Speech at an event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Royal Canal
Richmond Harbour, Clondra, Co. Longford, Saturday 27th May 2017
A Dhaoine Uaisle,
Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas chroíúil a ghabháil le hUiscebhealaí Éireann, le Grúpa Conláiste an Chanál Ríoga agus le Múseám Náisiúnta an Ghorta Mhóir, as ucht an cuireadh a thug sibh dom a bheith libh don chéiliúradh agus comóradh suntasach seo. Táim bhuíoch daoibhse chomh maith, a chairde, as ucht an fíorchaoin fáilte a d’fhearadh sibh romhaim féin agus roimh mo bhean chéile Saidhbhín.
I am delighted to be with you today to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the completion of the Royal Canal which took place here at Richmond Harbour, Clondara, Co. Longford on May 26th 1817.
I would like to thank Waterways Ireland, the Royal Canal Amenity Group and the National Famine Museum for their kind invitation to join you and, of course, let me thank all of you for that generous welcome.
May I also say how happy I am to see here today the Cathaoirleach of Longford County Council, representatives of the local authority, local community groups and especially the school children who have contributed such beautiful art work to this celebration of the Royal Canal.
I can recall, as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in June 1993 arriving on a barge to officially open the Waterways Ireland Visitor Centre which celebrates the history and use of Ireland's waterways. It was, at the time, an inspiring reminder of how deeply embedded the canal has become in the history of Ireland and in the lives of generations of our people, and of the many changes which the Canal has been witness to since its inception in the early 19th century.
Indeed, coming here today, I was thinking of Dick Warner’s wonderful series of programmes for RTE which celebrated our Waterways, and in particular those which focussed on the re-opening of the Canal after many years of dereliction. It was an uplifting confirmation of the enriching possibilities of this great part of our heritage; reminding us of the lives lived quietly on the banks of the canal, of the great dedication and skill of those who ensure its preservation, and of the wealth of heritage, history and wildlife the Royal Canal has gifted to us.
The construction of the Canal, designed to provide a more efficient means of transporting goods than that provided by a poor road system, commenced in 1790 and proved to be a difficult and expensive process. It was not until the 26th of May 1817, 27 years later, that the Royal Canal from Dublin to the Shannon was officially opened.
The Canal was a radical and innovative change, part of a significant improvement in Ireland’s infrastructure. Ironically, it also fell victim to that spirit of innovative change and improvement. A new and dynamic technology had emerged and the railway age of the mid to late 1800s gradually eroded the canal’s business and, despite a brief revival of trade during the Emergency Years of the Second World War, its condition slowly deteriorated. Ireland’s last commercial barge-trader, James Leech of Killucan, ceased to operate in 1951, the last officially recorded passage took place in 1955 and, by 1961, the Royal Canal was closed to navigation.
Across that time our nation had, of course, undertaken its own long and eventful journey. Indeed, it is remarkable, as we stand here today, to remember the very different Ireland in which the canal was conceived and constructed and the long journey we have travelled since the early 19th century. We were of course an Ireland under British rule, and also an Ireland that was shortly to face the devastating famine, An Gorta Mór, whose legacy has remained so deeply embedded in our national psyche.
The presence of the Irish Famine Walkers here today is a reminder, not only of that most tragic event, but of a very poignant connection that exists between the famine and the Royal Canal. In 1847, one of the worst years of suffering of the Great Irish Famine, 1,490 tenants from the Mahon estate at Strokestown Park took part in an assisted emigration scheme to Canada, funded by the Landlord Denis Mahon. Their final journey on Irish soil, during which they walked the many miles from Strokestown to Dublin, was to culminate aboard a famine ship where they would join hundreds of other poor and destitute refugees desperately seeking a future. They were accompanied, on that walk, by the Bailiff of the Strokestown Estate who would ensure that they boarded that ship in Dublin and left Ireland forever.
Today the Strokestown Famine Emigrant Walk will commence their six day re-enactment of the event, as they retrace that heartbreaking journey along the entire length of the Royal Canal from Clondra all the way to Dublin city centre. I thank and commend them for that generous act of commemoration, which ensures that we do not forget that the bleakest of bleak episodes of our past was made up of so many individual stories of loss and suffering and pain endured by children, men and women just like us.
