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The Newry Canal

Michael McNamee, Mary Ferris and Marie McStay explore the Newry Canal and Towpath from Portadown to Newry

Newry canal

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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......

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

three go walking -(left to right) Mary Ferris, Marie McStay
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.

Brian Cassells gives a brief history of the canal

 

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 over Ireland.

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.

John Douglas gives his thoughts on the canal's past

 

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 granite.

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 north.

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.

 


 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

Ken Bell, on the left and Brian Cassells

Ken Bell, on the left and Brian Cassells put on a brave face
before boarding the boat with the YP&M team

 

Ken Bell describes the plus and minus points of life on the canal

 

 

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 your drinks!


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.

Members of the Portadown rowing club talk about their sport

 

 

 


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 area.

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."

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

single swan

Part of the 'corridor of wildlife' Marcus which describes below

 

Marcus Malley describes the "great corridor" of wildlife in this area

 

 

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 in Monaghan.

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.


Moneypenny Lock

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.

Brian Cassells explains the unique way the bottom of the canal is constructed

 


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.

John Curran explains the lock system and process

 

 

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 craft.


Scarva

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 in Scarva.

 

History and music from the Poyntzpass Silver Band

 

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

Poyntzpass Silver Band

The Poyntzpass Silver Band perform at the canal edge

For more information on the band click here - Poyntzpass Silverband

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 August.

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.

Leslie Baird reminisces about Scarva and its link to the canal

 

 

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 Lock.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

Matthew, Fiona, Michael and Stephen talk fun and games

Matthew, Fiona, Michael and Stephen talk fun and games

 

Listen to Matthew, Stephen and Fiona describe their roles in improving the
leisure opportunities on and around the canal

 

 

 


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.

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

Lake Acton

Lake Acton or the more "romantic" Lough Shark

 

Joe Devlin reveals the meaning of Lough 'Shark' and describes the abundance of wildlife around the lough

 

 

 


Poyntzpass

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.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

The Windmill Stump

The Windmill Stump above Poyntzpass

 

Poyntzpass Historical Society share their local knowledge

 

 

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.

John Douglas recalls stories about the boatmen and lock keepers around Poyntzpass at the start of the 1900's

 


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 !

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

former lock kepper's cottage

Former Lock Keeper's cottage, now home to
musician Mickey Murphy

 

Mickey Murphy describes his former lock-keepers home and treats us to a
song on his guitar

 

 

 


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 is continuing.

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

G E W Porter's shop at Jerrettspass

G E W Porter's shop at Jerrettspass.
left to right - Ann Ferris, Mary Ferris (no relation)
Gillian Porter, Marie McStay and Michael McNamee

 

 

The customers and staff of G E W Porter tell their story of Jerrettspass

 

 


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 to prosper.

 

Picture of Tommy Shields in tropical kit taken in the Red Sea just before war was declared in 1939

John, Brian and Sean discuss the future of the canal

John, Brian and Sean discuss the future of the canal next
to the Clanrye river in Newry.

 

Listen to Brian, Sean and John spell out their vision for the future of the
Newry canal and tow-path

 

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.

 

 

More detail on the canal

 

YOUR RESPONSES

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.
jeanmontattelusdotnet

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 I "THANK " 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 pleasure.

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.

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