BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

20 February 2015
Primary Focus

BBC Homepage
BBC NI Schools

Primary Focus
Ordering Page
Schools Help

Contact Us

The programmes all feature specific locations in Northern Ireland and they also provide scope for work on a variety of themes e.g. the environment, where people live, what people do. The aim is to provide material which is relevant to pupils' experiences and which is illustrative of life in Northern Ireland.
About the Programme
Programme 1 - Canals
Monday, 11 October 1999

ARCHIVE - SELB programme code :TI 1449

This episode is now part of our archive. This programme is still available to schools to borrow or purchase from the Audio Visual Recording service at the SELB. Please quote the SELB programme code in your correspondence. See our ordering page for more information.

Jamie Darling goes out and about in the Ulster countryside to discover our forgotten canals. The story begins in the old Tyrone coalfields and Jamie traces the development of our inland waterway system which was designed to carry local coal to Dublin and Belfast. Some Key Stage Two pupils show Jamie around the Newry Inland Canal and Ship Canal and we learn about the heyday of the canals and some of the problems which beset them. We learn how the advent of the railways sounded the death-knell of our canals as viable commercial routes and Jamie explores the remains of the old Lagan and Coalisland Canals and finds that a section of the Lagan Canal between Sprucefield to Moira now lies under the M1 Motorway. We see work in progress at the Island Site in Lisburn where an old canal lock is being restored. Then it's over to the newly restored Shannon-Erne Waterway which provides a model of what can be achieved in bringing a derelict canal back to life. All the leisure activities and rural regeneration which follow restoration are highlighted. Our story ends with the Ulster Canal and the hopes of canal enthusiasts and local people that it will soon be restored and prove to be an artery bringing new life-blood to some quiet corners of the Province.
Image of a canal boat at a gate
In the Beginning
From early times man has used rivers and lakes as a means of transport and in a country as densely wooded as Ireland once was, waterways were vital arteries for travel and communication. In the 9th Century the Viking Turgesius sailed up the River Shannon into Lough Ree and up the River Bann into Lough Neagh. Where the rivers were too shallow or a natural barrier such as a waterfall impeded their passage, the Vikings would lift their longships out of the water and drag them overland around the obstacle.

