Royal Canal

Cruising on the Royal Canal: Travelling through the Deep Sinking by Barge

Running the length of the Royal Canal in a single day is a fairly unique way to experience the joys of travelling along its banks. However, a promise I made to myself that mid-summers day in 2019 was that one day I would return to see the canal the way it is truly meant to be seen, to be experienced, from the water. It took me over two years to finally book a trip with Royal Canal Boat Trips and the charismatic skipper Jenny.

Jenny and her barge passing the Maynooth Swans and cygnets

2021 has certainly been the year of the Royal Canal. While the navigation itself fully reopened in 2010, 2021 has seen the launch of the Royal Canal Greenway, Ireland’s longest greenway, linking Maynooth to the Shannon at Cloondara with options to also travel the Old Rail Trail to Athlone or take the Longford Branch off the main line to Longford town. Following on from the launch of the greenway, RTÉ’s Nationwide also dedicated a weeks worth of their programming to exploring the canal with hosts Anne Cassin and Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh starting at opposite ends and meeting each other in Mullingar.

While the Greenway has been getting the majority of the focus of late, the setting for my short cruise is the marvelous Deep Sinking, casting off from the 12th Lock in Castleknock and heading west through a true man made wonderland, largely untouched by development since its difficult and costly construction in the 1790’s.

Heading towards Granard Bridge and the Deep Sinking

I have already covered the Deep Sinking from the towpath on my page here but I think it is fair to say it is an area like no other on the Royal Canal for intrigue, controversy, expense and tragedy, all of which take on a much greater meaning when seen from the water rather than from the heights above.

Magical Reflections from the water of the Deep Sinking

Let me first start with the intrigue. Why was it that over 200 years ago the board of the original Royal Canal Company decided to deviate away from the surveys that told them that it would be more practical and cost effective to build the canal on a more northerly route rather than to dig and blast their way through a limestone quarry? As knowledge of history of the Royal Canal grows, many would now tell you that this was done at the behest of the William Fitzgerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster, a subscriber to the Royal Canal Company, so that the canal would pass alongside his country seat of Carton House, now a luxury hotel and golf course.

Tool marks at Kirkpatrick Bridge

Unfortunately with all the records of the original Royal Canal Company lost, it is not something I think we can ever be 100% sure of. That said the Deep Sinking was a mammoth undertaking in terms of cost and labour, taking several years to dig out of the hard rock. Fast forward to today and considerable attention has been drawn to the existence of 4 arches built into the south bank of the Deep Sinking between Kirkpatrick and Keenan Bridges. Awareness of these arches has gained traction through the Friends of the Deep Sinking Facebook group while their true function remains a mystery. My own personal thinking is that they were build to provide stability to weak parts of the towpath where the horses would have once pulled the barges through the Deep Sinking from a considerable height above the canal.

Arch hidden by overgrowth as seen from the barge

As Jenny navigates her daily charter back and forth along the Deep Sinking she has well established the location of the 4 arches. While I know exactly where 2 are from the towpath and have been down in both, one of them is definitely inaccessible from land and I think it was with sense of glee and adventure that she waited patiently to unveil another arch to the world from its mask and curtain of thorny overgrowth. As she stopped the barge alongside the arch pointing out its keystone and light coming through from the other side, it didn’t take any encouragement for me to clamber up the bank and see it from the inside.

Looking back at skipper Jenny and my wife from the arch

Of course now that I made my way up here, it was time to document what I found. The most startling object that caught my attention first was an old motorcycle helmet, lord knows how long that has been down there.

A motorcycle helmet found in the arch

So while I had a sense of adventure, it would seem I am not the only one to have been down here in recent years despite how inaccessible I think the place is. The arch itself is built of brick and is the width of the towpath it carries above.

Several bricks are missing and it can be seen how the arch is built into the bedrock below it.

Vegetation from above has caused some damage as roots have spread over years and a large root now sprouts out of canal facing side of the arch having forced some bricks free and splitting others around it.

