The people, places and things that make Dublin special.
Mentions of Dublin’s Canals, both the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal, pour aplenty through Irish poetry and song. To each canal, a poet’s statue: The Royal has Brendan Behan, turned to look at you if you sit beside him; Patrick Kavanagh is on the Grand Canal, arms crossed and pensive. To each canal, a lyric: the passionate ‘Auld Triangle’ for the Royal; the contemplative ‘Canal Bank Walk’ for the Grand.
They are the arteries running through the heart of Dublin 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. Yet despite their romantic depiction in poem and song – and perhaps as a result of their everyday lunch-breakiness – they’ve tended to get overlooked. All that is about to change. A small steady ‘friends of the canal’ movement is gaining momentum and these waterways encircling our city may soon be the focus of artful appreciation once more.
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”, that these passages were part of a vital distribution network for, amongst other items, large wooden casks of Guinness piled high on an open barge.
In the Guinness Storehouse, we sat down with archivist Eibhlin Colgan who, over the buzz of the tours downstairs, told me about how the history of the Grand Canal is bound up in the history 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 would’ve been used by Guinness.”
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.”
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 literally bringing grains from the country right up to the back door of the brewery.” It gave the process a rare directness.
The canals then distributed the stout to trade stores in some of the bigger canal depots and towns like Ballinasloe, Limerick at the end of the canal, and Athlone. “They’d have trade depots, and the beer would’ve left the brewery, always in wooden casket for distribution down the country. The wooden casks had a six digit number branded on them so the brewery knew where each cask was at a point in time because they would’ve been of value themselves.”
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
The canal boats themselves were actually owned and operated by the Grand Canal Company. “There can be a bit of a misconception that they were Guinness-owned. We did have our own fleet of barges owned by the brewery but they all operated on the Liffey. The canal ones wouldn’t have been to our timetable.”
Eibhlin shows me beautiful black and white photos of Guinness being transported on the canal. You can see the hive of industry that existed, the horse and carts and the barges. It all ceased in 1960. “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.”
In days gone by, it was often asserted that the particular taste of Guinness was attributable to Liffey water, but in fact it was canal water that was used in the process. The filter beds of the fifth lock of the Grand Canal still supply water to Guinness today – but only for washing.
And what about the canals’ future? After being overlooked for decades, their image is being restored. People are getting up on their Saturday mornings and coordinating through Facebook to work together on canal clean-up groups, all of which gladdens the heart of Terre Duffy, the Dublin Docklands Development Manager at Waterways Ireland.
Terre was appointed late last year and her enthusiasm for the future of these Dublin treasures is heartening.
The Royal Canal is 200 years old this year, she tells me, and the Grand Canal is a bit younger. “The city’s relationship with the canals has changed over the years. At the beginning, they were an amazing way of bringing not just goods and people but ideas to the midlands.”
She concedes that in recent times, “the canals were considered dirty and a little bit dangerous” but since the Royal Canal was opened up in the last decade “Waterways Ireland has been really trying to focus Dublin’s love again on their canals. So we’ve lots of lovely things planned.”