Northern Ireland

Shannon-Erne Waterway: 'We have sun, rain, whiskey and a boat'

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Media captionShannon-Erne Waterway: 'Sun, rain, whiskey and a boat'

The restoration of the Shannon-Erne Waterway 25 years ago was a symbol of reconciliation.

It brought life back to a weed-choked canal, abandoned for a century.

The original Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal was a Victorian feat of engineering, linking the Shannon River with Lough Erne and connecting Belfast, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford by boat.

The 63-km (49-mile) canal passes through 16 locks, from Leitrim through Cavan to Fermanagh.

By the time it opened in 1860, the commercial heyday of the waterways was already over as canals were replaced by railways to transport goods.

Only eight boats passed along its length before it closed in 1869.

When Ireland was divided in 1921, part of the waterway formed the border.

But in the late 1980s, the canal restoration became a symbol of the increasing co-operation between the UK and Ireland.

The £30m cost was provided by the European Union and the International Fund for Ireland, which saw it as a flagship project that "brought regeneration to an area that had suffered from long-term neglect".

Local ambivalence

Not everyone shared the enthusiasm for the project.

Mickey McCaldin has hired boats on Lough Erne since 1970 and recalled that boat operators on both sides of the border were "ambivalent as to how successful it would be".

"The feeling seemed to have been then that - better spend £10m in improving the infrastructure on the Erne and £20m on improving the infrastructure on the Shannon than to spend it on a canal that had never worked," he said.

Observers at the official opening on 23 May 1994 might also have questioned whether this tourism project would be a success.

It was carried out amid tight security at Corraquil Lock near Derrylin in County Fermanagh.

Image caption Reconstruction of the waterway began in 1991; it was officially opened in 1994

The entire area was sealed off by police and soldiers, while camouflaged commandos patrolled the water in boats.

The VIPs were flown in by helicopter and, before carrying out their official duties, the British and Irish delegations discussed the latest terrorist atrocities and political developments.

In his speech, the then Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew spoke of the "high potential that exists for cross-border cooperation".

"We have built an unmatched amenity for the people of the border area and of Ireland as a whole and indeed for visitors from far and wide," added Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring.

Those who doubted the success of the project were to be proved wrong.

After 25 years, approximately 64,000 passages have been made through Lock 1 and 54,000 through Lock 16.

Image caption As well as locks, there are 15 car parks, 13 public toilets, 12 public showers and six laundries

Thousands of tourists come to experience the tranquillity and scenery along the waterway.

Philipp, Roman and Jonny from Switzerland have returned every year since 1998.

"It's nice here, it's Irish weather, we have sunshine, we have rain, whiskey and the boat," said Philipp.

Roman added: "It's peaceful: no internet, no computer, completely off-line, that's cool."

'Humble pie'

After his early lack of enthusiasm Mickey McCaldin said history had proved him wrong.

"The canal has transformed both waterways," he added.

"I must eat humble pie and say hats off to the guys who stuck to it and said what a valuable asset this would be."

The cross-border body Waterways Ireland is responsible for managing and maintaining more than 1,000km of inland navigable waterways.

It has recently developed the Shannon-Erne Blueway, a network of scenic trails for canoeing, cycling and walking.

As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, the waterway is now faced with the challenge of Brexit.

Mickey McCaldin said even though the waterway followed the border, even during the Troubles there was never a "hard border" or customs checks on the water.

Although the political uncertainty has had an impact on tourism, he is confident for the future.

"Brexit has had an impact on visitor numbers this year, without a shadow of doubt the lake is quieter," he said.

"We have the most fabulous natural asset here and I never, ever had any doubts about the future of Lough Erne and I don't have any now."

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