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16 October 2014
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The Newry Canal - more detail

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

Newry canal map

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The Newry Canal is the oldest summit canal in Britain and Ireland. The canal has two main sections, the inland stretch from Portadown to Newry and the ship canal from Newry to Victoria Locks, halfway along Carlingford Lough.

Work began in 1732 and officially opened in 1742. It closed to navigation in 1947. It is 18 miles from the Point of Whitecote to Newry. It is 20 miles from Portadown to Newry along the Canal and there are 14 locks along the canal, 9 of them south of the summit level at Poyntzpass.

In 1982 Newry/Portadown Canal Joint Development Committee established. The development of the canal and towpath has had the involvement of Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon and Newry and Mourne Councils, as sections of the canal fall within these different council areas.

The main reason for building the canal was the discovery of coal deposits at Coalisland, Co Tyrone and the need to transport them quickly to Dublin at a time when road transport was difficult. Initially inland navigators or ‘navvies’ dug the canal and each labourer had to bring his own tools. These men lived in temporary camps along the canal while it was being built.

The summit level was 78 feet above sea level and locks had to be constructed to allow boats to climb this and then descend to Lough Neagh. The canal was 18 miles in length and travelled through the countryside between the towns of Newry and Portadown, passing Poyntzpass, Scarva, Madden Bridge, and Knock Bridge on the way. There were 14 locks in total on the canal.

One of the largest users of the Portadown Waterways was the firm of T A Shillington and Son Limited of Castle Street, who owned 4 barges. Boats came and went from Shillington’s Quay, drawing coal, timber and iron.

The extraction of sand was also an important activity and much of this was transported by canal. The Newry Canal helped to establish the town of Portadown as a leading inland port.

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

Newry canal
The canal and tow-path today


Many of the lighters or barges were privately owned, horse-drawn boats. As it could take days or a week to deliver cargo, the lighterman’s family often went with him on his journey. The haulers would have stayed in the bothy at Moneypenny’s Lockhouse if they needed overnight accommodation.

The Lockkeepers job was to look after the locks and help boats pass from one level to the next along the canal. The lock-keeper had to open and shut the lock gates, collect money called a “toll" from the lighters that were using the lock and to keep a record of all the boats that used the lock. The lock-keeper also had to conserve the water so that the locks could be kept open in dry weather.

The lock-keepers houses were owned by the same company that owned the canal. They employed the lock-keepers who were given the house as part of their job. The lock-keeper kept daily records of the boats passing through the lock and these were sent to the office in Newry every month.

Moneypenny’s Lock was originally known as Trueman’s Lock, after a family who lived in Brackagh House. Stephen Moneypenny became lock-keeper around 1800 and the Moneypenny family were the lock-keepers for around 85 years. Moneypenny’s Lock was the last lock before the canal entered the River Bann. Almost all the traffic on the inland canal was horse drawn.

The stables and the bothy for the accommodation of the men and the horses was provided at Moneypenny’s. The stables originally had stalls to accommodate 8 horses. The decline of canal transportation was due to the development and speed of rail transportation. The Ulster Railway extended from Moira to Lurgan and Portadown between 1839 and 1842.




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