In a very special edition of Your Place and
Mine, Michael McNamee, Mary Ferris and Marie McStay
explore the Newry Canal and Towpath from Portadown to
Newry. On the way, they hear about the history, wildlife,
activities, music and characters associated with the
canal and the surrounding area.
The programme includes how and why the canal
was built, wildlife at the Point of Whitecoat, the history
of the Moneypenny family, music in Scarva from the Poyntzpass
Silver band, birds at Lough Shark and an old fashioned
grocery shop serving the community for over a hundred
years. It all begins in a boat at Shillington's Quay......
three go walking -(left to right) Mary Ferris,
and Michael McNamee
Start point : Shillington’s Quay in Portadown
History of the canal
In its heyday it the canal ran from Portadown to Newry
– Over the course of this journey the Your Place
and Mine three try to discover why was the canal built
? What was it used for ? Why did it fall into decay
and what is its future?
Brian Cassells president of the Inland Waterways Association
of Ireland explains that the Newry Canal was the very
first “summit canal” in the UK. A summit
canal is one which gets its water from a summit lake,
in this case it is Acton Lake originally known as “Lough
Shark”, near Poyntzpass.
The engineer of the canal was a French Hugenout called
Richard Cassells. He was dismissed from the project after
about 3 years and it was then taken over by an engineer
called Thomas Steers who finished the project, bringing
the waterway through to the town of Newry.
At that time, 150 years ago, Newry was the 4th largest
port in Ireland, so there was a healthy volume of traffic
passing through it. The incoming cargo generated traffic
all the way up to Portadown and the area would have
been a hive of activity with barges, horses and carts
and people filling warehouses which distributed all
Many of the barges were built locally, in Portadown.
There were two main boat builders: Portadown Foundry
and Bright Brothers. Many of the barges built at that
time are still afloat on Ireland’s waterways today,
mostly as leisure craft.
John Douglas is the Tourism Councillor with Banbridge
Council. He has been involved in the recent restoration
of the tow-path along the waterway and explains that
it was essentially the railways which caused the decline
of the canal.
It had been in the ownership of the Newry Port &
Harbour Trust which in 1974 went into liquidation and
the canal was formally closed to shipping and navigation.
The liquidators approached local councils with the result
that Newry & Mourne District Council purchased the
ship canal and the inland section within its boundary
for the grand sum of two pounds!
Likewise, in the early ‘80s, Craigavon Borough
Council bought its section of the canal, also for the
sum of two pounds. In 1992 the liquidator formally handed
over the title of the middle section to Armagh and Banbridge
Councils. That meant that the entire canal and its towpath
was back in public ownership.
In the 1990s the question arose “could the canal
ever be reopened?” A joint committee carried out
a major technical feasibility study and decided that
the answer was yes. It could also be achieved using
the existing lock chambers as they were in excellent
condition because they had all been built using Mourne
Ken Bell, a boatman, makes the point that he would
like to see tourists from the south coming into the
north. He congratulates the government of the south
for their insight into restoring the waterways. He reflects
on the success of the Erne-Shannon waterway, which was
reopened in the mid ‘1990s, and the restored Grand
Canal from Dublin to Waterford. Ken points out that
there are French, Austrian and Swiss people to be found
in Shannon who could just as easily be coming to the
The number of low-level bridges around the town of
Newry would make the reopening of that section of the
canal prohibitively expensive, so the present proposal
is to use the Clanrye river with one or two additional
locks to circumnavigate the city of Newry and its bridges.
Ken Bell, on the left and Brian Cassells
put on a brave face
before boarding the boat with the YP&M team
Our intrepid YP&M threesome of Marie, Mary and
Michael, under the keen eye of Ken board his vessel
and set off down the the river Bann - the canal proper
doesn't begin until Whitecoat Point. Ken describes life
on the waterways and the perils of taking to the water
when the weather turns nasty including Lough Erne freezing
over. But as he points out this provides free ice for
Portadown Rowing Club
Keith Baillie is the chief coach of this large rowing
club which has a healthy membership, the main strength
of which is some 40 teenagers, the majority of which
are female. Keith tells us that Portadown is a very
strong club and, at the time of our visit, the junior
mens’ team was in training for the championships
to be held in Cork in July.
Point of Whitecoat
As the team approach the Newry canal proper at the
Point of Whitecoat, Marcus Malley the bio diversity
officer at Oxford Island explains his role which is
in essence to improve the wildlife of the Craigavon
He explains that there’s a fascinating history
to the fish in N.I. and the River Bann in particular.
“What most people don’t realise”,
he says, “is that the fish being caught here today
weren’t here 40 years ago."
Part of the 'corridor of wildlife' Marcus
which describes below
Marcus describes the canal and river as a “great
corridor” for wildlife. Otters are a regular sight.
