‘A river to hell’: working on Ireland’s inland waterways

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Volume 18


The crew of the St Brigid at Limerick Harbour Canal c. 1950.

From its inception the story of Irish canals was laden with tragedy. Men close to starvation laboured for a few pence a day to dig them, and barge masters sailed fully armed against a backdrop of simmering hostility.
Guinness was the major customer of the Grand Canal Company (GCC). In the 1800s they undercut local breweries along the entire canal navigation route, driving competitors out of business. The GCC engaged thereafter in a protracted battle with rival rail and road transport for the best delivery schedules. It was barge crews who paid the price. Poor working conditions led to poor health, apathy and alcoholism. Barge operator Danny Baker described it aptly as ‘a river to hell’.

Tools of the trade


Gussy McGrath (foreground) and fellow storemen at the Guinness warehouse at Limerick Harbour Canal c. 1950.

Gussy McGrath (foreground) and fellow storemen at the Guinness warehouse at Limerick Harbour Canal c. 1950.

The crew of a typical barge consisted of four men, who slept in bunks in the bow section. There were watertight bulkheads but this feature didn’t guarantee immunity from sinking. Fully loaded, the barges often scraped the bottoms of the canals and needed support from tugs to cross the lakes. They carried a ballast of stone, sometimes up to 2,000 concrete bricks or even steel railway lines. In squalls the barges, which had very low drafts and were scarcely two feet above the water, could be easily swamped. Navigating a barge therefore required an excellent knowledge of the craft’s limitations and a fair degree of nerve. The most commonly used engine was the Bolinder. Although extremely reliable, under the wrong conditions it could be a death-trap. The problem inherent in the Bolinder design was its low horsepower (15hp), which meant that barges took four and a half days to reach Dublin from the Shannon at only 4mph. Built by two Swedish brothers as an improvement on the failed four-cylinder Scott Sterling engine (1910), there was no gearbox and using the throttle was a hit-and-miss affair. Early craft used low-cost steel cladding, only three-eighths of an inch thick, which was too easily breeched in collisions—officially termed ‘directional incidents’. These were common at night where neither barge was carrying lamps or where a ‘sandcot’ or smaller craft was struck by a barge racing into harbour.

Working conditions


Despite the common misconception, barges were not comfortable floating homes. Some skippers had their own quarters, but ‘greasers’ (the term given to apprentices learning their trade), the enginemen and deckmen all shared quarters. Many greasers lost their jobs after a strike in 1942, although hours were reduced slightly, with men now starting work at 6am instead of midnight. The working pattern was for a long run to be followed by a short run. The long run had fewer stops and thence less loading along the route, but crews were exposed to severe fatigue. Cargoes were as diverse as they were dangerous—sugar beet for the Carlow sugar factory and asbestos from Athy. In the latter case the dangers were then unknown and no protective clothing was provided. Before 1946 work was ‘24/7’, with crews working sixteen-hour days, sleeping on the barge and finding it next to impossible to see their families. Their boats carried timber barrels of porter, later replaced by aluminium ‘iron lungs’. The decks often held up to 300 half-barrels or 350 firkins. Caught in a squall, the combination of low power output, shallow draft and shifting loads could prove fatal.

Accidents and closure 

By far the worst accident occurred on 1 December 1946, when three men on board the 45M were drowned on Lough Derg. The weather was rough and the doomed vessel at first pulled into Kilgarvan and two hours later into Garrykennedy. Ironically, it was the arrival of the St James, a tugboat used to pull the barges across Lough Derg, that sealed her fate. The crew, which now included a passenger named Jimmy McGrath, took a chance that virtually all crews took at one time or another and set out for their destination. As they rounded the notorious Parker’s Point and headed out into the lake proper, four winds rose up, creating a phenomenon known as ‘boxing swells’. The St James pulled the barge directly into the rising waves and she was swamped. The crew of the tugboat cut the tow-rope with an axe in order to prevent their own vessel from capsising. Jack Boland, the driver, was found dead on the shore. Tony O’Brien made it to a farmhouse and survived. Ned Boland’s body was discovered some three months later, and it was assumed that Jimmy McGrath went down with the vessel. In 1975 the 45M was raised from the bed of Lough Derg, where she had lain on a ledge in the interim period in remarkably good condition. There was no sign, however, of Jimmy McGrath.
In 1930 Dan Logan from Robertstown and Jack Grace from Blackwood died of suffocation when the portholes were closed on a cold winter’s night aboard the 51M. The packed stove gave warmth but there was no ventilation. Health and safety guidelines were non-existent on the old canals. Indeed, many bargemen wore shoes with nails in the soles called ‘Tullamore boots’, which were ill suited to the sloping deck. The crew of the 63M barely escaped with their lives in the winter of 1947 when the engine of their barge carrying empties back to Dublin stalled and the stricken vessel was dashed against the buttresses of Matthew Bridge in Limerick. Ropes thrown down to the frantic crew below were the only means of escape.
Men were often caught in the engines’ flywheels and shredded. Others were hit by tillers and thrown into the canals, never to be seen again; many could not swim and were drowned, or were drunk on illicit porter when they fell in. Some slipped on navigation poles, were crushed by barrels or were caught up in stop ropes that severed their trapped limbs. One skipper who fell into the canal in a collision and got stuck in the ‘podelling clay’ that lined the bottom was not found until morning. He was still submerged and embedded in the mud beneath. The mishaps inspired tales of ghosts and things of the night. The thirteenth lock at Ardlough near Lord Kincorey’s old estate was notorious for hauntings. At Lanesboro, Co. Longford, nocturnal crying was heard, and at Banagher, Co. Offaly, spectral eyes appeared out of the gloom where a man named Larkin was drowned.
The 1958 Transport Act finally allowed CIE to close the canals but the pension given to employees was not index-linked, resulting in severe hardship for many. Among those badly affected by the closure was the mother of former Fianna Fáil minister Charlie McCreevey. Ironically, it was Todd Andrews, progenitor of another Fianna Fáil dynasty, who was chairman of CIE at the time.  HI

John Rainsford is a graduate student of journalism at the University of Limerick. The photographs were taken by his late father, Jack Rainsford, who died on 24 October 1997.

Further reading:


Heritage Boat Association, Cool metal—clear water: trading boats of Ireland’s inland waterways (Enniskillen, 2006).
J. O’Reilly and C. Killally, Through the locks (Mullingar, 2007).


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