The Kilkenny Canal

The lodge at the entrance to The Canal walk Kilkenny

With thanks to Cois Céim and The Saturday Walkers group

The city fathers were very much aware the handicap to the city trade that dependence on land transport represented.
They were anxious to see a canal on the Nore to make it navigable from the sea.
Goods had always been transported by water but this trade was centered on Thomastown rather than Kilkenny.
A charter was granted there in 1707 to a company of cotmen.
Their chief business was to transport goods to and from Kilkenny in flat bottomed boats.
Such boats could only carry a limited quantity of goods and so in the age of canals, one should be envisaged to link the city to the sea.
An act passed in 1751 appointed Commissioners who were made a body corporate and given the title ”The Corporation for promoting and carrying on an Inland Navigation in Ireland” and by that name should have perpetual succession.
The said Corporation were empowered to treat and agree with the owners of land which should be made use of for making the canal.
It was enacted that all lands, bridges, locks, drains, trenches, tow paths, should be vested in said Corporation and their successors for ever.
“And any person convicted of damage thereto should forfeit treble the sum necessary for repair thereof and be committed to the common gaol of the county until said sum be paid.”
The prime movers of the project were William Evans Morres and William Colles.
Morres as Mayor had a survey carried out in 1755 and petitioned the trustees of the inland navigation for approval for the scheme. Parliament responded generously to the appeal and granted £10,000 for the work.
This was followed in 1767 by further grants to a total of £23,250.
So little progress had been made that there was a Parliamentary inquiry into the project in 1768.
The petitioners had stated the whole canal might be constructed to carry vessels of 100 tons for £10,000, which Parliament had granted in full.
This estimate was highly optimistic despite it having been made by the renowned canal builder Omer.

William Morres went to the best canal engineer in the country for advice.
The advice reflected little credit on Omer.
The work had been carried out by William Ockenden who had been accorded the rare privilege of the freedom of the city to mark confidence in his work. In fairness to Omer he had proposed to carry out the work at his own expense using the river bed.
Ockenden had recommended the construction of a separate canal at a cost of £22,600.
In this he was wise for Omer seems to have taken little account of the tendency of the Nore to major floods.
The bridge of Kilkenny was swept away in 1447, 1564, and 1763 when both bridges were destroyed in one night.
Parliament came to the rescue granting £5417 for the rebuilding of the bridges. Omer conceded that if public money was available Ockenden’s scheme was the best.
A serious mistake was made in giving way to the pressure from the Corporation to commence the navigation in Kilkenny and work towards the sea.
A series of locks were constructed on a four mile stretch to join the river at Maiden hall.
The work was incomplete when Ockenden died and was replaced by George Smith.
Then William Colles took up the contract to widen, deepen and clear the bed of the river to Thomastown.
Other contractors were to carry the canal on the river from Thomastown to Inistioge. Colles was to get £1200, and the others £1300 for their work.
Some of Ockenden’s work had been destroyed by floods and great gates were required at Kilkenny along with additional locks at a further cost of £5500 to prevent the destruction of the canal also a 16 miles towpath was required. Parliament once more voted the additional sums requested and added a further £3000 in 1773.
Corporation voted that no duty be paid
The Corporation remained optimistic and in 1761 voted all goods passing from Bennetsbridge to the City should pay no duty for ten years.
In 1764 Sir William Morres in anticipation of success bought land along the river on St Johns side constructed a quay and planned ware houses.
Alderman Colles an early advocate of the canal scheme writing about it to a friend as early as 1743.
He may have been the one who persuaded the Corporation to take up the scheme fourteen years later.
In 1737 he had approached Warden Flood for a £12,000 Parliamentary grant. He recognised the work would be expensive and with his own expanding marble works business it was only natural he should view the canal with enthusiasm.
He was exporting to Bristol and in 1747 he complained that carriage of his marble to Dublin cost him 3s 6d a cwt.
He wrote to the county member, Speaker Ponsonby to urge further support for the canal scheme.
The figure given by Colles to the Earl of Bessborough in 1755 was £14,326 so he certainly would not have accepted Omer’s figure of £10,000 as a reality. Great floods delayed work on the navigation.
in 1763 the great flood swept away John’s bridge with a loss of life and damage to the canal works.
There were many in the city who doubted the viability of the scheme and the solitary boat to reach St John’s Quay is long remembered.
Parliament had refused to continue the grants unless a boat was unloaded there.
A boat was dragged by horses along the dry bed of the unfinished canal and unloaded of its cargo of hides. The city celebrated with mock rejoicing and Colles won his side bet with the doubters.
A far from satisfied Parliament ordered a further inquiry and found it “as useless as if it had never begun”.
Three years earlier (1775) a further £3000 was granted, at the time of the inquiry £786 had not been spent. Further inquiries showed the £2750 grant made in 1775 had not been spent and needed to be accounted for.
The Committee found that William Colles (now deceased) was paid £1200 but had not completed the work he contracted. Nor had the other contractors for the lower reaches completed their work. Nor were they satisfied with Sir William Evans Morres, deceased who had given little strict account of the money paid to him.
The Committee urged the completion of the work as highly beneficial to the county and demanded the contractors should honour their commitments. It is hard to know whether little had occurred other than inability to carry out such work or inefficiency.
The Committee were certainly far from pleased and felt that public money had been pocketed with too great ease by Colles and Morres.
Tighe judged the whole scheme ill conceived.

