore, the Suir, and the Munster Blackwater. The Liffey was not navigable, hence the need to cut a canal. 

But the Shannon always presented the greatest challenge. It was the longest river in the British Isles, with an abundant flow of water, and flowing along a gently sloping plain. But natural and man-made obstacles were numerous. Just above Limerick city the course of the river was so difficult that the improvers preferred to cut a canal. Then came the great falls and rapids as the Shannon left the Central Plateau. (These were later developed for hydro-electricity.) Above the falls the Shannon had no real banks, but flooded far and wide in wintertime. The winter floods swept down gravel that formed banks between which the river wound in summer. At three points the river spread into wide lakes, on which the wind whipped up waves, making them unsuitable for canal boats. Boats suitable for the lakes were too large for the canals. At times the prevailing winds blew steadily from one quarter for weeks on end so that the sails essential for crossing the lakes could not be used. Often the developers preferred to cut a canal along the banks. 

In 1831 a public-spirited merchant who had made his money by introducing steam on to cargo boats on the Irish Sea, Thomas Wye Williams, persuaded Thomas Spring Rice, the MP for Limerick to take up the matter again with the Government. He considered that at least on the Shannon itself steam navigation would be feasible. The Government undertook the work and over 1,000,000 was spent on the work over the next twenty years. Manmade obstacles of every kind, like bridges, weirs, dams, and fishing contraptions had to be bought out with compensation to the owners. The bridges had to be reconstructed with wider arches. The riverbanks below Athlone, half way along the Shannon, had to be raised to prevent flooding, and outfalls for drainage water provided. Everywhere roads or hards had to be built up to new quays, the waterlevel reduced in places, and straight deep channels dredged or cleared of obstacles like fallen trees, and larger locks had to be provided. By 1850 steam vessels of a hundred horsepower could reach Athlone from the sea. The Shannon to this day remains a great navigable waterway used now chiefly by pleasurecraft. It is the monument to Thomas Wye Williams and Thomas Spring Rice. [Top] 

(vi) Steam Navigation 

The application of steam to ship propulsion came earlier enough to have a profound effect on the Irish economy even before the Famine. Because of the relatively large amount of space available, and the slow motion of the paddles it proved fairly easy to adapt the fixed steam engine to use in a ship. 

The great advantage of steam navigation was not speed but the rapidity with which a given ship could enter a port, discharge its cargo, take on new cargo, and depart promptly. There were no delays because of unfavourable winds. This proved very important for vessels crossing the Irish Sea. Where time was of less importance, as in coastwise traffic, the use of sail persisted into the twentieth century. 

The first paddlesteamer to cross the Irish Sea, or any sea, was the Thames which arrived in Dublin at the end of May 1815, a few weeks before the battle of Waterloo (SNL 1 June 1815) She weighed 72 tons (i.e. about the same as a large fishing vessel), had a draught of 4 feet 6 inches, and her engines were of 14 horsepower. She carried 15 tons of coal for the voyage. Her captain was called George Dodd, and he was 'steaming' his newly-built boat from Port Glasgow on the Clyde to London. As soon as he arrived in London he was summoned by Sir Henry Parnell to give evidence to the Holyhead Road Committee regarding the suitability of such ships for the Irish Sea traffic. He recommended slightly larger vessels of about 100 tons. 

Several companies were formed to establish steamship passenger lines between various ports across the Irish Sea. The Howth to Holyhead Company ordered four vessels of 109 tons each from the yards on the Clyde, schooner-rigged, and with engines for use in calms or against the wind. They each had three cabins, one with eight berths for ladies, a similar one for gentlemen, and a third with fourteen berths for steerage passengers. Six horses and eight carriages could also be carried. The Post Office was soon obliged to follow suit and order its own steam packets to secure regularity in the mails. It was several years before the machinery was sufficiently reliable to permit use during winter gales. The Irish mailsteamer was accorded absolute priority on the Irish Sea, and so sailed on through fogs sounding her horn continuously. 

Steam cargo vessels were introduced on the Irish Sea by Charles Wye Williams in 1823 when he founded the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, a company which was to last until the First World War. His first ship was the City of Dublin of 200 tons with an engine of 200 horsepower. A decade late he owned one of the largest steam fleets in the world. By 1830 there were 42 steam vessels on the Irish Sea owned by 16 different companies. Most of these had only one boat, but Williams had twelve and the St. George's Company eleven. [Top]  

(vii) Aeronautics 

Like electricity, aeronautics was intensely studied in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to see what practical use could be made of the principles discovered. Balloons could be filled with hydrogen or with hot air, the latter requiring some kind of stove in the basket. The first ascent by balloon in Ireland was made in 1785 just three years after the initial ascent by the Montgolfiers in Paris. In that year too the first attempt was made to cross the Irish Sea. 

James Sadler made another attempt on 1 October 1812. He had almost reached the Welsh coast when the wind changed and he was blown back. His son William Wyndham Sadler made a successful crossing on 22 July 1817. The experiments showed that though the feat was possible it could not be performed with any regularity. Both were showmen rather than persons of an enquiring cast of mind, and no attempt was made to use the balloons for scientific experiments. The son continued to give aerial displays until he was killed in an accident in 1824 (DNB, SNL 23 July 1817). The heavier-than-air machine, and the dirigible balloon, could not be developed before the internal combustion engine was developed. The steam engine was simply to heavy for the power it produced. Aeronautics remained in the domain of the savant.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.