Over the centuries people have been constantly searching for ways of making natural rivers more useful to mankind. Over 2000 years ago the Chinese invented vertically rising gates through which boats could be hauled upstream or lowered downstream. This method wasted a large amount of water so the early Chinese experimented with slipways and then pound locks where a chamber was built into a weir wall with vertically rising upper and lower gates into which the boats could be floated and raised and lowered. But it was left to Leonardo da Vinci to invent the swinging or mitre gates which we still use today. No one has managed to improve on his design.
The Canal Age
The first canal in Ireland was cut in the 12th Century. Known as The Friar's Cut it allowed boats to pass from Lough Corrib to the sea at Galway. But the real Canal Age in Ireland began in the 18th Century. The story begins in deepest Tyrone with the discovery of coal deposits. How could this 'black gold' be transported from Tyrone to the hearths and factories of the capital Dublin? The state of the roads at the time made transportation overland next to impossible. Arthur Young writing on his tour of Ireland (1776-1779) commented that "on tolerably level ground a single horse cart could draw a load of one ton". A barge on water drawn by a single horse can carry as much as 70 tonnes perhaps more slowly but still increasing the efficiency by about 35 times.
Image of uses of a Canal
The Newry Canal
A plan was made to transport coal from the Drumglass Colliery near Coalisland on horse-drawn barges via Lough Neagh and onto the Port of Newry where the same boats would hoist sail and proceed to Dublin by sea, sailing close to the coast. So in 1731 work began on the Newry Canal which was to link one of Ireland's chief ports with Lough Neagh by means of a cut connecting Carlingford Lough with the Upper Bann near Portadown. The Newry Canal was the first true summit level canal in the British Isles. Completed in 1742 it rises up through 4 locks to cross the high ground and then drops down through 9 locks to reach sea level at Newry. The Newry Ship Canal was completed below the town between 1759 and 1769 allowing larger vessels access to Newry Dock. The Victoria Sea Lock marks the seaward end of the Newry Ship Canal and is designed to keep the canal and sea separate, ensuring that the level of the ship canal does not rise or fall with the flow of the tide.
The Tyrone Navigation (The Coalisland Canal)
In 1733 work began on the Tyrone Navigation which was to link the Tyrone coalfields with Lough Neagh via the River Blackwater. Although this was never a successful canal due to the fact that it was built 3 miles east of the chief mining area, it is, however, an interesting piece of engineering as it includes the only examples in Ireland of 'inclined planes', locally known as 'dry hurries', which were designed to raise and lower boats quicker than a lock or series of locks might have done. An 'inclined plane' is a slope with big rollers on which the boats could be pulled up and down. The boats going down the slope were connected with by chains round pulleys to the boats to be hauled up. The 'dry hurries' were not a success and before long this part of the canal was abandoned and coal had to be carted to Coalisland to be loaded onto canal barges there.
The Lagan Canal
The River Lagan carved a way through the hills to within about 6 miles of Lough Neagh and when coal was discovered in Co. Tyrone the idea of creating a navigable link with Belfast became very attractive. The construction of the Newry Canal added a new urgency if Belfast was to be developed as a port to rival Newry. The navigation was opened to traffic from Belfast to Lisburn in September 1763. But it was to be 30 years before the final link in the Northern network connecting Newry, Coalisland and Belfast would be completed when the Lagan Canal reached Lough Neagh. However there were frequent delays on the Lagan Canal due to floods damaging the banks, silting of the waterway and shortage of water in the summer. It was a standing joke at the time that a vessel could make a round trip to the West Indies in the time taken to pass through the Lagan Navigation.
The Ulster Canal
At the beginning of the 19th Century the idea of linking the lowlands around Lough Neagh with the Erne Basin became popular with the more progressive landowners and merchants of Armagh, Monaghan and Fermanagh. The 46 mile long Ulster Canal was constructed between 1825 and 1842. It ran from Charlemont on the River Blackwater to Wattle Bridge on the River Finn, south- east of Upper Lough Erne and was planned as an important section of a great waterway which was to cross Ireland from east to west, from Belfast to Limerick.
The Strabane Canal
In 1791 an Act was passed authorising the construction of a 4 mile canal from the tidal waters of the Foyle, about 10 miles upstream of Londonderry to Strabane. The canal brought considerable prosperity to Strabane in the first quarter of the 19th Century and the town became a flourishing market for all sorts of agricultural produce.
The Broharris Canal
In the 1820's a cut was made about 2 miles long on the south shore of Lough Foyle near Ballykelly towards Limavady. It served both as a drainage channel and a navigation with goods being brought from the port of Derry, and shellfish and kelp from the sand banks along the shore.
The Upper and Lower Bann Navigations
Finally between 1847 and 1859 important improvements were carried out on both the Upper and Lower Bann, dredging and deepening the river courses for the benefit of both drainage and inland navigation, constructing locks on the Lower Bann and building landing slips and small quays at many points around the shores of Lough Neagh.
The canals in decline
For well over a hundred years the Newry and Lagan Canals enjoyed a moderate degree of success. The chief cargoes carried from Belfast were imported coal for the industries of the Lagan valley and lime; grain was carried on the return journey. On the Newry Canal the trade in coal was not as great as had been expected and instead the barges carried bulk agricultural produce and general merchandise. However by the time the Ulster Canal was opened a new rival to the canals had arrived in 1837 with the first railways being built in the north of Ireland. In 1852 the line between Dublin and Belfast was completed. The section between Portadown and Dundalk through Goraghwood ran parallel to the Newry Canal and sounded the death-knell of the Newry Inland Canal as a trading artery. In 1865 the Newry and Armagh Railway was completed with a junction at Armagh bringing Newry into direct contact with the prosperous Ulster Railway from Belfast so by 1865 Newry was linked to its hinterland and to the Lough Neagh Basin, the Lagan valley and Belfast by rail.

