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Speech at the Closing Ceremony of the World Canals Conference

Athlone, County Westmeath, 12 September 2018

A chairde,

It is a great honour to join you all here today to draw this, the 20th World Canals Conference, to a close. In drawing together professionals, scholars, public administrators and citizens from across the world, assemblies such as this play a most valuable role, not only in conserving our canals and our inland waterways, but in promoting international co-operation and solidarity.

May I commend all those in Waterways Ireland, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, and Inland Waterways International, for dedicating so much time and effort to organising what I know has been a most interesting and engaging programme. May I also wish all those involved in preparing next year’s conference in China the very best. It is most appropriate that the World Canals Conference should return to the home of humanity’s oldest, and greatest, canal – the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal.

These past three days you have all been invited to reflect and share your thoughts on ‘restoring, regeneration, and re-imagination’. As you all know from your work in your own countries, these are no small tasks – they demand energy, devotion, and collective action. We live in an age and at a time when these qualities are needed than ever before, for human action has so transformed our world that we now confront profound ecological crises: the degradation of the natural environment; the unpredictable transformation of the phosphorus, sulphur, and nitrogen cycles; disruptions to the terrestrial water cycle; the destruction of native species; and, above all, anthropogenic climate change, which threatens all of us.

Canals and inland waterways are at the very forefront of these challenges, not only because they sustain native habitats – although they do – but because, despite being living monuments to our industrial past, they offer the possibility of sustainable, ecologically sound development.

The history of the development of inland navigation on this island is a testament to the transformative potential of our canals.

We meet, of course, on the banks of the largest river on our island, the Shannon. For centuries, it was the Shannon, and the tidal rivers which flow into Waterford Harbour, which alone were hospitable to sustained inland navigation, connecting towns and villages through a waterborne network. It was those rivers that allowed the Sea-Kings of Denmark and Norway to raid the rich monasteries of medieval Ireland, and when they settled here, it was the rivers which formed the basis of Viking trade and wealth in Ireland.

Yet, by the dawn of the eighteenth-century, after centuries of war and imperial conquest, Ireland was, to quote the historian John Andrews, a land of ‘harbours without ports, ports without rivers, and rivers without trade’. Ireland did not experience a canal revolution on the scale of our nearest neighbour, though the Newry Canal linking the coalfields of Tyrone with the Irish Sea was the first canal completed on these islands. The expansion of inland navigation was heavily promoted by the public authorities through the Commissioners of Inland Navigation while private initiatives such as the Royal and Grand Canal, and the various River Navigation companies, received large injections of capital from the Irish Exchequer.

They were projects of extraordinary ambition but were marred by the exploitation inherent in an economic system of sometimes extraordinary cruelty. Canal-building was backbreaking, difficult work, reliant only on the muscle and the sinew of the men who undertook it. Hundreds of thousands of Irishmen would endure starvation wages and difficult conditions, not only in building canals and navigations in Ireland, but in Britain and the United States. In Britain, the Irish navvy followed the circular migration routes forged by his ancestors, as spailpíns and tattie hokers – seasonal agricultural workers – found employment during the great canal mania of the Napoleonic Wars.

The Erie Canal, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the Manchester Ship Canal – the Irish navvy was at the centre of all of them. On the Ship Canal – the ‘Big Ditch’ – each man had to fill six four-yard wagons a day, amounting to 12 tonnes tons of clay, an extraordinary feat of endurance and strength.

It is a social history that is more often remembered in family stories, and in the memory of ancestors who dug the canals and, even more recently, operators of barges loaded with barrels, half-barrels and firkins. Until 1946, the enginemen, deckhands and greasers responsible for transporting turf and porter through the canal network in Ireland worked 16-hour days. The record of these centuries of struggle are a vital component of our labour history and the heritage of our people. Many canals today stand as a stark commemoration of their efforts, and it is vital that we recognise the labours of those who went before. 

In connecting people and places, canals have long served as the foundation of the fortunes of the cities and peoples. If the Grand Canal of China – a true marvel of the world – brought prosperity from Beijing to Hangzhou, so too did the great canals of the industrial age secure the pre-eminence of cities such as New York and Manchester. In nineteenth-century Ireland, advances in inland navigation, as important as they were, could not transform the fundamental structures of unjust economy and society, one in which few ruled over the many. 

