The people, places and things that make Dublin special.

Mentions of Dublin’s Canals, both the Royal and the Grand, pour aplenty through Irish poetry and song. On each canal, you’ll even find a poet’s statue.

The Royal Canal has Brendan Behan, turned to look at you if you sit beside him. While, true to character, Patrick Kavanagh is on the Grand Canal, arms crossed and pensive as he watches the passing water.

To each canal, they dedicated lyrics: the passionate ‘Auld Triangle’ for the Royal and the contemplative ‘Canal Bank Walk’ for the Grand.

Dublin’s canals run through the heart of Dublin like arteries before unfurling into the countryside. The Grand bracing the city on the southside, stretching west 144km to the Shannon river and The Royal, on the northside, winding 146km to the same river.

Despite their romantic depiction in poem and song, as well as their leisurely uses, Dublin’s canals are often overlooked.

Lock at Grand Canal Basin

Image courtesy of Paul McGuckin Photography

You might well sit on a bench along the canal with your sandwiches, maybe watching a heron stand tall and still in the water, and forget that there was a time when the water here was far from “stilly and greeny”. These passages were part of a vital distribution network for, amongst other items, large wooden casks of Guinness piled high on open barges.

Two histories intertwined

In the Guinness Storehouse, we sat down with archivist Eibhlin Colgan who, over the buzz of the tours downstairs, told us about how the history of the Grand Canal is bound up in that of the James’s Gate brewery.

“The brewery was founded here in 1759. But in 1757, just two years previously, work had begun on the Grand Canal right here at James’s Street. So the growing up of the Grand Canal from the Dublin end and the brewery very much coincided. The Guinness Brewery used the canal as a distribution network right up until 1960, which was when the last canal barges were used by Guinness.”

Guinness would have been one of the very last goods transported by canal.

The canal was used by Guinness at both ends of their process, for raw materials and the product itself, “So from the farmers and the malting companies down the country, you’d have big sacks of malt put on the canal barges and brought up to the James’ Street harbour.”

black and white photo of old guinness barge with chimney docked on the liffey

The ‘Castleknock’ Guinness Barge, 1959. Source: National Library of Ireland

The old harbour basin has long since been concreted in, but once there was a spur that went from James’ Street canal basin right into the actual brewery itself.

“It was bringing grains from the country right up to the back door of the brewery.” It gave the process a rare directness. “Guinness would have been one of the very last goods transported by canal; certainly in terms of volume, they would’ve been the biggest canal customer.”

And what about the canals’ future? We paid a trip to John Boyle at Waterways Ireland to find out more. John tells us that there is a raft of new proposals for making the most of the canals and their basins in the future.

One of these is for a floating garden raft that would provide a haven for the wildlife at Grand Canal Dock.

Canal barges

Image courtesy of Paul McGuckin Photography

The dock, which opened in 1796, is now at the heart of plans for the Dublin canals. “The size of it, the scale of it, is unique in Europe,” says John. “It’s one of the best waterways in Europe in a city centre location. What we would like to see is it becoming the water playground of Dublin. If we get the water-quality up, we’ll look to attract international triathlons, open-water swimming, major, multi-national events that would attract thousands of people.”

Making it easier to get to the water is on the agenda too, says John: “We’re looking at the idea of a boardwalk on the water, which would link the train station beside it to the outer dock”.

There’s also the exciting prospect of floating markets: “a food and drink offering on water would be a pull for visitors and locals to come and spend some money.” Planning permission for the mooring of 20 houseboats is also being sought.

“We’d like to see a place of life: total animation, day and night, all year round,” he says.

Canal Bank Walk

Life along the Grand Canal

But the canal docks both north and south of the Liffey are merely the termini of what Waterways Ireland refers to as ‘greenways’ and ‘blueways’: escape routes for people who want to leave the city behind. “We would see the Grand Canal as the gateway to the canal network – to get you from the sea onto the canal network and then westwards,” says John.

And southwards too: “ultimately what we would like to do is to develop a greenway route from Grand Canal Dock out along the canal, down along the Barrow and actually going out at Rosslare and linking up with the Waterford greenway, perhaps. Grand Canal Dock doesn’t stand on its own – it links in with the wider recreational and tourism infrastructure that we have in Ireland”.

Another proposed greenway is circular. “The Dublin Canal Greenway is a proposal to develop a 40km route linking the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal. Essentially it’s a big loop between the 12th locks on each of the canals.” In comparison to the Great Western Greenway, for instance, “here you’ll be experiencing something that is the city and the country all at once – you get the environment, you get the heritage, you get the culture, you can get the nightlife”.

Image courtesy of Paul McGuckin Photography

And ‘blueways’? John explains: “A blueway is a vision of the whole experience you can enjoy along the water. We’d be providing packages for people so they’d know where they were going to stay, where’d they’d hire their canoe, eat their lunch, hire a bike, get a little bit of culture, music or whatever for the night. It’s not just about providing infrastructure, it’s linking in with the activity providers, with the accommodation providers, the cultural people and the social aspects”.

It could be that with all these developments in the pipeline, the canal’s greatest days are still ahead of them.

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