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16 October 2014
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Coalisland Canal

Coalisland grew up round the canal, which was built in the 18th century to export coal from the Tyrone coalfields. The canal was finally abandoned in 1954.

Coalisland cornmill and basin in the 1930s

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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 Waterways News
     - 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.

Map showing location of Coalisland canal

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.

Coalisland cornmill and basin
Coalisland 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 - coal.

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.

Remains of Lock 7 on Coalisland canal
Remains of Lock 7 on Coalisland Canal in 2003.
Photograph courtesy of Jim Canning.
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.

(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 canal.)

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

Coalisland 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.

River Bann and Lough Neagh Association - find out more about the Coalisland canal and view pictures.

Lough Neagh Partnership - view pictures of the Coalisland canal in their photo gallery.

BBC 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.)

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