The Sligo Ship Canal

In the early 1800s, it was proposed by the merchants of Sligo, that a canal be built, linking Sligo Harbour and Lough Gill. It was to be called the Sligo Ship Canal and would permit vessels to pass from Sligo Harbour into Lough Gill, bypassing Sligo Town. The route would have taken it from the harbour along the course of the Copper River, in front of the present Sligo IT, joining with the Garavogue opposite Doorley Park.

The initial plans to link various waterways in the west of Ireland were first mooted in the late 1700s. In 1825, the gentry of Sligo applied to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the 1st Marquess Wellesley, to have a canal built from Sligo Harbour to Lough Gill and Lough Gill to Lough Allen. At some point after that, a government study was carried out by Scottish engineer, Alexander Nimmo. His report on the feasibility of linking Lough Allen with Lough Gill noted that ‘the number of locks required would so detract from the usefulness of the work that the idea was abandoned’.1 The alternative of connecting Lough Allen and Lough Gill by rail, and therefore connecting the Shannon with the Atlantic, through the seaport of Sligo, was ultimately embraced.

The canal, which would have been less than one mile in length, would have permitted shipping of up to 500 tons to access Lough Gill, to load or discharge their cargo at a rail terminus to be built on the shores of the lough. The cargo would travel by rail to the terminus on the shores of Lough Allen, where the cargo would be transferred to barges for onward transmission to the east coast of Ireland.

A memorial to the Lord Lieutenant from the gentry and landed proprietors of Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagh and Cavan, lies in Eniskillen for signatures. It prays that a canal bay be formed which will connect Lough Earne (sic) with Lough Allen, and that again with Lough Gill, which is navigable to Sligo. This, with the canal already sanctioned between Lough Erne and Neagh, will open a communication across the kingdom, from Sligo to the ports of Newry and Belfast. In a commercial point of view, this undertaking is of the greatest importance to Ireland.

Windsor and Eton Express, 28 May 1825

The financial reasoning behind the canal and rail link was sound. ‘The ten miles of land between Lough Allen and Lough Gill has been an obstacle, so great…to the inhabitants of Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon that they could not overcome it: and the town of Sligo is…supplied with coals from England and Scotland, with a fine coal mine within twenty miles of it, ten only of which are land carriage.’2 So says Thomas Campbell Foster, in his 1846 book ‘Letters On The Condition Of The People Of Ireland’. He goes on, ‘At Drumshambo, on the borders of Lough Allen, twenty miles from Sligo, there are extensive lime kilns, where lime is burned for agricultural purposes, and sold at 6d per barrel. The cost of lime at Sligo is 1s per barrel (double the cost), because of the cost of land carriage.’ 2

According to Foster, imports were not the only thing affected by the high cost of overland transport. ‘Nearly every cask of butter – and 50,000 are annually exported – costs the farmer four times as much in land carriage to town as it would by water.’ 2

While it was clear to the merchants and gentry of Sligo that something had to be done, it was also understood by the government that changes needed to be made. In 1824, Alexander Nimmo is giving evidence to a Select Committee on disturbances in Ireland and is asked: ‘You have no communications now between Lough Erne to Sligo by water, have you?’

He replies, ‘No, but I am improving the land communications and the road from Lough Allen, along the western side of the Coalery Hills, is laid out to be a railroad that to Lough Gill, which is navigable to Sligo.’ 3

In his report 5 dated 9 June 1831, to the committee appointed to inquire into the practicability of improving the navigation of The Shannon and draining the lands in vicinage, the renowned Civil Engineer and inventor of the Rocket Locomotive, Mr George Stephenson, had this to say:

In looking at the map of Ireland, it has appeared to me that it may be found of advantage to prevent the waters of Lough Allen from flowing into the Shannon, and to cut a channel in a north-westerly direction, along which they may run into Sligo Bay. By this disposition of the waters of Lough Allen, not only will the channel of the Shannon be relieved from the superabundant water which now flows along during the rainy season, but they will act very beneficially in scouring out the harbour of Sligo. The Shannon might likewise be made available to the supply of power to several valuable mills to be erected on its course.’