Even in the middle of Portadown on a small tributary
of the Bann (Corkerin River) Otters have been spotted.
Mink are quite common around these parts, probably having
colonised from one or two Mink farms that used to be
Wild flowers and plants also thrive in the area and
Marcus points to “Brackagh Bog” where some
unique species of plants, no less than 19 species of
butterflies, damsel flies and dragonflies that are close
to unique to this part of the North are found.
In Craigavon, a programme is under way to try to improve
the count of wild flowers. Maintenance staff who tend
to the roads, footpaths and towpath are being trained
to improve the presence of wild flowers.
Marcus feels it is most important to get the people
living in the urban centres of Lurgan, Portadown &
Craigavon out to see the countryside and begin to appreciate
what a fantastic and valuable resource it is.
Originally known as “Trueman’s Lock”
after the family that once lived in Brackagh House,
its present day name is taken from a family who lived
in the adjacent house at least as far back as 1800.
Moneypenny’s Lock is the only lock on the canal
with the original lock-house still intact. This is as
a far as you can go in a boat on the route south, as
the lock is closed. Brian Cassells explains that the
canal basin is lined by a 9 inch layer of “puddled
clay”. When the clay was laid on the bottom of
the canal, sheep were driven over the top of it, as
their small feet were just right for puddling the clay
which forced the air bubbles out of it. This procedure
rendered the clay lining watertight and is a method
which gives a good seal for many years.
Enid Crowe & John Curran both work for museum services
in Craigavon. Enid describes the purpose of a stable
building which still stands at Moneypenny lock. “In
the days when the barges were horse-drawn, they couldn’t
get any further north than this point as the land beyond
became too muddy. You might have had up to eight horses
staying here while the boats went on under sail-power
into Lough Neagh”.
Enid describes how the system would have worked…
“The Moneypenny’s had an office here (still
open to the public as an information centre) where they
could see the boats coming through and would charge
a toll based on the content of the cargo and the weight
of the boat.” Cargoes could be grain, coal, bricks,
tiles and many others.
The canal people were virtually a separate community.
A lighterman and his family would have all lived on
the boat, with fairly limited accommodation. Depending
on water levels and traffic, it could sometimes take
two days to get from Portadown to Newry.
Looking down from the lighterman’s bridge into
the lock, John Curran describes how the lock is still
intact except for the lock gates. The gates would have
been of a wooden design of the 15th C, known as “mitre-lock”
gates, the invention of which is attributed to Leonardo
da Vinci. There were 13 locks like this one along the
Journey between Newry and Portadown.
This was the first lock ever used in the British Isles.
The first boat to pass through it was the “Cope”,
bringing a cargo of coal from Tyrone in 1742. John envisages
a day when the big lock gates will once again open and
close for the passage of traffic in the form of leisure
After a short jaunt on foot the YP&M team reach
Scarva and their first appointment is with Richard &
Rodney Whiteside, Chairman and Bandmaster of the Poyntzpass
Silver Band who give us an insight into the history
of the band, which started in 1884 as a flute band.
It carried on as such until WWI when it changed to a
part-flute, part brass band.
In 1951 flutes were put away and it changed into a
fully brass band. Over 50 years later it’s still
going strong and has a healthy membership with many
younger players involved in community events. This June
(2005) the band will play on a brand new bandstand here
The Poyntzpass Silver Band
perform at the canal edge
For more information on the band click
here - Poyntzpass
John Campbell is one of the men responsible for installing
the new bandstand. He explains that with the opening
of the visitor centre some four years ago they’d
been experimenting with Sunday afternoon band concerts
and had found them to be very popular.
With the help of a European grant the new victorian
styled bandstand allows concerts to take place whatever
the weather does and has allowed the band to extend
their concert season right through until the end of
Scarva has won both national and international awards
for “best kept village” and Leslie Baird
is a founder member of the Scarva Village Committee.
He lives in one of the oldest houses in the village
and he has seen many changes in the place over the years.
Leslie remembers well the canal in operation and says
it was a wonderful thing.
Scarva owes its existence to the Newry Canal. Leslie
remembers the last barges going through Scarva. “We
all used to swim here because there were no swimming
pools in those days… if you didn’t want
to swim they just picked you up and threw you in anyway,
clothes and all.” He says. “I’d love
to see it opened up again to the glory it had in my
young days here.”
Legend has it that King
William III (William of Orange) passed through Scarva
on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. Every year on
13th July, upwards of 100,000 people congregate in Scarva
to watch a commemorative re-creation of the battle.
In the Scarva visitors centre and tea room the walls
display pictures and letters depicting the history of
Scarva. Myrtle and Julie in the tea room talk about
the visitors who come from all around the world : Canada,
America and many from England, comments include “a
lovely spot” and “a real jewel”. But
it's with much more preparation that they approach the
staging of refreshments for the “sham fight”
- a re-creation of the Battle of Boyne where numbers
reach hundreds of thousands.
