‘Back in the Minutes’: Offaly in the Grand Canal Company minutes, 1900-1950 with special reference to the 1911-23 period. By James Scully

Growing up on Clontarf Road, Tullamore, on the banks of the Grand Canal in the 1950s and 1960s I spent many childhood hours playing beside the canal. This was where my father’s family had lived for generations in East View Terrace before he and several of his siblings had acquired houses in Frank Gibney’s new state-of-the-art housing on Clontarf Road. In early teenage years I took to walking the canal line and ventured to Kilgortin Mill and Rahan, where my mother’s people, my grandfather and uncles and a multiplicity of cousins, lived. Not surprisingly the canal got under my skin if not indeed into my bloodstream.

[James Scully is speaking at Bury Quay and via Zoom on Monday 30 Jan at 7.45 p.m. and via Zoom (details below.]

Hiking west from Tullamore the ‘canal line’ took us to exotic locations: The Metal Railway Bridge and slow-moving trains, the inaccessible Srah Castle, Molloy’s Bridge for in-season snowdrops and horse chestnuts and the hugely impressive six-chimneyed Ballycowan Castle, overlooking the imperious and impervious Huband Aqueduct. Rambling east towards Cappancur we soon explored in detail the small aqueduct which seemingly miraculously ushered the Barony River under the canal and were further allured by the rotundity of Boland’s lockhouse and a lock manned by a team of sisters. Graduating to the bicycle we set out along the towpath for far-flung towns and villages: Ballycommon and the Wood-of-O, the Kilbeggan Branch, historic Daingean and the outré but warm and welcoming church at Pollagh.

Grand canal from the 27th lock at Cox’s Bridge, Tullamore about 1910


Inevitably such a childhood landscape, so rich in the built and natural heritage, engendered an interest in local history and a lifelong love of heritage in all its aspects. Later moves to Rathmines and Portobello on Dublin’s Grand Canal Circular line and on to Banagher and Meelick on the majestic Shannon, ensured that the story of Ireland’s inland waterways would dominate this enthusiasm. Acquiring Ruth Delaney’s The Grand Canal of Ireland (1973) inspired a lifelong passion for the history of inland navigation particularly after discovery of the Grand Canal Court of Directors Minute Books. These ledger-like volumes were then housed in the bowels of the Heuston Station, just an hour up on another line from Tullamore. Several holidays over the following years on Mike and Heather Thomas’s Celtic Canal Cruisers across Offaly, down the Barrow and up to Carrick-on-Shannon ensured there would be no deviation from the calling.


The amalgamation of the Grand Canal Company and Córas Iompair Éireann (C.I.E.), the predecessor of Irish Rail, in 1950 dictated that the minute books were stored beneath the railway platforms at Heuston Station where they remained warm and dry until they were moved to the National Archives of Ireland in Bishop Street, Dublin. To use a canal analogy, these minute books have provided a constant source or supply of information as I studied the history of the line during the ten years of its construction, (1794-1804), from Drumcooly, east of Edenderry to Bunbrosna below Shannon Harbour. The 121 volumes, which happily are comprehensively indexed, cover the period 1772-1950, so the subsequent story of the canal and much of the history of towns and villages along the line is to be found there. In this regard many places in Offaly are particularly well served.


With so many volumes, so well indexed and dated, hundreds of historic moments can be  easily sourced. The following brief selection for the period 1900-1950 gives some idea of the quality of information and minute detail available.

The lockkeeper’s day was never done

1911 AND 1913 STRIKES

In September 1911 the Grand Canal Company had its first major clash with trade unions. ‘Bulkers’ who loaded and unloaded boats at James’s Street Harbour were dismissed after refusing to handle timber from a merchant whose men were on strike. In late September there was a long standoff as the company directors dug in their heels.

On 13October 1911 a boat loaded by clerical staff about to leave St. James’s Harbour in Dublin was obstructed and a large threatening crowd prevented the boat leaving. The following day brought an intervention by Revd John V. Hughes of Philipstown who knew a lot of the boatmen as he had lived at Robertstown and Lowtown. The crux was that the boatmen would accept conditions for a return to work but would not sign a document presented by the company. Father Hughes then drew up his own document which the men agreed to sign. Unfortunately, it was a Saturday and as there was a funeral in the locality some of the men became inebriated and ‘a few malcontents got the better of them’ and dissuaded them. The priest then suggested that the engineer Henry Wayte and he would meet the boatmen who would give a verbal undertaking to obey the conditions for a return to work. The company remained obdurate and refused to accept this. Wayte and Hughes met the boatmen again and they agreed to sign if the bulkers who caused the strike were reinstated. This was not agreed to under any circumstances.

On 24 October boatmen signed the company memorandum. Boats started up but on reaching St. James’s Harbour the men refused to handle cargo unless it was delivered by the bulkers. Fourteen bulkers would be reinstated but the five malcontents remained dismissed despite appeals of Fr. Hughes’s appeal for clemency. The letters between Fr. Hughes and Laurence A. Waldron, chairman were lengthy and complex. Father Hughes gallantly made numerous appeals for reconciliation but the company remained obdurate and it seems the five malcontents were not reinstated. Some years later in Feb. 1915 when Fr. Hughes was retiring on grounds of ill-health the company subscribed £5 to his testimonial concert regretting his bad health.

Two years later as part of the General Strike there was a standoff near Robertstown in which James Taylor of Turraun, Pollagh took a brave stand which is vividly remembered in an anonymous poem. Strikers were preventing a boat from moving off from Lowtown Lock when a sergeant from the R.I.C. produced a pistol. Taylor bravely stood up to this threat and the verses celebrate his courage.

