Top award for keeping historic canal alive

Volunteers of the Newry and Portadown branch of the IWAI restoring the Newry Canal.
Volunteers of the Newry and Portadown branch of the IWAI restoring the Newry Canal.

The Newry and Portadown Branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) has been given special recognition for its work on restoring and maintaining the Newry Canal, including the stretch from Scarva to Poyntzpass.

The Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland (IHAI), which has recognised the group’s efforts, was established in June 1996 to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the many thousands of sites, monuments and machinery that constitute our industrial heritage.

Every year it recognises individuals and groups that have help preserve, restore, and promote heritage sites and this year it’s the Newry Canal IWAI turn.

Week after week for the past ten years the Newry-Portadown Branch can be spotted working along the 18.5 miles of the canal; no work is too menial or too challenging for them.

They engage in a complete range of work from litter picking and controlling invasive species to making and hanging lock gates weighing over 1.5 tons.

They also, through their interpretative centre at the Sluice Keeper’s Cottage near Poyntzpass, educate the public on the historic importance of this piece of local heritage. The centre is manned from spring to autumn and overlooks the scenic Lough Shark.

The branch, although its members have an average of about 71 years, are also tech savvy. They have made an App for mobile devices that gives a virtual tour of the canal.

This was a major piece of work involving walking the length of the canal with a GPS device and camera. It was narrated by members of the branch.

Working on a corridor of 18.5 miles poses its own challenges but the branch offer the public free cycle tours along various sections of the canal.

As well as acquainting the the public with local history the tours allow branch members to inspect and monitor work that may need urgent attention.

Any litter, obstructions, and damage to locks is then reported and a work party is soon dispatached to clean up or take more urgent action.

The canal is a scheduled ancient monument and is the oldest still-water canal in the UK and Ireland, started in 1731 and opened in 1742.

Ultan Cowley in his book ‘The Men who Built Britain’ speculated that many of the men who dug it went on to the Bridgewater Canal. They were the first Irish navvies.

The canal was built to link the Tyrone coalfields, via Lough Neagh and the Upper Bann, to the Irish Sea through the sea lock at Fathom, near Newry and then into Carlingford Lough.

The canal had, in its original state, 15 locks 10 raising the boat to the summit 68 feet above sea level.

It then descended 22 feet to enter the Upper Bann two miles south of Portadown.