Between the years 1845 – 1846, two Acts were passed by the government of Great Britain, the first authorising the construction of a railroad from Sligo to the Shannon, and the latter, the extension of the harbour of Sligo to Lough Gill for the formation of a navigable canal. These were the “The Sligo and Shannon Railway” and the “Sligo Ship Canal”, at a cost of £85,238 for the railway and £20,000 for the canal, a total of £105,238. The way seemed clear for Sligo to take its place as a major seaport.

Two committees were formed: one being for the canal and one for the railway. Among the members on these two committees (same members on both) were:

William Ormsby, MP

Sir John McTaggart, MP

George Lane Fox (proprietor of the steamer company)

Colonel Sir W Parke

William Phibbs (landowner)

John Hilditch (proprietor of Arigna Mines).

In the meantime, Lough Gill was starting to be utilised as a transport route. In 1839, a schooner called ‘Maid of the Mills’ was launched on Lough Gill, to ply between Sligo and the mills at Dromahair. A steam paddle service ran from Doorly Park (then Cleveragh Demesne) to Dromahair from 1843 until the opening of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway in 1881. The paddle steamer Maid of Breffni was the passenger steamer, carrying 300 passengers whilst the paddle steamer Lady of the Lake carried cargo, mostly corn to the mills at Dromahair.

Mr Kernaghans steamer is navigating Lough Gill, which has increased the value of country produce in Sligo market 15 percent, and it is proposed to connect the Lough with the Shannon four miles distant.’

Roscommon & Leitrim Gazette, 11 May 1844

The paddle steamer ‘Maid of Breffni’ at Dromahair Quay.

In 1885 the ‘Maid of Breffni’ was wrecked, reported sank entering the river Bonet from Sligo, later raised and towed to Dromahair and abandoned at the quay. By this time, the steamer business had been taken by the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway.

Thomas Campbell Foster, in his book ‘Letters on the Condition of the People of Ireland’, talks of an ingenious idea. ‘It is proposed, I understand, that the railroad should run into a kind of dock or slip in one lough and that the vessels, without unloading them, should be floated onto carriages and conveyed, cargo and all together, to the navigable water of the other lough.’2

A system of inclined planes had been used to varying degrees of success, in several different canal systems. An inclined plane is a system for raising boats between different water levels. Boats may be conveyed afloat, in caissons, or may carried in cradles or slings. Dukarts Canal was built to provide transport for coal the Drumglass Collieries to the Coalisland Canal in County Tyrone, Ulster. It opened in 1777, and used three inclined planes, rather than locks, to cope with changes in level. There is little evidence that it was ever used, as the planes could not be made to work properly, and they were dismantled in 1787. William Jessop was sent to inspect the works by John Smeaton, both of whom were involved in surveying a route for the proposed Grand Canal from Dublin to the River Shannon, and both men had worked with Alexander Nimmo previously. Nimmo says, in a report dated 1824 ‘…whence, through the parish of Killenummery, we descend gradually to the River Bonnet (sic), at Dromahair, and so to Lough Gill, which is navigable to Sligo. A set of inclined planes, from the coal bed down to Lough Allen, would the only be wanted to permit the coal to be transported either to the Shannon Navigation or to the Sea Ports: and were iron railways laid along the line…we would have a communication opened up between that navigation and the seaports of the west coast. 8

I have not been able to discover where the rail terminus on Lough Gill was to have been situated. It is possible that it would have been situated on the headland of Greenaun South, on the east bank of the mouth of the River Bonet. It probably would have provided enough depth for ships to have tied up, or to have used the inclined plane railway, as I understand that marl was quarried from that area for brick making, and then taken by steamer to Sligo. The word ‘bricks’ is marked at that point on the Historic 6 Inch map.

Acts of Parliament were passed, committees formed, ingenious ideas formulated, however the canal and the Sligo and Shannon Railway were never built. Thus far, I have found no concrete evidence as to why it was not started, let alone completed.

