05 Oct 2022

The fascinating history of a Donegal canal

Plans to connect the Swilly and the Foyle

Reminiscing on historical efforts to connect the Swilly and the Foyle, Seamus Bovaird of Donegal's Maritime Museum in Greencastle said the scheme was first mooted in the mid-1700s.

Seamus began: “As early as the mid-1700’s, businessmen in Donegal and Derry City were planning a canal to join the Foyle and Swilly. The purpose was to avoid the rough sea passage around Malin Head and allow for the trans-shipment of goods from sea-going vessels between Foyle and Swilly. 

“The lands between Burt and Carrigans and between Bridgend and Pennyburn are low lying and, for many years, were bog and marsh. There were extensive areas of mudflats and the portions of high ground, like Burt Castle, were partial islands. The townlands of Ballymoney, Carrowen, Drumgowan and Grange made up ‘The Isle of Burt.’

“The sea in Lough Swilly ran inland as far as Bridgend and Burnfoot. At high water, the tide came up the Birdstown River to Burnfoot village main street, between where Leo’s Café and The Foot Inn are today. 

“In 1763 and 1765 petitions were made to the Irish Parliament, in Dublin, for funds to dig a canal from Derry to Burnfoot. Permission was granted but nothing happened as no proper survey or planning work had been done,” said Seamus.

In 1807, the Corporation of Derry had the project properly surveyed and planned.

“But,” said Seamus, “again, nothing happened. However, these were not just pie in the sky proposals and some of the leading experts in canal development were commissioned as advisors.

“One problem identified was that the range of tide at Spring Tides, which was 18 feet in Lough Swilly and only 9 feet in Lough Foyle.

“In 1831, the renowned civil engineer, Sir John Rennie, whose firm had built London Bridge and, later, Rushbrooke Shipyard, in Cork, developed three distinct options for a canal system. Sir John’s father, also John, had designed the Crinan Canal in Scotland and the Royal Canal from the Shannon to Longford.

“Access on the Derry end of the canal was accepted as being the Penny Burn but, on the Swilly side, access was more difficult due to lack of deep enough water in the approaches to any proposed canal. Rennie offered three options, said Seamus.

One plan involved building an embankment from Farland Point to Burnfoot and an aqueduct at Burt Mill.

According to Seamus, another option involved an eight-mile canal from the Burt shore, at Blanket Nook, to Farland Point.

He added: “Rennie’s third option involved an embankment from Burnfoot to Trady Point and a dredged channel from there to deep water at Farland Point.

“Trady Point was then a small island on the Lough Swilly shore but is now on the landward side of the embankment at the Inch Wildlife Reserve. It became a station on the Tooban to Farland Point railway line and the Tooban Letterkenny line. Farland Point, and the remains of the ferry pier, are visible from the car park at Inch Level reserve.

“At between £37,000 and £39,000, the costs were too high, so nothing was done with Rennie’s plans for another five years. However, his plans had clarified the promoters’ thoughts on construction and maintenance costs for a canal and, also, highlighted the amount of good farming land that stood to be gained from the reclamation project.

“Rennie realised that protection from the rough seas in Lough Swilly would be required to permit the canal to reach deep water, a few miles away.  Any embankment would need outer protective barrier against the sea, particularly during strong tides,” said Seamus.

On the positive side, the larger scheme of land reclamation created an expanse of rich alluvial soil for agricultural purposes thus making the canal more financially attractive to prospective investors.

According to Seamus, the recovery of similar tracts of good land from Lough Foyle was the clinching factor in the promotion of the Londonderry to Coleraine railway.

20,000 acres was reclaimed between Magilligan and Limavady as part to the laying of that line.

He added: “The Swilly / Foyle project was resumed in 1836 and was licensed under the 1838 ‘Act for draining and embanking certain lands in Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle in the counties of Donegal and Londonderry.’