RAHAN  FOOTBRIDGE  (THE PRIEST’S BRIDGE)              March and July 1913

The meeting on the 13 March 1913 read an application from Father Michael Conlan for permission to erect a footbridge across the canal at Rahan to facilitate his parishioners and for the benefit of schoolchildren. The meeting decided that permission be given at a rent of one shilling per annum if demanded and on condition that the lessee indemnifies the company against any suits or liability arising out of the bridge which must be constructed and maintained to the satisfaction of the company’s engineer. In July that year the company regretted that they could not see their way to put in the foundations of the proposed footbridge but to show their sympathy with the undertaking they issued instructions that the girders for the bridge were to be carried free of charge. An informal inscription on the one of the remaining abutments indicates the bridge was erected in 1914.

The priest’s bridge below Ballycowan


Almost as a premonition of forthcoming events a small breach took place at Bracklin on the Kilbeggan Branch in late December 1915. Harry Wayte, the Grand Canal Company’s engineer since 1907, must have been relieved that the resultant flooding was limited and the small ‘ex gratia’ payment to Thomas Finlay of Bracklin was the extent of compensation to be paid. Repairs to the tunnel at the location of the breach were finished on Monday the 10th January. The Edenderry breach occurred the following night.

Wayte first heard of the breach early on Wednesday morning while on a work visit to Limerick and proceeded immediately by motor to Edenderry. In his first of his weekly reports on the following day, he outlined the extent of the damage done by the breach: ‘…about 300 yards of the canal bank had been carried away. This breach is exactly the portion of bank which was put in about sixty years ago.’ Wayte was here referring to a similar incident which had occurred at the same location in September 1855. Although four miles of canal had run off and flooding was extensive, it was across low pasture and Wayte optimistically declared that he did not think there would be any claims for damage. The rupture to the bank was twenty to thirty feet deep so the waters rushed away creating huge chasms in the embankment.

The repair of the breach at Edenderry in 1916.


From the earliest years Shannon Harbour was a place of transhippment. The two locks there had been built to a larger size to allow steamers which plied on the Shannon to come up into the Harbour where all horse drawn goods bound for places on the river were transhipped. After 1910 the mechanization of the canal boats meant they could travel on the river on their own steam and Shannon Harbour became somewhat eclipsed being reduced to no more than a toll office and a refueling point. This all changed in November 1945 when a decision was made to replace the canal boats on the river between Shannon Harbour and Limerick with two larger and more powerful vessels. Transhippment would return to Shannon Harbour.

In January 1946 two vessels the Avon King and Avon Queen moored at Bristol and owned by Thomas Niblett & Co. Ltd. became available at a cost of £5,250. The steel barges were 85 feet long and 15 feet 6 inches beam which meant the locks in the Harbour would have to be further enlarged. A transhipping store and office would also have to be constructed. In June it was determined that these works could be done by the company’s engineer and staff at a cost of £1,953 14 2.

A few week later Tom Rolt, one of the founding members of the Inland Waterways Association in Britain, passing through the locks at Shannon Harbour observed ‘baulks of timber, heaps of gravel, sheer-legs, portable air-compressors and pumps’… all stored in readiness for the work to begin. Some major works were afoot.

Joe Smith lock-keeper at the 27th lock, Tullamore. Joe was appointed to succeed his father Thomas on 23 October 1944 and remained in that position for  many years. Always had nice buttermilk.

Patsy Cummins, retired lock-keeper at 29th lock, Ballycowan, west of Tullamore. Joseph Cummins was appointed lock-keeper there on 10 September 1925.

Topic: ‘OHAS Lecture 30 January 2022, 7.45 p.m.

James Scully on the Grand Canal and Offaly, 1900 to the 1960s

For the Zoom link, please email info@offalyhistory.com. Members will get the link with the newsletter The Grand Canal lecture is in person and online.



This presentation looks at the major events that occurred on the Grand Canal in County Offaly over the last 100 years or so. The canal company began the new century in good stead. James McCann, chairman since 1892, had brought about many reforms and improvements. In 1905 the company had 70 trade boats, 4 tugs on the Shannon and 5 large vessels on the Shannon. Shareholders enjoyed a steady dividend of 4% but clouds were gathering and soon there was increasing unrest with the trade unions. Following strikes in 1908 and 1911 there was a major lock out in 1913 as part of the general strike led by Jim Larkin and the I.T.G.W.U. The many stand-offs that ensued included one near Robertstown in which Jim Taylor of Gallen, near Ferbane, played a noble role. At the company meeting in November 1913 the directors claimed the strike had cost them £11,011.

1916 was a momentous year not alone for the insurrection in Dublin but for a major breach at the Tunnel, east of Edenderry. The talk will relate the varying reports on this major disruption and recall some of the personnel involved in the major repairs undertaken.

The talk will also examine the comprehensive list of compensation claims made by various companies after raids on canal boats between July 1921 and May 1923. This gives a good insight into the nature and location of a multiplicity of incidents along the line, particularly west of Tullamore.

The iconic travels of Tom Rolt, founder of the British Inland Waterways Association, along the canal will be looked at in detail, in particular his observations of major works being undertaken at Shannon Harbour in 1946. These optimistic developments took place just a few years before the ill-fated and much resisted amalgamation with Córas Iompar Éireann (C.I.E.) which culminated with the Grand Canal Company’s last meeting in August 1950.

To finish on a more optimistic note the speaker will share colourful memories of lock keeping families and neighbours near Tullamore and look briefly at existing and proposed developments on the canal today.