Mullingar and the Royal Canal – 1806-2015
Work on the Royal Canal commenced in 1790 and the waterway reached Mullingar in 1806. The list of those who subscribed towards the building of the Canal included the then Landlord of Mullingar, Lord Granard, who pledged £1,000. The first passenger boat, the “Countess of Granard”, arrived in Mullingar on December 6th,1806,carrying what a local paper described as,”a number of passengers of distinction.” The first canal harbour was at Pipers Boreen just off what is now Millmount Rd. It is said that pipers gathered along the boreen leading from the harbour to pipe the passengers off the boats.
In 1808, a new harbour and dry dock had been constructed closer to the town centre beside the Longford Road Bridge. Originally used just for freight, this site became by 1825 the main boarding and landing place for both passengers and freight. By 1818 there were six stores in operation at Mullingar Harbour occupied by traders. Some seventeen different types of goods and livestock were being transported between Mullingar and Dublin along the canal by the 1810s. Timber, slate, bricks, corn,
flour, potatoes, butter, malt, grain, coal and turf were among the cargoes transported, along with cattle and pigs. The arrival of the canal led to a large increase in the trade of Mullingar.
The fares for passengers travelling by canal between Mullingar and Dublin were 12/6 first class and 7/7 second class. The journey time was twelve hours. There were two passenger boats each way daily. Contractors supplied the horses to tow the boats. The contactors were paid an average of 1shilling per mile. Fines were imposed for every minute the boat was late at each stage. One contactor worked the Dublin-Mullingar section of the canal while another was responsible for the section from Mullingar to Longford.
Work began to extend the canal westwards from Mullingar in 1807. In March 1818 a packet boat carrying horse contractor, Timothy Bagnall and “a select company of friends.”, inaugurated the first passenger service from Mullingar to Ballymahon. By the 1820s the canal connected Mullingar to the Shannon at Richmond Harbour and by 1830 there was a connection to Longford. The journey time to the Shannon at Richmond Harbour was eleven hours. Feeder services were provided by coaches from Mullingar to towns and villages away from the canal. In 1833, faster boats known as Flyboats went into operation on the Royal Canal. These boats knocked almost four hours off the Mullingar-Dublin journey time, making the trip in eight hours fifty minutes.
A wide variety of people used the passenger boat services. The Presentation Nuns who came to Mullingar in 1829 to open a convent and school arrived by canal boat. Lawyers coming to Mullingar for the Assizes, soldiers coming and going from the military barracks, traders with merchandise and farmers all availed of the canal boats. The largest number of passengers were people emigrating on a temporary or permanent basis. They took the canal boat to Dublin before embarking on the sea journey to Britain, North America or other destinations. During the Famine years an extra boat was put into service to cater for the increasing numbers desiring to emigrate. A storehouse at the Dublin Bridge was used as emergency accommodation for 100 female paupers.
In October 1848 the railway reached Mullingar and the passenger boats to Dublin ceased to operate from November 4th 1848. Services to the west of Mullingar continued for a few more years until the railway reached Athlone and Longford in the 1850s. Freight traffic continued on the canal for many more decades. In the 1860s, there were some fifty trade boats on the canal carrying 96,000 tons of goods. There was a charge of 7/6 on freight transported to and from Mullingar. As late as 1883 there were still forty five boats operating and the Mullingar canal harbour and storehouses were full of goods including porter,slates,turf and grain. Carts delivered merchandise to businnesses throughout the town.
In the early 20th century the canal and harbour went into decline with the amount of business on the waterway falling year by year. The last working barges ceased operations in 1951 and the canal was closed to traffic in the 1960s. For a time it looked as though the canal would be turned into a roadway. However dedicated lobbying and restoration work by volunteers saved the waterway and it was gradually reopened. In 1999 canal boats passed through Mullingar for the first time in forty years and in 2010 the Royal Canal was reopened all the way west of Mullingar to the Shannon. The canal towpath is now a major amenity for cyclists, walkers and anglers visiting or living in Mullingar and is a very important part of the heritage of the town.