“The undertakers of the project were seven men from Middlesex and the ‘sloblands of Lough Swilly’ were vested to them and their heirs for ever but with a condition that any canal to join the Foyle and Swilly could have free passage through the reclaimed land.

“In 1840, Joseph William Bazalgette published plans ‘On Reclaiming Land From the Sea with Plans Illustrative of Works in Loughs Swilly and Foyle.’ Bazalgette was an English civil engineer, later to be famous for the creation of a sewer network for central London which relieved the city from cholera epidemics and was the beginning of cleaning the River Thames.

“He had begun his career working on railway projects, with the noted engineer, Sir John MacNeill, where he gained experience in land drainage and reclamation works. In 1844, two of the canal’s undertakers, Thomas J Dimsdale and John Robertson, in the Court of Chancery over payments for slobland in Lough Foyle. This appears to have been about reclamation of slobland around Ballykelly and nothing to do with the Foyle / Swilly canal works,” said Seamus.

The reclamation works on both Loughs was carried out by a local contractor, William McCormick, who later became MP for Derry City.

Seamus added: “The embankment works on the Foyle side were never completed but the plans for the Swilly side were accomplished.

“The first embankment, known as the ‘Trady Embankment’ because it ran across Trady Island, runs from Tooban to Farland Point, a distance of 2.5 miles. It was completed in 1850 at a cost of £80,000.

“The second embankment, known as the ‘Inch Embankment’, connects Inch Island to the mainland at Quigley’s Point. It was completed in 1855 at a cost of £60,000. This is now the causeway that carries the road to Inch.

“The third embankment, known as the ‘Farland Embankment’, joined Inch Island to ‘The Isle of Burt’ near Farland Point. This was completed in 1856 at a cost of £60,000. This is now part of the walkway for the Inch Levels Wildfowl eco-project. Parts of all three of these embankments are incorporated into the Inch Level Wildlife Walking Path,” said Seamus.

The fourth embankment, known as the ‘Grange Embankment’, ran from Grange, in ‘The Isle of Burt’ to the mainland at Blanketnook, near Newtowncunningham. It cost £80,000.

Seamus said: “Whilst work on the embankments was going on, the Derry to Coleraine railway line was being laid. Construction works began in 1846 and finished in 1853. The embankments required to facilitate this railway construction resulted in 22, 000 acres of fertile land being reclaimed from Lough Foyle. 

“In Inishowen, there were delays and cost overruns in the construction of the canal and the original timetable could not be met. A further Act of Parliament was passed, in 1853, to give the project extra time for completion. The original undertakers were bought out and by the time of completion only three undertakers remained.

“These were three contractors, all owed money, who took over shares in lieu of monies owed. These were William McCormick, William Wagstaffe and Thomas Brassey. Thomas Brassey bought out the other two owners in 1877 for £40,000.

“Thomas Brassey and William Wagstaffe were later to become partners in the Powell Duffryn Steam Coal Company, which was set up, in 1864, to buy collieries and which ended up owning the shipping company, Stephenson Clarke, which eventually owned John Kelly & Company shipowners and coal merchants. Both companies’ ships would have been regular runners into Derry, up until 2010,” said Seamus.

The lands continued in the Brassey family until they were taken over by the Irish Lands Commission.

There have been many legal rows about these lands over the years, but the largest part remains intact as the Grianan Estate.

Seamus concluded: “The Londonderry & Lough Swilly Railway was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1853.

“The company initially built a line from Derry to Farland Point, to connect with a ferry service from Farland Point to Rathmullan. It opened on 31 December 1863 and used two paddle steamers, “Admiral” and “Vista”. The railway line from Tooban to Farland Point was laid on the canal embankment.

“This proved something of a failure and the company abandoned most of this line after it had opened a line from Tooban Junction to Buncrana in 1864. The ferry service was moved to Fahan.

“The arrival of the railway put paid to any more ideas about a canal joining the two Loughs. In 1883, some of the other embankments were used for a railway line from Tooban to Letterkenny and Tooban became Tooban Junction,” said Seamus.


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