Northern Ireland

Stretch of historic Newry to Portadown canal to be reflooded

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Media captionWork is being carried out to restore the canal, as Conor Macauley reports

A four-mile stretch of an historic canal is to be reflooded for the first time in almost 75 years.

New lock gates have been fitted on a section of the Newry to Portadown canal between Poyntzpass and Scarva.

Finished in 1742, it is the oldest man-made canal in Britain and Ireland.

Volunteers have spent almost 1,000 hours making and fitting the gates which have now been closed to allow a build-up of water.

Ultimately, it is hoped the section will be used by shallow draft boats and canoeists.

Image copyright River Bann and Lough Neagh Association
Image caption In the canal's heyday, the harbour at Poyntzpass was a busy hub

The 18-mile canal was built to bring coal from newly discovered coal seams in County Tyrone to Dublin.

But it was cheaper to ship it from England and so the canal was used mostly for the transport of linen and butter.

Image caption Swans and cygnets on the Newry to Portadown canal

It fell into decline with the arrival of the railways and was abandoned in 1938.

Now volunteers with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland - many of them pensioners - are helping to restore it bit by bit.

Peter Maxwell is chairman of the Newry and Portadown branch which is doing the work.

He calls the volunteers, who have put in around 1,000 hours to complete the project, the "bus pass brigade". One of them is 82.

"We split the work up," he says. "People choose what they want to do themselves".

Image caption The canal fell into decline with the arrival of the railways and was abandoned in 1938
Image copyright River Bann and Lough Neagh Association
Image caption The canal was used mostly for the transport of linen and butter

The canal rises in Carlingford Lough and falls towards Portadown, but the four-mile section being re-flooded is called the summit level.

It is flat so that means with the lock gates at both ends, it should fill up to a depth of around one metre.

"The rising of the level will take the water over the existing weed. It's not an aquatic weed and so hopefully it won't continue to grow," says Peter.

The steel lock gates each weigh a tonne. The money for them came from local councils.

Image caption Peter Maxwell is chairman of the Newry and Portadown branch which is doing the work

The mayor of Armagh Banbridge Craigavon council Darryn Causby came along to help shut the gates.

"It is an excellent investment in the tourism of the area, and it is also an excellent investment in the local people who have an interest in the heritage of their canal," he said.

The canal is an important drainage waterway, so the canal gates will only be closed over the summer.

In the winter, they will be left open to prevent flooding.