An often-forgotten part of Irish transport history is the canals. Both the Grand and Royal Canals were originally built for freight and passenger transportation, but why not consider grabbing the family, a picnic, your chosen mode of transport and travel alongside the canals of Ireland on the towpaths?
A towpath is a road, or sometimes a trail, along the bank of the canal. Before the addition of engines to boats, the towpaths were used to allow a land vehicle, humans or animals to tow a boat or barge.
Now they are very rarely, if ever, used for that purpose and have been converted into amenities for the public to enjoy.
The canal greenways link Dublin city centre to the suburbs out into the countryside, so depending on how adventurous you are and of course weather permitting there’s plenty you can get up to. Rural roads run close to the towpaths and frequently follow the canals, linking them to towns and communities.
The Grand Canal Way
The Grand Canal stretches 131km from Lucan Road Bridge to the Shannon, through Dublin, Kildare and ending in Offaly. The Grand Canal is the lower canal. This greenway is described as an “informal linear park” running alongside the Grand Canal, which is still very much the heart of many towns and villages. As you wander along the canal you can be sure you will see carefully restored lock-keepers cottages and clever canal technology. The canals pass through beautiful agricultural landscapes and give you the opportunity to observe the flora and fauna that have generally been untouched.
The Barrow Line
If you’re located closer to the southeast of the country you could explore the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal which stretches for 46km. There was a series of canal cuts created to bypass the shallows and weirs constructed to control the natural fall of water along the River Barrow. This was done in order to connect Waterford city with Dublin. Construction was completed in 1791 connecting Robertstown on the main line of the Grand Canal to Athy, where it then becomes part of the River Barrow Navigation.
Arthur’s Way travels along the towpaths of the Grand Canal and the Liffey through Co Kildare. This is a 16km heritage trail which tells the story of Arthur Guinness and takes in important historical landmarks along the way. You can explore Celbridge, where Arthur spent his childhood, Leixlip, the site of his first brewery and Oughterard graveyard, Arthur’s final resting place near his ancestral home. It’s an easy stroll that can be enjoyed in either direction.
The Royal Canal Way
The Royal Canal is 146km in length, starting in Dublin and stretching all the way to the Shannon. The Royal Canal is the upper canal. The canal passes through 46 working locks, 10 of which are double-chambered. Works were finished on the Royal Canal in 1817. By the 1950s the canal had unfortunately fallen into disrepair and was closed in 1961.
The Royal Canal Way upgrading programme is not fully complete, so there are still works going on along the route. Some sections of the towpath in Dublin city centre are inaccessible; routes along the canal in Dublin are generally well surfaced and are suitable for cycling. It is hoped that the full greenway will be fully open this year.
So you know what route you would like to wander, but what method should you use?
By foot and by bike
The canals are a great amenity for all levels of walkers and cyclists and a fantastic opportunity for a family outing. Just grab the bikes and hop in the car. If you don’t have your own bike, why not consider hiring a bike to take for a spin or go by foot? Be warned though, if you’re cycling the towpaths during the winter period, from November to March, maintenance works on the canals may require the closure of the towpaths for short distances. To find out if this may affect your plans check out the marine notices.
Consider taking a boat or barge trip along the canals. If you aren’t up for hiring a boat on your own there are numerous options for guided barge trips along the canals. If you’re an active kayaker or canoer and have your gear already, you can just make your plan and work away. Always remember to tell someone your plan and when you expect to return and plan for the weather and nightfall. If you’re keen to go but don’t have your own equipment there are many places you can hire from, just remember to book in advance to avoid disappointment.
An active angler or even an occassional one will find that the canals are a great place for a spot of fishing. Sit back and relax along the banks of the canal and watch time pass you by. The canal waterways are managed by Waterways Ireland so no license or permit is required but you should respect the catch and release policy.
If you would like to get out and explore the waterways then why not check out www.waterwaysireland.org for more information.