The lack of commercial success of the canals led to their neglect by the authorities and they gradually fell into disuse. Nowadays the goods once transported by lighters along quiet waterways are carried by container lorries along motorways. Indeed a section of the M1 was built on part of the old Lagan Canal route between Sprucefield and Moira.
The Present
Now all over Europe canals are being restored and reopened as people realise their potential for leisure based activities and both rural and urban regeneration, the creation of permanent sustainable jobs and the enhancement of the environment.
The Shannon-Erne Waterway
Begun in 1846, the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal had a very short history when after 9 years in operation it was abandoned in 1869. 120 years of neglect had reduced the waterway to a weed-choked channel of broken bridges and missing locks when work began to restore the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal. It was reopened in 1994 as The Shannon-Erne Waterway and is now navigable for modern pleasure cruisers and the new locks are operated by a push-button electro-hydraulic system. Jointly sponsored by both governments, the £30 million cross-border project was carried out over three years reconstructing the canal to modern standards.
Image of a canal then and now in Libsurn
The Future
Waterway restoration is a process well established in Great Britain and which has begun in the Republic. In Northern Ireland it is an adventure which is just beginning. Nature has given Northern Ireland a good start where inland waterway navigation is concerned. With a little help from man, the Erne, from Belleek to Belturbet, and the two Banns and Lough Neagh still provide today more than 100 miles of navigable waterway. Now in varying stages of dereliction, the Ulster canal, the Lagan Navigation and the Newry Canal offer the possibility of another 100 miles. The Ulster Canal lying half in Northern Ireland and half in the Republic offers the most attractive target for restoration particularly as it would link Lough Neagh with the new Shannon-Erne Waterway.

Date of opening
Date of abandonment
Newry Canal
Coalisland Canal
Lagan Canal
Newry Ship Canal
Ulster Canal
Strabane Canal
Strabane/Dysert 1962
Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal
(Shannon-Erne Waterway re-opened 1994)

Before the Programme
  • Discuss the meaning of the following keywords:
  • Discuss the children's understanding of what a canal is.
  • Do they know of any canals in Northern Ireland?
  • Is there a canal in your area?
  • Do the children have any ideas about why canals were made and what they were used for?
  • Explain and discuss the key words.

After the Programme
Whole class
  • Discuss the children's reactions to the broadcast. Had they any idea there are so many canals and waterways in Northern Ireland?
  • Would they like to see the canals restored?
  • How would it benefit people in Northern Ireland if the canals were restored?
  • Distribute copies of WORKSHEET 1 The Cruise of the Callabar. Read the words together and discuss what some of the little jokes in the song lyrics tell us about what it was like to work on a canal long ago.
  • Distribute copies of the map on WORKSHEET 2. Ask the pupils to consult a map of Northern Ireland and then fill in the names of the towns and villages which border the canals marked on their map. Using the scale on the map, ask the pupils to work out the length of each of the canals.
Small groups
  • Distribute copies of WORKSHEET 3 and ask the children to read through the ways in which a canal corridor can be developed. Ask them to decide which activity or development would be most important to them and number the advantages beginning with 1 for their favourite etc. This task should stimulate some group discussion about how people have different priorities and how these can be accommodated.
Whole class
  • Distribute copies of WORKSHEET 4 (Canal Restoration and the Environment) and read and discuss the information given on zebra mussels.
  • Ask the pupils to write a letter or an article to a local newspaper expressing concern about the spread of zebra mussels in Northern Ireland's inland waterways and suggesting some ways in which that spread might be controlled.

Further Resources
Once Upon the Lagan (The story of the Lagan Canal) by May Blair. Published by Blackstaff Press. Full of facts, wonderful photographs, colourful anecdotes of lighter-folk song lyrics.
The Canals of the North of Ireland by W.A. Mc Cutcheon published by David & Charles; Dawlish Macdonald: London. Maps, photographs and detailed histories of Northern canals.
The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland by W.A. Mc Cutcheon published by Dept of Environment for N. I. (contains a wonderful chapter on canals complete with photos)
Waterways by Dick Warner with Niall Fallon published by Channel Four Books, Boxtree & RTE. A very readable account of a journey by boat through the North West of Ireland including descriptions of the newly restored Shannon-Erne Waterway.
Ireland's Inland Waterways by Ruth Delany published by Appletree Press. A celebration of 250 years of Ireland's inland waterways with detailed historical detail, maps, photographs and prints.

Scarva Visitor's Centre Tel. 01762-832163
Moneypenny's Lockhouse Tel. 01762-322205
World Canals Conference Ireland 2001 e-mail
Shannon-Erne Waterway Tel. 00 353 78 44855 /
The Ulster Waterways Group Tel. 01232 230446
SUSTRANS (The National Cycle Network in N. Ireland Tel. 01232 434569
Coalisland Heritage Centre Tel. 01868-748532
The worksheets for this resource are in HTML format. Click on the links below to view the worksheets:
Geography Programmes
Programme 1:
Programme 2:
Programme 3:
Strangford Lough
Programme 4:
Textile Industry
Programme 5:
Traffic Survey
Can't find your subject? Visit our archive section where you can find programmes supporting other curricular subjects, including: Geography, History, Citizenship and English.

Visit the archive.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy