Killaly, John (1766-1832) Tullamore’s premier resident engineer in the forty years from the 1790s to his death in 1832. By Ron Cox

John A Killaly, surveyor and canal engineer, was born in Ireland. Killaly was a big noise in Tullamore. For his contribution to the building of the Grand Canal alone he deserves to be remembered. Lately Offaly History erected a plaque to his memory on our building at Bury Quay.

Killaly plaque (2)
Plaque to John Killaly at Bury Quay, Tullamore.

In 1794, he joined the Grand Canal Company as an assistant engineer, becoming in 1798 the company’s chief engineer. In 1799, Killaly married Alicia Hamilton, a daughter of George Hamilton, the owner of the principal flour mill in Tullamore, Co.Offaly. Besides the important canal and roads projects Killaly found time to supervise the building of the new jail in Tullamore (1826-30) and improvements to the grounds of St Catherine’s Church, Tullamore. Killaly spent much of his life from 1794 in the Tullamore area. Our thanks to Professor Ron Cox for allowing us publish this article and for his work on Ireland’s engineering history. Dr Cox has contributed to articles in our Offaly Heritage journal (details posted on our web site).

Dr Ronald Cox is a Chartered Engineer and well-known civil engineering historian. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Civil, Structural & Environmental Engineering at Trinity College Dublin. Until 1995, he was a Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering at TCD and was a former Dean of Engineering. Between 1995 and 2009, he was a Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for Civil Engineering Heritage, which he founded on retirement from the full-time staff in 1995. He is a founder member and former President of the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland, the current Chairman of Engineers Ireland Heritage Society, and a member of the Board of the Irish Architectural Archive. Recent publications include Ireland’s Bridges (2002)(with M.Gould), Engineering Ireland (2006)(Editor), Civil Engineering at Trinity (2009), Ireland’s Civil Engineering Heritage (2013)(with P.Donald), and Called to Serve (2015)(with D.O’Dwyer). (The short biography of Dr Cox was extracted by Offaly History from  the website of Trinity College Dublin).

KILLALY, John A (1766-1832), surveyor and canal engineer, was born in Ireland in 1766. The name Killaly is associated with Offaly, but no record of his parentage or birthplace has yet come to light. In 1794, Killaly joined the Grand Canal Company as an assistant engineer at an annual salary of £150, having previously carried out some surveys for the company. He also received a small payment for work on Daniel Augustus Beaufort’s map of Ireland. Two years later, the directors praised his work and said that, from being a ‘mere measurer and surveyor’, he had become the ‘complete superintendent of all kinds of work’. In 1798 he became the company’s chief engineer with an increased annual salary of £400, this rising in due course to around £800.

mill house
Killaly married Alice Hamilton, a  daughter of Tullamore’s flour miller George Hamilton. This view of the former mill house in Patrick St., Tullamore.

Around this time, Killaly married Alicia Hamilton and three of their sons later graduated from the University of Dublin, two of them following their father in his profession. Along with a younger brother John Sackville Killaly, Hamilton Hartley Killaly (1800-1874) emigrated to Canada in 1834 and later became the first president of the Canadian Society of Engineers.

The early part of 1800 saw Killaly supervising the construction of a section of the Grand Canal near Edenderry. This was probably the most difficult part of the route of the canal, crossing as it does extensive deep bogs to the west of the 20th lock at Ticknevin. Many engineers had been asked for their opinion as to the best way of taking the canal across the bog, including William Jessop, William Chapman, and Richard Griffith. Bernard Mullins and his son Michael Bernard, in an important paper presented to the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in 1846, described the engineering problems involved and suggested a solution. Killaly completed the line of the Grand Canal from Tullamore to the River Shannon at Shannon Harbour in county Offaly, the navigation being officially declared open on 25th October 1803. Killaly also surveyed a line of canal from Monasterevan to Maryborough (now Portlaoise). Around 1803, with John Brownrigg, he became an engineer under the Directors-General of Inland Navigation.

Tullamore Harbour
The canal harbour stores at Tullamore in the 1890s.

In May 1804 Killaly received a silver cup and gold guineas from the Grand Canal company for his work on the canal. He continued to work for the company at a reduced salary, but also carried out surveys of various other projects, including, in 1810, investigating the operation of one of the company’s collieries. He was sent to Doonane near Athy to assess the situation in the collieries there and to report on their commercial viability. He reported on 6th April 1810 that prospects (for the collieries) ‘were by no means flattering.’ He threatened to resign if he would be asked to take over the position of manager, but during his short stay, he compiled a number of reports detailing the position at the collieries. He was shortly thereafter relieved by another of the company’s engineers, Thomas Colbourne, who resigned in November 1810.

The same year, Killaly resigned from the Grand Canal company to devote more time to his professional duties as an engineer to the Directors-General of Inland Navigation. He was paid a basic salary and was later allowed to carry out other government assignments. He did, however, continue to take an active interest in the affairs of the Grand Canal company. Together with John Brownrigg, he inspected the state of the Shannon Navigation in July 1810. In the following year, Kilally compiled a comprehensive report for the Commissioners on the state of the inland navigations of Ireland and laid down a number of proposals for action. He advised on the Corrib, Lagan, Newry and Suir Navigations, and on the Royal Canal. More specifically, he reported on the Upper Shannon Navigation, the Lough Allen Canal, and the Erne Navigation. Two years later, he turned his attention to Belfast where he made proposals for a dock and short ship canal. He also appears to have had a private surveying business in Dublin in partnership with James Oates.