Fun and Games
The canal and tow-path offer a number of activities
and leisure opportunities to the local community and
tourists alike. Michael spoke with three people who
see the canal and tow-path as an excellent resource
for the general public to enjoy :
Fiona Bryant works for a countryside access and activity
network which looks after 30 sports and activities,
including The Waymarked Ways, a series of long distance
walks of which the Newry tow-path is a prime example.
This is especially true since the whole route has attained
built heritage status offering some beautiful sights.
Stephen Patterson from Sustrans, a sustainable transport
charity, which works on practical projects to encourage
people to walk, cycle and use public transport in order
to reduce motor traffic and its adverse effects, also
describes the towpath or “green way” as
a perfect environment for cyclists "it's about
20 miles long , completely level and traffic free".
Matthew Bushby, Recreational Development officer for
Craigavan Borough Council works closely with Fiona and
Stephen to deliver their offerings to the local community
and visitors. He is also keen to open the water ways
to small craft such as canoes where small landing areas
would offer easy access to and from the water. Plans
are in place for three such landing areas at Moneypennys
Matthew, Fiona, Michael and
Stephen talk fun and games
Sharks in the Lake?
As the journey south continues the YP&M team come
to Acton Lake also known locally as Lough Shark. Joe
Devlin a local bird enthusiast explains this rather
aggressive sounding name of the lough has a more romantic
meaning and reveals the amazing variety of wildlife
making its home on and around the lake including buzzards,
fighting swans, and bald headed coots.
Lake Acton or the more "romantic"
As the journey reaches its halfway point, Michael
takes a slight detour inalnd and makes his way uphill
to a local attraction near Poyntzpass - the Windmill
Stump, a 30 feet high derelict windmill, offering great
views over the surrounding area and down to the canal.
Once he catches his breath, he meets two members of
the Poyntzpass Historical Society.
Frank Waters explains how the unusually spelt Poyntzpass
got its name from an English Garrison Commander, while
Griff Wylie tells us about a famous connection with
the area and the Crimean War.
The Windmill Stump
John Douglas, whose father worked as a lock keeper
on the canal tells how in 1910 at Gordon’s locks
( later known as Waddels lock ) outside Poyntzpass,
he let through 30 boats in one day. John remembers the
boatmen with names such as McCann, Skelton, McGurkins
and how his mother remembers the boat men whistling
in the evening to summon the lock men to have the locks
prepared for them as they passed through.
Drownings were common and in one case an old boatman
who was hard of hearing had a young boat hand aboard
his boat. The young boat hand fell overboard and cried
for help. The old man didn’t hear his cries and
travelled on to the next lock before realising the boy
had fallen over. The canal was dredged and eventually
they found his body…but they also found the bodies
of two new born babies, which probably were born to
young girls working on the local estates.
Marie is able to lay claim to family connections on
this trip as she and Michael approach a home which replaced
an old lock keepers house near Jerrettspass that Marie's
husband's grandfather – James McCrish lived in
when he was the lock keeper.
The new owner of the building Micky Murphy, a musician,
who now lives there tried to rebuild the building as
a sympathetically to the old lock keepers style, as
possible using wood and slate. He talks to Marie and
Michael about the peacefulness of the area, gives us
a tune on his guitar and reveals why he once had a visit
from the LAPD !
Former Lock Keeper's cottage,
now home to
musician Mickey Murphy
Serving the community of Jerrettspass
G. E. W. Porter's shop at Jerrettspass has been faithfully
serving its community for over a hundred years. Stepping
into the shop is truly a step back in time. The old
style telephone box, original wooden architecture and
floor tiles reflect the age of the premises which dates
back to the end of the 1800's.
Marie chats to Gillian Porter who owns the shop and
has worked there as postmistress since 1983 and also
points the mic in the direction of a few of the shop's
customers including Francie, an elderly gentleman, who
has lived in the area all his life and says the change
in the mode of transport is the major change that he
has witnessed in the area, but a change for the better.
Mary Ferris speaks with another Ferris - retired female
jockey Ann Ferris, who won the Irish Grand National
in 1984 and Irish Sweep Hurdle in 1979 who talks about
her races and how the family tradition of horse racing
G E W Porter's shop at Jerrettspass.
left to right - Ann Ferris, Mary Ferris (no relation)
Gillian Porter, Marie McStay and Michael McNamee
Journeys end : Newry and what now for the canal?
The Your Place and Mine canal journey winds its way
to its conclusion in Newry. Standing next to the Clanrye
river, Michael McNamee looks to the future with three
men who are optimistic that the beauty and economic
potential of the canal can prosper :
John Douglas - Tourism Councillor with Banbridge Council
– would like to see the whole canal opened up
and is confident it will happen with the right funding
- in the region of £20 million is needed.
