The Brosna route from Tullamore to the Shannon

The line from Tullamore to the Shannon is known as the Brosna route. The canal had reached Daingean in 1797 and Tullamore in 1798. It was then the terminus for six years with trade opened to the Shannon Harbour in 1805.

During that period the directors of the Grand Canal Company had considered three options for completing the canal to the Shannon:

1. To lock down into the River Brosna and continue as a river navigation.

2. To construct a canal alongside the Brosna.

3. To continue the canal on the same level to the south, with the possibility of an extension to Birr and the lock down steeply into the Shannon at Banagher.

It was, in June 1801, decided to continue the canal in the valley of the Brosna which provided a natural route to the Shannon. The extension of a Kilcormac (Frankford) line was not followed through on the grounds of expense. The decision to adopt this route had been based on extensive surveys by civil engineers, notably William Jessop (1745 - 1814).

Jessop trained under another engineer, Smeaton, and was responsible for much work in England.
Jessop had made the Brosna Valley proposal in 1797 along with a more central line through Kilcormac.

Because of floods at the time, he was unable to decide whether the river itself could be used, though he thought it could from Ferbane downwards. In June 1801 the company chose the Brosna valley option under the supervision of John Killaly, a canal engineer (who incidentally spent much of his time in Tullamore, subsequent to the completion of the canal).

Hadfield and Skempton in their life of Jessop recount the story:

‘In June 1801 the company chose the Brosna Valley line. Killaly thought it impracticable to use the river, and proposed a route he had surveyed with 22 miles of canal, 8 of them through bog. Jessop, asked to look over Killaly’s line, confirmed that the 6 miles he had time to see on a fine day were very ‘judiciously laid out”.

In a postscript written two days later, after seeing the remainder of the line, Jessop authorises a very rare - for him - staircase pair of locks;

“I see no objection to the double Lock (No. 33 at Belmont) as I believe there will be plenty of Water.”
Richard Griffith was asked to take charge part-time of construction. Again, the bog lengths proved the worst problem. Griffith wrote early in 1802 that ‘there is no serious difficulty to encounter in this line, but the Bogs, and they are tremendous’. And within this problem was that of making the contractor endlessly recut and deepen the back drains as the inner canal boundary drains were also deepened.
Jessop did no revisit the canal again, and Killaly had to struggle with more leakage troubles on the section through Glyn and Belmont before the canal was permanently opened towards he end of 1805.
At the Shannon junction a basin was built - Shannon Harbour - reached from the river by two river-sized locks 80 ft x 16ft x 6ft. The Grand Canal was finished.

Ruth Delany in ‘The Grand Canal of Ireland’ mentions also that the proposed additional line to Kilcormac was not proceeded with because of the expanse. The line from Tullamore to Shannon harbour was a distance of 22 miles or which 8 miles was through a bog.

The estimate for the job on which some 3,000 men and 21 contractors worked was c.£90,000. It actually cost £146,000. The price of the earthworks varied from £3 to £12 per perch. The most skilled men on the works, the stonecutters were now receiving £1.6s per week.

Wages were transported by cutting notes in half and sending the second half when the first had been received. Wages for labourers were 3s. Problems arose at the Rahan level and it had to be drained and a few efforts made to staunch it.

John Killaly said ‘that part of the canal had been found to pass through a rotten quarry and although great care had been taken in lining the canal, the water had disappeared through swallow holes into subterranean passages connecting areas of bogland. They added that the canal was now open to trade and passage boats and in April Patrick Kileen, master of the Ranger, was presented with trousers and jackets for himself and his crew because his was the first boat from the Shannon to arrive in Dublin.

More trouble arose with the Ballycommon and Rahan levels and it was not until the end of 1805 that the line to the Shannon was permanently secured.

Courtesy of the Midland Tribune
October 2004