Jim Canning's earliest memory of the canal is ....
"standing on the footpath in front of our house and shop at Harbour
View and catching the grains of Indian corn as they
bounced from the high-sided carts carrying the grain
from the lighters in the Basin to John Stevenson & Co's
mill on the Dungannon Road. Further down Lineside, imported
coal was lifted from lighters for Kilpatrick's Coal
Yard nearby. Across the Basin on Main Street, sand was
dropped down a chute into the lighter below for transport
to Belfast, while at the top of Washingbay Road the
men from Ulster Fireclays carefully loaded their clay
sewer pipes and bends of all shapes and sizes into the
hold of a lighter moored opposite the works."
(Extract from article written for Inland
- Volume 27 Number 3)
The town of Coalisland evolved from the settlement
which grew up around the terminus of the Coalisland
Canal. Work on the canal began in 1733, but progress
was slow and it wasn't officially opened until 1787.
The push to build a waterway had come from the desire
to cheapen the cost of transporting coal from the Tyrone
coalfields to Dublin. The canal linked the coalfields
with Lough Neagh, via the River Blackwater.
The canal did not thrive in its early years and in
fact came dangerously close to being abandoned. However,
the export of agricultural produce and import of farm
and mine equipment kept the waterway open. In the 19th
century serious repairs had to be carried out to save
the canal. A rejuvenation programme was carried out.
Dredging, digging, rebuilding locks, establishing a
proper lock-keeping system, creating proper towpaths
- all this work transformed the "old navigation"
into the Coalisland Canal whose terminus rapidly became
the focal point of a unique village and inland port.
As the 19th century progressed traffic on the canal
increased but never reached the volume hoped for. During
this period the Basin (terminus) became a nucleus trading
depot for the surrounding towns and villages. The ease
of communication afforded by the waterway encouraged
the rise of several small local industries. It was now
possible to transport large quantities of general merchandise
to Belfast in three days by horse-drawn lighters. Newry
was a two day journey. Tolls, however, remained low
leaving the canal breaking even most of the time.
cornmill and basin in 1930s.
Photography courtesy of Jim Canning
Towards the end of the 19th century trade and profits
began to improve, but sadly a major threat began to
loom on the horizon. Although trade increased officially
with each passing year, competition with the railways
soon evolved into a struggle. Coalisland was by then
really Ireland's only trans-shipment centre. Exports
included sand, bricks, tiles, pottery, fireclay and
agricultural goods. Products being imported in were
grocery provisions, hardware, grain and - ironically
Overall tonnage was rising at the beginning of the
20th century, but motorised transport was on its way.
Speed of delivery became more important and lorries
could transport produce directly to its final destination.
In the 1930s the major grain merchant in the area, whose
mill was in the actual Basin, began to invest in a fleet
of lorries. However, some local businesses continued
to support the canal and the timber and hardware importer,
John Stephenson and Son Ltd, still operated its own
lighters on the waterway.
The Second World War brought rationing of goods and
even requisitioning of lighters by the government to
be used as military transports. Wartime traffic was
sparse and, despite passing a stringent inspection in
1943, the waterway was already earmarked for closure
by the Stormont government. The last commercial lighter
sailed in 1946.
In 1954 the Tyrone Navigation, or Coalisland Canal,
was officially abandoned and relegated to the status
of a drainage ditch. In 1961 the Basin was drained and
filled in. One lighter, the Eliza, was buried where
she lay - just where the car park of the Coalisland
Heritage Centre (formally Stewart's Mill) is situated.
The remains of the entire canal are now the property
of the Department of Agriculture and the local council.
of Lock 7 on Coalisland Canal in 2003.
Photograph courtesy of Jim Canning.
(Historical information included
in this feature is drawn from an article written
by Thomas McIlvenna for the Coalisland Canal Branch.
Thomas is presently writing a history on the Coalisland
A group called 'The Friends
of the Coalisland Canal' was formed in the
1990s and has held events such as canal walks
and lectures to raise awareness of the canal's
heritage and to explore the potential benefits
to the area of re-opening it. (This group became
a branch of the Inland Waterways Association of
Ireland in May 2003.)
Small Boats Rally
The most recent event organised by the group was a
small boats rally. On Saturday 17th April
a fleet of small boats sailed up the Coalisland Canal
for the first time in over fifty years. Paddy O'Flaherty
reported live from the event for the programme. Click
here to hear his report.
Buildings and other constructions (in various stages
of decay) can still be seen in the Coalisland area.
Where and what are they? You can share information about
these canal remnants here on the site or we'd be keen
to hear your stories or memories about the canal when
it was in operation.
Useful Web Links
Canal Branch of the IWAI - read in more depth about
the history of the canal, view photographs of the canal
past and present and find out more about events organised
by the group.
Bann and Lough Neagh Association - find out more
about the Coalisland canal and view pictures.
Neagh Partnership - view pictures of the Coalisland
canal in their photo gallery.
programme on canals in N. Ireland - traces the development
of canals here and considers future restoration possibilities.
Inland Waterways Association
of Ireland - explores the history and navigation
of the numerous Irish waterways, as well as providing
links to the various branches' websites.
Last working coalmine
at Coalisland - view archive
footage of a news report on its closure
(The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.)