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Waterways Ireland 10-Year Plan Launch

Turtle speaking at launch of Waterways Ireland’s Ten-Year Plan, 2023. Photo: Mark Stedman.

Turtle with John McDonagh, CEO of Waterways Ireland, and Malcolm Noonan T.D., Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform. Photo: Mark Stedman.

On 29 November 2023, Turtle delivered the guest speech at the launch of Waterways Ireland’s Ten-Year Plan at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin. His speech followed those of John McDonagh, CEO of Waterways Ireland, and Malcolm Noonan T.D., Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform. Turtle was invited to speak following the success of the Waterways Through Time podcast six weeks earlier, which won a bronze medal for Best Podcast at the 2023 Digital Media Awards.

His speech was roughly as follows:

Ireland is a wonderful country to be a historian. Every field, every river, every street, every portrait has a story to tell. On my last visit here, they had Napoleon’s toothbrush in the hall.  What a fabulous thing to have in your hall! Napoleon left it to his doctor, Barry O’Meara. (There’s always an Irish link).  O’Meara was from Blackrock, educated at Trinity … and he fetched up looking after Napoleon in exile on the island of St Helena. Extracted the poor man’s wisdom tooth, which was actually sold a while back. I don’t know how Barry felt inheriting a toothbrush. Mixed emotions, I’d have thought.

Napoleon is all the rage at the moment. Ridley Scott’s incarnation of him, at a cinema near you. He became Emperor of France in 1804  …  But by 1815, he’d be brushing his teeth in lonely exile on the island of St Helena. Now, how does this tie in with Irish Waterways!? Well, Napoleon scored his first victory in April 1796 when he trounced the Austrians at the battle of Montenotte in Italy.

Swing your eyes west across the longitudes to Ireland, to Dublin, and, well, just 10 days after Napoleon’s great victory, Dublin was celebrating this … the opening of the Grand Canal Docks but a stone’s throw east of where we are now.  This was a massive, massive project in the Gergian period. When the Grand Canal Docks opened in 1796, they were the world’s largest, most cutting-edge docks. They managed to convert about 25 acres of marshland into an L-shaped harbour with 2 large deep-water basins for sea-going vessels and 3 dry docks, plus nearly 2km of new quays.  They then dug a 3.5-mile canal to connect the docks to the Grand Canal at Portobello, which ultimately provided direct access to the Shannon and Barrow rivers. The first vessel completed the journey from the Shannon to these docks in 1804, the year Napoleon became Emperor of France!

Hand in hand with that we have the Canal Age when Dublin ended up with not one but two canals from here to the broad majestic Shannon.   You can see here how these manmade rivers roll out from Dublin City and then connect with the great natural rivers & lakes that were already there …  An incredible achievement. As a species we don’t congratulate ourselves very much – I think canals are worthy of congratulation. I know it took a lot of time and money and a certain amount of madness, and things went pear shaped every now and then like when a canal leaked and they had to fill it up again … BUT it also showed what immense feats of engineering humans were capable of when they put their mind to it.  For the Georgian Irish of the 18th and early 19th century, canals were seen as the vital arteries of a prosperity.  They were absolutely the most important thing possible in terms of linking rural Ireland, the Irish interior, to the ports of Dublin, Limerick, Waterford … and from there by sea to the wide world beyond … the routes by which multiple generations of passengers and barley and Guinness and all manner of goods would be transported across the island.

During the course of recording the podcast series, I met a number of the lockkeepers, boatmen and other people associated with maintaining the canals – really charming people – with tremendous stories.  I’m particularly happy to have learned about the gimlet – Guinness came in wooden barrels – boatmen would regularly ‘tap’ the barrels by boring a hole behind one of the hoops … and then, pop this gadget in, pour a few pints, siphon off a little stout … when your thirst was quenched, you simply pegged the barrel, shaved off the end of the peg and slide the hoop back into place, leaving no obvious trace of this naughtiness.  The procedure was such common practice that Guinness made an allowance for ‘evaporation or leakage’ on the trip.
The canals were, and, as John says, they still are, an extraordinary asset to Ireland. I love them. The Ulster Canal flows past my wife’s family home in County Monaghan and I am a big fan of that canal too.  There’s a lot of work going on along the Ulster Canal around Clones at the moment. When I was up there lately, I was reminded of how labour intensive the project was long ago … In 1822 for instance, John Killaly, the chief engineer of the Grand Canal Company, had almost 22,000 men working for him, maintaining and digging canals, building new roads, bridges and under him …. 22,000 navvies! Napoleon would’ve given an eye for that number of men!  And I imagine many of those 22,000 men went on to build the canals of the USA and Canada.
The history of Irish waterways is also, of course, about our rivers and lakes. In the podcast series, we’ve gone way back to their creation and indeed the first episode of the series charts the way those rivers – the Shannon, the goodly Barrow, the Erne, the Lower Bann and so forth – carved their routes onto this island when glaciation came to an end 15-20K years ago.
When humans arrived, they used Ireland’s rivers and lakes as their highways. They settled along them, worshipped the rivers, buried their dead on them (from as far back as we go, into Mesolithic times).  They also created legendary stories so that almost every river in Ireland today is named for a goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan.  When Christianity reached Ireland, the holy men built their hermitages and churches along the rivers, or on islands within those rivers and lakes, within those great big watery highways. We’ve established at least 51 island monasteries on inland water in this country …
In time, there would be monastic schools at places like Clonmacnois on the River Shannon and Old Leighlin by the River Barrow … schools that were in existence perhaps 1200 years ago, with a thousand, 2000 pupils, learning a bit of theology and divinity and maybe some practical subjects too – commerce, agriculture, Greek, Latin, science.
Rivers were also very popular for Viking warlord with a longboat seeking to head upriver for a little plunder …the Viking constructed longphorts at the mouths and early reaches of Irish rivers, most of which would evolve into all our major cities today. I came into Waterford by ship a few months ago and you get an extraordinary sense of that riverine world as you see all the rivers and streams tumbling into the estuary.
In the podcast series, we homed in on the Normans who not only used these waterways to consolidate their grip on power but then turned the rivers into mighty borders, pitching their giant stone castles along the riverbanks in places like Carlow, Athy, Limerick, Athlone and many more besides.
We’ve also met remarkable men like Turlough O’Connor, King of Connaught, who was relandscaping a large chunk of Roscommon a thousand years ago, or the Maguires of Fermanagh who had a fleet of sail ships on the Erne in the medieval period! They built Enniskillen Castle.  In episodes to come, we’re going to be looking at how man came to tame those rivers into their present shape, or tame them as much as they could, with the coming of Dutch engineers and so on … bear in mind that in 1792, the Liffey rose so high that the Duke of Leinster sailed his yacht right up to Leinster House! Landed safely at Merrion Square.
There is no shortage of history in the world of Irish waterways, we’ve enough to make a whole lot more episodes – what I personally love about the podcast as a medium is its ability to bring these tales direct to people’s earlobes … wherever they are. Thank you very much.