In the early 19th century the idea of linking the lowlands around Lough Neagh with the Erne Basin and the River Shannon system became popular with the more progressive landowners and merchants of Armagh, Monaghan and Fermanagh. The Ulster Canal was built between 1825 and 1842 and was 46 miles long with 26 locks. It ran from Charlemont on the River Blackwater to Wattle Bridge on the River Finn, southeast of Upper Lough Erne. It was an ill-considered venture, with the locks built narrower than the other Irish waterways, preventing through trade, and an inadequate water supply. It was an abject failure commercially, and contributed to the collapse of the Lagan Navigation Company, who took it over from the government but were then refused permission to abandon it when they could not afford the maintenance costs. It finally closed in 1931.
In 1778, a proposal was made for a canal from Ballyshannon to the Lower Lough Erne. The estimated cost of the scheme was £32,000, but it was already seen as part of a larger project, since a further £8,000 would have provided a link to Enniskillen, Belturbet and Ballyconnell. A future link from Ballyconnell to Ballymore, along the Woodford River valley, and on to Lough Scurr and the River Shannon at Leitrim was suggested but not costed. It would thus be an important section of a great waterway which was to cross Ireland from east to west, from Belfast to Limerick, which would compete with a similar link formed by the Grand Canal and the Royal Canal further to the south. Government funding was forthcoming in 1783, and a section of the canal was constructed between Ballyshannon and Belleek, with Richard Evans, the engineer for the Royal Canal, overseeing the work, which included a lock at Belleek. The project stalled in 1794, when funds ran out.
The Directors General of Inland Navigation asked Evans to prepare an estimate of the costs to finish the work in 1801, but no action was taken. By 1814, the Directors General were faced with problems of unemployment in the area, and a canal from Lough Neagh to Lough Erne was seen as a way to provide jobs for the local population. John Killaly was commissioned to survey the route of such a link, and produced his report in February 1815. His estimate of £233,000 would provide a canal which ascended through six locks from Wattle Bridge to a summit near Monaghan and then descended through another sixteen to reach Lough Neagh. It would be 35½ miles long, and would include a branch to Armagh. The plan was ill-thought-out, as he decided to make the locks of a similar size to those on the Royal Canal, 76 feet by 14 feet, which would accommodate boats up to about 13 feet 4 inches wide, but those that already used Lough Neagh, and the Lagan Canal, the Newry Canal and the Coalisland Canal, were 14 feet 9 inches wide, and would not therefore be able to use the route.
A public meeting was held at Monaghan in February 1817, and despite strong local support, including an offer to provide two-thirds of the cost by a group of landowners and businessmen, the Directors General did not take any action, and the project remained an idea. The proprietors who had taken over the Lagan Canal in 1810 saw the link as a way to increase traffic on their own canal, and public support for it grew steadily, until a large group of people requested parliamentary approval for a revised scheme, which was very similar to Killaly's of a decade previously. The government remained unconvinced that they would receive a return on any money advanced, and so the Directors General could not act. Finally, in 1825, a private company was authorised to construct the canal. It was estimated to cost £160,050, as a new survey had produced a plan which only needed eighteen locks.
The company then applied to the borrow £100,000 from the Exchequer Bill Loan Commission, a body created under the Poor Employment Act of 1817. The engineer Thomas Telford was sent to Ireland to inspect the plans and estimates, which he duly approved, but the interest rates on the loan could not be agreed, and three further Acts of Parliament were obtained before a loan of £120,000 was agreed. Problems were then experienced with the contractors, Henry, Mullins and MacMahon from Dublin, who were awarded the construction contract in 1832. Telford then decided that there were serious problems with the design and that a new survey should be made. This increased the number of locks to 26, and the contractors were asked for a new estimate. Agreement could not be reached, and they eventually withdrew from the project. John Killaly, the local engineer, died in 1832, and it in not known whether he decided to reduce the width of the locks before he died, or whether the decision was made by Telford, but they were built 12 feet wide, preventing through traffic except in specially built boats. William Cubitt succeeded Telford after he died in 1834. The canal was eventually finished in 1841. From the summit pound, nineteen locks descended to Lough Neagh, and in the other direction, seven descended to Lough Erne. Water was supplied by Quig Lough reservoir, a lake near Monaghan which had been enlarged. The final lock at Wattle Bridge was only 11 feet 8 inches wide, making it the narrowest in Ireland. The project had cost over £230,000.
The canal failed to generate significant trade, as the water supply was inadequate, and goods had to be transhipped at either end into narrower boats. In addition, there was no link to the River Shannon to generate through traffic, and unlikely to be one while the canal did not prosper. The company were unable to repay any of the loan made by the Exchequer Bill Loan Commissioners, and in 1851, the Board of Public Works took control of it. After cosmetic repairs, it was leased to William Dargan, who had built most of it as contractor, and ran the only significant carrying operation on the waterway. The Ulster Railway reached Monaghan in 1858, and three years later the canal was in a ruinous state. Sir John Macneill, the railway engineer, suggested that the best use of it was to drain the water and lets cows graze on it.
In an attempt to recoup their losses, the government took control of it again in 1865, closed it, and spent £22,000 over eight years on repairs. Their main priority was to secure an adequate water supply, but when the canal reopened in 1873, this proved not to have been achieved. Maintenance costs far exceeded revenue, and what little traffic there was, was confined to the Lough Erne end of the canal, as the summit was mostly unnavigable, and there was only sufficient water during eight months of every year. However, there was a slight improvement in traffic in 1880, when W. R. Rea, the secretary of the Lagan Navigation Company, set up a new carrying company using smaller boats. There was a vague promise of government aid for any company interested in taking it over. A series of negotiations then took place, but the government failed on three occasions to pass a bill to authorise the sell-out to the Lagan Canal. They eventually suggested that the Lagan Canal should try to obtain a private bill to achieve the aim, and they were successful in doing so in 1888.