The public money was never recovered and the scheme collapsed. On the 25th March 1786 the funds for the canal expired and it was deemed expedient that all powers given to the said Corporation should cease and be dissolved and all towpaths, lands, trackways, locks, etc. should be vested in the local Commissioners.
It was also enacted that any person should wilfully damage any lock, towing path, bank etc. and such person being convicted should be guilty of felony and be transported for seven years or be fined, whipped, or imprisoned according to the direction of the Court.
By this Act the Mayor of Kilkenny who was one of the local Commissioners was one of those in whom the old canal with its trackways, lands, and locks then vested.
Later the same year, the scheme was revived and seventy three investors headed by John Butler, future Earl of Ormonde, subscribed £16,800 for a new canal.
William Chapman was employed to modify the old scheme and to cross the river Nore once only and to descend to Thomastown by fourteen locks. This work was to be carried out for £19,729 about half of what Parliament had spent on the original plan. An overall cost of £30,000 was envisaged to make the canal perfect to the tide.
By1802 the only stretch in use lay between Thomastown and Inistioge. An attempt to link Kilkenny to the river Barrow met with little success, eight miles were constructed and then abandoned.
In 1808 yet another scheme was presented by Mr. Joyce and a plan was made to extend the grand canal to Castlecomer.
Not surprisingly Parliament in Tighe’s day showed little interest in Kilkenny canals.
The Railway was to solve the problem, but too late for the manufacturing industries of the city.
In 1872,Patrick Watters published a history of the Kilkenny Canal in which he wrote, “Proving how man proposes, but God disposes, Nothing is easier than to find fault, after others have done things which often those finding fault would probably not done half as well.
But I believe our ancestors began the canal at the wrong end. Had they begun in Inistioge and advanced towards Kilkenny then every mile completed would have been of use, and had it even come to Thomastown and no farther it might have been better for Kilkenny in a commercial point of view.
But in that case we would never have had our far famed “Canal Walk”

The Canal Walk and Locks The land used to construct the canal was eventually turned into a public walk and park for the citizens of Kilkenny. The first Ordnance Survey map of the city showed this walk in the 1830s. The entrance was made more impressive by the generosity of two mayors, Edmond Smithwick and Dr Robert Cane.
The gates were the gift of Edmond Smithwick, Mayor in 1844.and the lodge built in 1849 the gift of Robert Cane, who gave his salary as Mayor to pay for its construction.
The first lock we meet is Scotts Lock, very close to the Ormonde Mills the water course is crossed by a bridge leading to a dwelling house in the grounds of the old mill. In the 18th Century these mills were owned by the Scott family. Part of the stonework of the lock can still be seen by the bridge.
Further along the walk we find Quarry gate and bridge so named because it was near the Black Quarry, where Kilkenny’s Black Marble was quarried. Situated close by is Crow’s Well Lock, it was also known as Spa Well.
In 1757 the Commissioners wrote “That at Crows Well there is a fine stone lock, two hundred feet in length and twenty one feet in breadth, with all its gates, sluices etc. which falls ten feet” Although most of the lock is now gone, some of the stonework can still be seen. Walking through the fields one discovers Archersgrove lock.
Then on the lands of Kilfera there were two locks. Then at Maddockstown there was one stone lock. Then at Dunbell there was a double lock which falls ten feet into Ballyreddin pond which is within a half mile of Bennetsbridge.
In 1761 this work and locks would have made a navigation of five miles of the river Nore possible.

Sources: Kilkenny An Urban History, W.G.Neely The Kilkenny Canal, 1872 Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. Patrick Watters.

Canal from Thomastown towards Inistioge
Plan of the Kilkenny Canal from the Journal of the Irish House of Commons
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