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. 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. Despite their romantic depiction in poem and song – and perhaps as a result of their everyday lunch-break nature – they’ve tended to get overlooked.
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.
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 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.”
Guinness would have been one of the very last goods transported by canal; certainly in terms of volume
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 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. One of these is for an actual raft – a floating garden that would provide a haven for wildlife at Grand Canal Dock.
The dock, opened in 1796, is now at the heart of plans for the canal’s future. “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”.