The two decades before the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852 were the high point of the canal system in Ireland. Irish canals and navigations, and our burgeoning railways, were capable of meeting the needs of a population of some 8 million people. The Grand Canal carried 250,000 tonnes of cargo a year, largely fuel and heavy construction material. The great Irish economic historian Joe Lee would later write that, in 1845, Ireland was ‘an underdeveloped economy with a highly developed transport system’. It could be suggested that we suffer an inverse problem today.

In independent Ireland, the canals and, eventually even the railways, gave way to the road network, and, as you all know so well, our great canals fell into disuse and disrepair. I know that, outside of the Rhine and Danube corridors, this is an experience that we share with many countries in Europe, and indeed across the world.

In Ireland, after traffic ceased on the Royal and Grand Canals in Ireland in the 1960s, we were very fortunate that committed citizens organised collectively to - if I may use the theme of this conference - restore, regenerate and re-imagine our canals. May I take this opportunity to commend and to thank the Royal Canal Amenity Group, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Heritage Boat Association and all those volunteers who saved our canals. [I am sure that those of you have travelled here from other countries have been told that there even whispers of a proposal, in the 1980s, to fill-in the Royal Canal and to use it as motorway which may provide some indication of the challenges that volunteers then confronted].

I can recall the magnificent series of programmes celebrating our waterways presented by Dick Warner for RTÉ in the early 1990s. They were important in bringing to the attention of the Irish public the wonderful work undertaken to restore the Royal and Grand Canals.  Dick sadly passed away last year. His work constituted an uplifting confirmation of all the possibilities embedded in our canals, of the lives lived with quiet purpose on their banks, and of the wealth of heritage, history and wildlife gifted to us by our waterways.

As the Minister with responsibility for our inland waterways during the mid-1990s, and as President, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the hard work, dedication and expertise of those public servants tasked with maintaining and restoring our canals. It was an exciting time to assume responsibility for our canals as it was possible to place our arts, our heritage, and our waterways – including the restoration of the Royal Canal - at the very heart of the 1994-1999 European Union Structural Funds Programme for Ireland.

Today, the all-island Waterways Ireland is an example not only of the potential of public action, but of the determination of all the people on the island of Ireland to together build a shared future, full of hope and possibility, and of the capacity of shared endeavours to unite people behind a common goal. It was Waterways Ireland who oversaw the re-opening of the Royal Canal eight years ago, bringing the Royal Canal within our waterways network and bringing to fruition many years of activism on the part of so many citizens.

May I welcome the determination to complete the rejuvenation of further sections of the Ulster Canal.

Our canals are now vibrant and important habitats in their own right, supporting a vast variety of plants, animals, insects, birds and fish. If managed and conserved with the necessary care, canals across the world have the potential to be ecological corridors, rivalling rivers, hedgerows and forests in their capability to maintain biological diversity.

These sites of industrial heritage, which once were central to what we know now to be an unsustainable pattern of production and consumption, are now becoming the one of the many means by which we shall confront the crises facilitated by their previous use.

The story of our Irish canals is emblematic of these possibilities – once plied by cargo barges equipped with Bolinder engines they are now amenities available not only for pleasure barges but, through innovative use of towpaths, for exercise and enjoyment. 

Your deliberations during this conference are a testament to the all diversity of opportunities presented by our canals – the restoration of navigable waterways, the promotion of water-sports, the conservation of our natural and cultural heritage, the rejuvenation of our cities. And your deliberations also demonstrated some of the difficulties that must be surmounted – the management of flood risk, the sometimes-adversarial relations between diverse users, and the control of invasive species.

The last three days are evidence that so many of these opportunities can and are being seized, evidence that canals and waterways, if managed and re-imagined in a sustainable manner, can and will be at the centre of confronting the great challenges of our time. I know that you all will leave Athlone, not only with new knowledge and new friendships, but with a renewed dedication to the conservation and restoration in your own countries.