Sean Patterson - Chairperson of the Newry branch of
the Inland waterways association of Ireland remembers
cycling down to the Victoria sea-lock where he would
throw his bike on the deck of the large ships to get
a ride back up into Newry city centre. He hopes that
the inland canal can open up completely and that the
river Bann can be added to the system including swinging
bridges which would allow bigger vessels through.
Brian Cassells – President of the Inland Waterways
Association of Ireland is confident that the array of
wildlife which has inhabited the canals and tow-path
would not be sacrificed if a major scheme to open the
length of the waterway was introduced. He cites the
Erne Waterway as proof that the two can live in harmony,
in that case leaving one bank solely for the wildlife
John, Brian and Sean discuss
the future of the canal next
to the Clanrye river in Newry.
So as Michael, Marie and Mary drift off into the Newry
sunset they have been very impressed with what their
journey had to offer. Whether by foot, saddle or craft
the 20 mile long stretch has something for everyone.
If you have memories of any part of this trip or an
opinion of what the next step should be in the development
of the canals and tow-paths, please get in touch. You
can fill in the form at the foot of this page.
Danny Doran - June '08
I have walked and cycled the towpath for many years,
it is a wonderfullly peaceful setting for keeping in
shape. The various wildlife and birds means there is
always something interesting to see throughout the year.
But take your litter home!
Gladys Jean Montgomery - Mar '08
What a wonderful story of the history of the County I was born in. As a small
child I remember fishing for crabs in the Canal just below the Grinnin Road.
I was born in Jerretspass in 1939. and have longed to know more about the area.
Although I left Jerretspass as a small child to live in Omangh with my parents
William Harold (Billy Mckee) and Annie Mckee (nee Nummy of the Commons Hall
Newry) I would appreciate any info about them if anyone remembers. My Father
was on the GNR trains as driver.
I now live in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. Looking
forward to hearing from someone.
Ryan Awdon - February '08
I got the canal up and running again
M MacIntyre - Jan '07
I am descended from John Moneypenny born 1779 ; died
1844 ;a farmer of Brackagh, Portadown whose grandson
John Moneypenny born1830; died 1901; was a 'Lighterman'
and 'Captain of Lighter' on the Newry Canal.
Do you have any more information on the Moneypenny family.
If so I would be very grateful to hear of it.
M MacIntyre - Jan '07
I can supply some limited information about the Moneypenny
family of Moneypenny's lock if anyone would like it?
Ann Johnston - Mar '07
Does anyone have the genealogy of the Moneypenny family
who were lockeepers on the canel?
Bill Kenny - Oct ' 06
I am of Irish descent and am interested in reading
just about any article pertaining to Ireland, and
" all who were involved in any way with this lovely
trek through a previously unknown (to me) area of
Ireland. It was very informative ,and if it were at
all possible I'd be packing a bag to travel there
myself to experience first hand its natural beauty.
I can only hope you do further articles on this seemingly
lovely peaceful area of Northern Ireland.
Pat McAleavey - May '06
Isn't it a shame that a wonderful piece of engineering
like this has been lost to time and neglect. If this
was in GB any amount of money would be thrown at to
restore it to its former glory. The Newry Canal and
it's towpath is a jewel in the crown for all local councils
that straddles its length.
Paul Mc Keown - March '06
It would give me great joy to see the Newry canal returned
to its former glory. Having both my grandfathers work
on board the vessels that transported cargos to and
from the town. Albert Mc Crum who worked on the barges
traveling inland, and Micheal Mc Keown who worked on
the ships traveling seaward. Like Sean Patterson I also
have fond memories as a young boy of the ships traveling
between Albert Basin and Victoria Lock.
Lesley Moneypenny - Jan '06
Would love to see the canal and lock house one day.
It looks wonderful.
Nial Murphy - Dec '05
Well, there you are now. Here am I looking for a postcode
on Google and I come across this absolutely woderful
history of the Newry Canal and its environs. I was very
impressed to hear my old and dear friend Frank Waters,
who I went to school with, and Griffie Wylie talk about
our home village. I was born and reared in Poyntzpass
and left it to work and live in England. Four members
of my family still reside in Poyntzpass. Does Mary Ferris
have any connection to Poyntzpass? There was a Ferris
family livimg between Acton and Poyntzpass in the 1950's.
They were great Racing people. Thank you for a lot of
Brian Neill - June '05
Listened to the relevant program on RADIO ULSTER this
morning which was excellent. The overall image of the
canal was brought to life by the many great descriptive
narratives. Well done BBC. Thank you.
I will be perusing your CANAL website which at first
glance appears to match the excellance of the corresponding
radio program. Thanks again.