I think it is likely that both the Famine and the advance of the railway system had a great deal to do with it. ‘The 1840’s were boom years for steamboat use but were followed by a period of decline resulting from the famine and the development of the rail network.’ 10 Perhaps by the time the region, and the country, had recovered, the railways had overtaken the canals as the primary means of transport. The Midland Great Western Railway reached Sligo in 1852. In 1881 the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway had linked Sligo to Enniskillen in the North in 1881. A link to Limerick and the south followed in 1895.

A report into a similarly uncompleted scheme on the River Hind, states:

Then, in 1852, the House of Lords set up a Select Committee “to enquire into the Operation of the Acts relating to the Drainage of Lands in Ireland, as administered by the Board of Works”…the Commissioners noted that much of the increased expenditure arose because the Board of Public Works had been unable to examine drainage plans and estimates properly because of pressure of work in 1846, when many schemes were approved to provide employment during the Great Famine. Furthermore, many plans had been altered afterwards, usually to provide more comprehensive drainage. And labour costs had increased because the supply labour had reduced and there were competing demands from agriculture and from railway construction.

Taken from the ‘Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to inquire into the Operation of the Acts relating to the Drainage of Lands in Ireland’, as administered by the Board of Works, and to report thereon to the House: together with the Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix Session 1852. 11

T he research reported in this article, was triggered by the discovery of the structure pictured in the Google Maps image below.

This is Ardaghowen, just outside Sligo town centre. The linear feature, running parallel to the Copper River is, I believe, the only remains of a small stretch of the canal that was actually constructed. There appear to be no official records of any construction work being carried out, so the following is my supposition based on known facts.

In 1841, John Arthur Wynne (1801–1865) succeeded to the family estates at Hazelwood after the death of his father. In 1843, as the famine was becoming more severe, John Arthur Wynne lowered the rents for his tenants. The following year he applied to the Office of Public Works for a grant to improve the navigable channel to the port of Sligo. However, this application was refused, so Wynne had the work of deepening the channel, and making it more direct, completed by means of public subscription. This would have been of great benefit to the safe departure of ships full of emigrants heading for America and Canada. I wonder whether Wynne started work on the canal on the land that was part of the Hazelwood Estate. It is possible that he commissioned the project as a form of ‘famine road’ work for the benefit of his tenants.

I believe that it is possible that work was also carried out at the other end of the Copper River, where it enters Sligo Harbour. On the Sligo OS 1837 map (below), a basin-type area is shown, and this could be part of the original plan for the canal, although, as it is pre-1837, it would have had to have been constructed quite early in the process.

The Sligo Ship Canal and the associated Sligo and Shannon Railway were never built. If they had been constructed, it is likely that the financial fortunes of Sligo and the north-west of Ireland might have turned out considerably different.


1. The Railway Times

Vol IX No 9

P 318

2. Letters on the Condition of the people of Ireland

Thomas Campbell Foster

Pub by Chapman and Hall. 186 The Strand, 1846.

p 157 -159

3. House of Lords Sessional Papers 1801 – 1833, Vol 190


p 305

5 The social state of Great Britain and Ireland considered, with regard to the labouring

population, etc.

Thomas Bermingham

Pub by S W Fores, 41 Picadilly


p 37

6 The Railway Register and Record of Public Enterprise for Railways, Mines, Patents, Inventions.

Vol II 1845

John Weale

Engineers and Architectural Library

59 High Holborn

7 The Jurist

No 846


Mar 26, 1853

8 The Fifth Report of the Commissioners.

Copies of Reports from Richard Griffith, Esq. and Alexander Nimmo Esq.

Relating to Public Works, Proceeding or Projected and their Effects.


February 26, 1824

9 Post Office Railway Directory, 1848.

Kelly and Co, 10 & 30 Old Boswell Court, Temple Bar


10 Post Famine Ireland: Social Structure, Ireland as it really was.

Desmond Keenan



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