The services of Killaly ensured more accurate estimates. The work of completing the Royal Canal was carried out within his estimate by a single contractor and the Directors-General were kept fully informed of progress.

As part of the proposed nationalisation of the Irish waterways, Killaly surveyed nine schemes and estimated the cost at a little over £1.5 million, but the idea was not proceeded with at the time.

A detailed map was prepared by Killaly to accompany a publication by James Dawson [Canal Extensions in Ireland, Dublin, 1819] It shows the Grand and Royal Canals with proposed extensions.

In 1821, in a report on the Suir Navigation, he advocated the use of spur weirs and made proposals for the clearing of the navigable channels. He also put forward a plan for the canalisation of the river from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel and onwards to the Shannon.

Killaly acted as consulting engineer for the extension of the Grand Canal to Ballinasloe in County Galway, a project which was supervised by his son, Hamilton Hartley. A loan had become available in 1822 and work commenced in 1824, the contractors being Henry, Mullins and MacMahon. The canal was inspected in 1827 by George Halpin Snr., acting for the Loan Commissioners, and was opened on 29th September 1828. Work on the Mountmellick line commenced early in 1827 under Hamilton Hartley Killaly. In 1825 John Killaly surveyed a route for the Ulster Canal. He is reported to have employed a labour force of 9434 men on famine relief schemes during the 1820s.

Killaly was one of the government engineers appointed to carry out road works in the western counties at a period of distress as a means of affording relief by the employment of the peasantry in improving the road communications of the country. His main appointed district was County Clare, with smaller areas of South County Galway and North County Tipperary. The total mileage of roads built under his direction was 107½, all but 10 being in Clare. The main projects were the road from Ennis to Kilrush and a coastal road of 36 miles, including Bealaclugga Bridge at Spanish Point. All the roads were completed by 1828 using contractors. Reporting from County Clare in 1822, Killaly said ‘the great destruction of morals and waste of public property which have taken place in the county of Clare from this cause (jobbing) are beyond my power to calculate.’. He prepared answers to a series of queries from the Chief Secretary, Leveson-Gower, in 1830 and expressed the hope that the latter’s labours towards eradicating the evils of the presentment system would be successful. He also urged the appointment of qualified county surveyors, something which indeed came to pass shortly after his death. Killaly had a sound background knowledge of surveying and engineering and was simultaneously involved in a range of projects in different parts of the country. Due to this work load, he did not give the government roadworks the same personal supervision as Richard Griffith, preferring to use contractors. He wrote fewer reports of his work and furnished less detailed accounts, but he did succeed in completing a coherent plan of new roads in his area at a moderate cost, in fact taking over some of Alexander Nimmo’s unfinished roads.

Towards the end of his life, he enlisted the help of his son, Hamilton, to design a wet dock at Galway and discussed with John Rennie and John Brownrigg plans for a ship canal from Dun Laoghaire Harbour to the Grand Canal Docks at Ringsend in Dublin.

In 1813 Killaly had applied for membership of the fledgling Institution of Civil Engineers, but was rejected and did not try again when his name had become more established within the civil engineering profession.

He died at his residence “Williamstown” in Tullamore on 6th April 1832. A large memorial to him was erected in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin by his widow Alicia, who died in 1837.

 The memorial to Killaly in St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin (courtesy of Amanda Pedlow, Offaly Heritage Officer).DSCF3423


Sources: B.MULLINS and M.B.MULLINS (1848) On the origin and reclamation of peat bog, with some observations on the construction of roads, railways, and canals in bog. Trans Instn. Civ Engrs. Ir , 2, 1- 48;
J HILL (1851) On the maintenance of macadamised roads, exemplified by the repairs of the Central District of Roads and Bridges in charge of the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland. Trans Instn. Civ Engrs. Ir., 4, 12-23; R.DELANY (1973) The Grand Canal of Ireland. David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 39-46, 53-55, 91-98, 149; R. HEARD (1977) Public Works in Ireland 1800-1831. M.Litt. Thesis, University of Dublin.
List of works (prior to 1830):
Surveys for and supervision of construction of inland navigations in Ireland, notably
1798-1803, The Grand Canal (Tullamore to Shannon Harbour), construction, chief engineer,
1822-28, Roads and bridges in county Clare, etc., construction, engineer, 107½ miles,
1824-1828, Ballinasloe Branch (Grand Canal), consultant,
1825, The Ulster Canal, surveyor
1827, Monasterevan to Maryborough (Portlaoise), consultant
KILLALY J. Report, survey and estimate of a proposed canal from Monasterevan to Jenkinstown (17mls). June 10th, 1800 [Addressed to Sir John Parnell)
KILLALY J. A plan for making the Philipstown Level the summit level of the Grand Canal, 1808
KILLALY J. Map of the Grand and Royal Canals with proposed extensions. Accompanying DAWSON J. Canal Extensions in Ireland. Dublin, 1819.
Drawings by John Killaly, previously part of the “M.B. Mullins Bequest” to the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland, but later dispersed, are to be found in the following collections:
Pembroke Estate Papers, National Archives) Design for a ship canal from the Grand Canal Docks to the Royal Harbour at Kingstown, 1825);
National Library of Ireland (Plan for Richmond Bridge and Harbour House, 1817);
Pakenham Collection, Tullynally (Plan and section of Derrycooly supply, 1802; plan of Richmond Harbour, Cloondara, 1817; section of the line of Lough Allen Canal, 1818).
A sketch book, which belonged to Killaly, containing drawings of lock gates and lock-keeper’s houses, remains in the possession of the IEI.