Ulster Canal: €12m project to revitalise communities

By Jessica Black

  • Published
Ulster CanalImage source, Brian Cassells
Image caption,
The last boat sailed on the Ulster Canal waterway in 1931

A €12m project to restore a disused canal that criss-crosses the Irish border could revitalise tourism and communities, campaigners have said.

The Ulster Canal runs through counties Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, in Northern Ireland, and County Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland.

The last boat sailed on the waterway in 1931.

The Irish government has announced funds to reopen the canal between Clones and Clonfad, County Monaghan.

The final commitment to funding for the €12m (£10.4m) project, which will include a greenway, refurbishment, and a marina, was announced on Wednesday.

Some €5.5m (£4.7m) will come from the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, in addition to €6m (£5.2m) already committed to the project from the Taoiseach's (Irish prime minister) "Shared Island Fund".

Two new bridges will be built and a third heritage bridge will be restored along with a 40-berth marina, tow path, walking trails, parking and an amenity area.

'Tourism prize'

The Ulster Canal was a commercial failure in its time and fell into disrepair as the road and rail network improved - but advocates for its reopening said it will benefit the area.

Image caption,
The Ulster Canal fell into disrepair as the road and rail network improved

Brian Cassells has spent a lifetime campaigning for the restoration of the canal.

"The Ulster Canal never was a successful waterway commercially," he said.

"And this begs the question: Why then should we reopen it? But the new prize is the tourist industry.

"Tourism is the big development for the island of Ireland.

"The reopening is a success story before it ever happens. If we're looking for joint projects, north and south to promote, this is the ideal one.

"This is the one that brings communities together."

The water part of the project is expected to be finished by mid-2023, with some amenities expected to be completed by early 2024.

Image source, Waterways Ireland
Image caption,
A section of the canal between Monaghan and Fermanagh will reopen, 90 years after it was abandoned

Hugh Tunney manages the Ulster Canal Stores in Clones, County Monaghan, across the road from where he grew up.

He remembers horse dealers using the canal store yards.

"The Ulster Canal project has been talked about since the Good Friday Agreement - we're talking about 23 years - it's a huge development for Clones town and the whole region," he said.

"There'll be a huge buzz around it whenever construction works start - the reopening of the canal and the waterpark amenity, it'll bring a whole new dimension to Clones."

Image caption,
Hugh Tunney, manager of Ulster Canal Stores, remember horse dealers using the store yards in Clones

Brendan McAnallen is a business owner and local historian in Benburb, County Tyrone.

The section of canal near him is miles away from the planned restoration, but he believes a full reopening up to Lough Neagh is eventually inevitable.

An increase in visitors to the riverside village during lockdown showed its potential, he said.

"This project will happen and it will be important - this whole green agenda, the southern government is looking at that in a big way and it's only a matter of time before it happens up here.

"It will open up the whole of rural Ireland and that's what we badly need."

Potential for development

Mr McAnallen's hope is shared by Barry John MacNeice, who runs Tomneys Bar and his sister, Julianna, who runs Charlemont House B&B in Moy, County Tyrone.

Mr MacNiece said he looked forward to "linking up" with his neighbours in Country Fermanagh and Monaghan.

"There's a great appetite for it as an alternative way to explore the island both from the domestic and international market," he said.

"It's just a matter of when it may happen. We truly hope to see it develop and explore it within our lifetime."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the project was a "long-standing government priority, with an important north-south dimension".

"This investment has the potential to vastly enhance the lives of people and communities along the border by creating a new amenity to be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike," he said.

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon MLA welcomed news that the next phase of the project will go ahead.

"Over the last year we have really had our eyes opened to the potential on our doorsteps from our rich, natural and beautiful environment."