The House of Lords had succeeded in removing a clause from the bill which allowed the Lagan Canal company to close the Ulster Canal after ten years, and they were saddled with a liability in perpetuity. Vast sums were spent on maintenance, compared to income, and although some trade developed, profits from the Lagan Canal and the Coalisland Canal, which they also owned, were swallowed up in trying to keep the Ulster Canal open. The company never really recovered from the acquisition. The last boat to enter the canal did so in 1929, and a "warrant of abandonment" was finally obtained on 9 January 1931. This allowed them to abandon the section of the canal in Northern Ireland. An "order of release", obtained on 15 April, removed all liability for maintenance.
A similar order in the newly established Republic of Ireland was refused. In the 1940s Monaghan County Council was granted a Judgement Mortgage on the canal in lieu of unpaid rates. Lagan Navigation offered to give the canal to the Council in lieu of monies owed, but the Council declined, having been advised that the upkeep of bridges etc. would be beyond their ability to finance. Lagan Navigation Co was dissolved under the Inland Navigation Act (NI) 1954. This left the stretch through Monaghan as 'ownerless goods' (bona vacantia) and as such fell to the Minister for Finance. Ownership passed to the Office of Public Works under the State Property Act 1954. In the early 1970s, Monaghan County Council, Monaghan Urban District Council and Clones Urban District Council each acquired some sections of the canal under the Derelict Sites Act 1961. Stretches which were not derelict at that time (i.e., which were being occupied) could not be acquired and ownership remains with the OPW.
The canal follows a fairly straight southwest to northeast course from Wattle Bridge, on the River Finn, to Charlemont, where it joins the River Blackwater. There were two locks close to the River Finn, two beyond Clones, and three near Smithborough, where the summit was reached. The summit pound was less than 6 miles long, and was fed from Quig Lough reservoir, just to the north of the end of the summit. Two locks drop the level before Monaghan is reached and there is a flight of seven shortly after the town. The border with Northern Ireland crosses the canal below them. There are two isolated locks near Middletown, and a level section before the canal reaches a gorge to the west of Benburb. Fitting the canal through here presented a lot of problems for the builders, as another six locks were required in awkward terrain. There is another lock above Blackwatertown, and the final lock below Charlemont, before the canal joins the River Blackwater.
The summit level was 213 feet above sea level. The original locks were built for boats which were 62 feet by 11 feet. Of the large number of bridges that crossed the canal, 56 remained in 2002.
With the success of other canal restoration schemes, a feasibility study on the possible restoration of the canal was carried out by Ferguson and McIlveen in 1998, and revised in 2000. While there are no insurmountable engineering hurdles to such a plan, and a restored canal could bring significant benefits to the local economy, issues such as the size of the locks and the adequacy of the water supply would need to be addressed. The report concluded that the locks should be at least 16 feet wide, which would require all the locks to be significantly altered, and there seems little point in restoring a canal which was an abject failure without addressing the reasons why it was so.
While restoration has its detractors, a look at a map of the Irish waterways shows the obvious benefit to the waterways network which it would bring, particularly since the restoration of the Shannon–Erne Waterway, which reconnected Lough Erne to the River Shannon, and was opened on 23 May 1994. Rather than being a true restoration, it involved the construction of a state-of-the-art waterway along a historic route.
At the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on 17 July 2007, it was announced that the governments would work towards the restoration of the stretch of the canal linking the town of Clones, in County Monaghan, to Upper Lough Erne. The cost of the development would be €35 million, paid for by the Irish Exchequer. In August 2010, Waterways Ireland published an Ulster Canal Restoration Plan, an Environmental Report and an Appropriate Assessment. In September 2010 it held two Public Information Days, one in Clones, County Monaghan, and one in Newtownbutler, Fermanagh, and invited written comments on its plans by 30 September 2010. It is now unclear whether the scheme will be paid for by the Irish Exchequer or by the sale of Waterways Ireland assets.
- Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure
- Waterways Ireland
- Dept of Community, Equality & Gaeltacht Affairs
- Inland Waterways Association of Ireland's index of information on the Ulster Canal
- Industrial Heritage Ireland Info page on Ulster Canal
- Ulster Canal, Benburb
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 98–99
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 99–101
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 101–103
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 103–107
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 108–109
- McCutcheon 1965, pp. 110–113
- Cumberlidge 2002, pp. 117–119
- Delany 2004, p. 8
- Delany 2004, pp. 199–201
- "Leaders announce cross-border projects". RTÉ News. 17 July 2007. http://www.rte.ie/news/2007/0717/northpolitics.html.
- "Ulster Canal Restoration Requirements Doucument". Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. http://www.iwai.ie/download/UlsterCanalSpec0.pdf.
- "Ulster Canal SEA". Waterways Ireland. http://www.waterwaysireland.org/index.cfm/section/article/page/UlsterCanalSEA.
- Cumberlidge, Jane (2002). The Inland Waterways of Ireland. Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson. ISBN 978-0-85288-424-9.
- Delany, Ruth (2004). Ireland's Inland Waterways. Appletree Press. ISBN 978-0-86281-824-1.
- McCutcheon, W A (1965). The Canals of the North of Ireland. David and Charles. ISBN 0-7153-4028-X.