Roots protruding out through the brickwork near the centre of the arch

Of course a structure like this is not something that should be kept secret or hidden, especially if we are to have any hope of it being preserved given its delicate condition. Jenny came prepared and passed me up a set of pincer shears which I was able to use to remove some of the curtain, allowing light flow in from the canal side so that passers-by on the canal can marvel at another wonder of the Deep Sinking.

The arch after its haircut, opened up for all to see

After getting my feet firmly back on the barge, we proceeded gently west again, stopping a short distance further at the site of an old well just before Keenan Bridge. While the well was dry you could see how steps had been fashioned down to it from the towpath and how a pipe had been installed so water could be taken from the well. It gave me an amazing sense of joy to be shown these things that I knew nothing of before, highlighting that no matter how often you pass through a place, there are always little treasures and secrets to find.

Well on the south back with small pipe at its base

It is at Keenan Bridge that we come to the tragedy I mentioned earlier. Sensitive souls can feel an eerie feeling of loss passing through the bridge, not far from where the sinking of the Longford passenger boat, with the loss of 16 lives happened in 1845. A better account than I can offer can be read on the Irish Waterways History website. A memorial plaque was erected by the Royal Canal Amenity Group on the bridge on the 150th anniversary in 1995.

Keenan Bridge as viewed from the Clonsilla side near the location of the sinking of the Longford passenger boat

From Keenan Bridge we headed for our turn around point just short of Callaghan Bridge at Clonsilla Train Station, a distance of 2.5 miles in about 90 minutes. This is the true pleasure of travelling by barge. When running I would expect to cover 9 miles in 90 minutes and would still think that I have taken in my surroundings but in reality I have missed so much and have a whole new appreciation for the Deep Sinking by taking the time to travel its waterway and conversing with those who have a shared love of the canal, its history and its heritage, each of us filling in a little bit of the rich tapestry that makes up the fascinating tale of its past and those who have gone before us, be they navvies, engineers, merchants or travellers.

Approaching the turn around point near Callaghan Bridge

I mentioned earlier that the Deep Sinking was also the site of controversy and expense. This started indeed with its construction in the 1790s and between making the Deep Sinking navigable and building the Rye Water Aqueduct in Leixlip, the Royal Canal Company had drained its financial resources barely getting out of Dublin, let alone making it to the Shannon. What followed was protracted funding requests to government allowing the canal be finished first to Kilcock in 1796, eventually on to Mullingar in 1806 before the company fell bankrupt after reaching Coolnahay around 1813. From there the canal was finished to the Shannon under the control of the Directors for Inland Navigation, finally being completed to Richmond Harbour in 1817.

The canopy above the Deep Sinking on a soft day

It seems this controversy continues on into the 21st century with the planning for the completion of the Greenway into Dublin from Maynooth and the intention of developers to build apartments very close to the canal bank. I cannot deny that I am an advocate for the completion of the Greenway and I hope that a solution that allows that completion can be found, however I am very mindful that the Deep Sinking is a place steeped in wildlife, built heritage and also a spiritual resting place. All these factors must be considered in advance of any work undertaken. The canal is man-made, built over 200 years ago and while it needed substantial work to restore it for navigation, the craftsmanship on display shows it was built not only to outlast those who started it, but the many generations that would follow in its wake from a commercial route to a leisure amenity.

Kirkpatrick Bridge built into the bedrock of the Deep Sinking with tool marks visible

The short trip only heightened my desire to one day travel the full length of the canal once again, only this time at an easy pace, by barge, all the best explorers went by boat right? I will take it one step at a time though, the next step is to see if I can book another trip with Royal Canal Boat Trips as far as Maynooth and get to experience transiting through a lock. After our return to Castleknock my wife and I were a little early for lunch in the 12th Lock so we walked on along the canal to The Lock Keeper at the 10th Lock in Ashtown.

Finished the day with lunch at the Lock Keeper in Ashtown

PS – Many thanks to my wife Niamh for many of the photos used here, recording what I was only taking in in my own minds eye as the skipper and I shared stories of travelling the canal.