The lifetime of the Royal Canal has also seen Ireland undertake its own long and difficult journey towards independence. It has witnessed two devastating world wars and the emergence of a new and more united Europe. It has witnessed Ireland move from the periphery of that Europe and assume a place at its negotiating tables, where our voice has given us a global influence. It has also, of course, witnessed how a nation once divided against itself has made significant progress towards full peace and reconciliation. Today the Royal Canal flows through a vibrant and multi-cultural nation adapting to a greatly changing demographic.
Just as Ireland has constantly evolved and re-imagined itself as a nation of new thoughts and options, so too the Royal Canal has adapted to an everchanging society. At the time navigation ceased on the Canal, it seemed that its story had come to a natural conclusion.
It is inspiring, therefore, to witness the fruits of the extensive restoration that has seen the Canal re-invented as a recreational amenity to be enjoyed by all citizens. Indeed we owe a great debt of gratitude to the many waterways enthusiasts who demonstrated great foresight and dedication by volunteering for the initial restoration work as far back as 1974. Their great spirit of active citizenship, along with the commitment and skill of groups such as the Royal Canal Amenity Group, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and the Heritage Boat Association has brought the Canal back from the brink of its demise, enabling it to remain an integral part of Ireland’s on-going journey.
It is just seven years since yet another milestone in the canal’s history was completed as the Main Line of the Royal Canal from Dublin to the Shannon reopened to boat passage. Work however did not stop with the reopening of the canal to navigation, but has been ongoing in partnership with the communities and local authorities along the length of the canal.
We have, in recent decades, ensured that the restoration of the Royal Canal was included in our use of EU Structural Funding, recognising its great potential to attract visitors to explore its corridor, visiting the many attractions in towns and villages along the way, and in the process creating jobs, securing businesses and bringing prosperity to rural Ireland.
However, proposals by the Heritage Council in 1999 on the Future of Ireland’s Inland Waterways highlighted the wider possibilities that could be achieved through the expansion of our waterways system. These included the conservation of our natural and built heritage, of which our waterways are an important part; and a recognition of the local and recreational amenity value of our waterways.
Today, a new generation of people enjoy the canal as a place to walk, cycle, fish, canoe or to simply sit and enjoy the serenity of our beautiful natural environment. At no time in its previous history has the Royal Canal and the canal network had more to offer the communities along its route, as places of recreation.
And while created by humans, the canal has become a vibrant ecological asset, supporting a stunning variety of plants, animals, insects, birds and fish. The canal is now an important ecological corridor and is as precious as our rivers and our hedgerows in ensuring that Ireland’s biological diversity is maintained and strengthened. The Canal’s value for our native wildlife is and must be central to its management and its use. Indeed, it is fitting during this week, which is National Biodiversity Week, that we celebrate this role played by the Canal and by those involved in its use, its maintenance and its development, in safeguarding our ecological wealth for our own benefit and for that of future generations.
As we look to the future of the Royal Canal, we might perhaps look across the water to our near neighbours in Britain. Their canals, running through the heart of many of their cities are, as in Ireland, an important and distinctive element of their national heritage. In recent years, the care of those canals has been handed over to a trust, emphasising the custodial role of all citizens in guarding and treasuring such an important part of their nation’s history. It is my hope that here in Ireland we can also encourage more of our citizens to become engaged in supporting the ongoing maintenance and preservation of our Royal Canal, to understand its value as a portal to our past and to treasure this important connection with a past that has shaped and formed our nation.
It has been a great pleasure to come here today and to see how many of you have gathered to celebrate this important anniversary.
Is mian liom, mar fhocal scoir, mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le na saineolaithe, le na hoibrithe deonacha agus le na baill pobal gníomhacha atá tar éis ról lárnach a imirt sa togra seo leis an Chanáil Ríoga a athfhorbairt le go mbeidh an sampla leithleach seo d'oidhreacht thógtha ann mar shampla d'ár stair choiteann do na glúin amach romhainn.
[May I conclude by thanking all those whose work, as experts, volunteers and active members of the community has played such an important role in the journey of the Royal Canal, restoring to us this unique piece of built Heritage which is such an important part of our shared history.]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.