The Barrow. Our River Your Journey


Building the Barrow Navigation

An example of a lock and a lateral canal section on the Barrow Navigation at Clashganny

In 1537 an act of parliament was passed referring to the river Barrow which made it illegal to build a weir across the river for fishing or milling without putting a “King’s Gap” or flash-lock into the weir which would allow boats to pass, even at that time the river was used by shallow draft boats. In 1703 a parliamentary committee was set up to bring in a bill to make the Barrow navigable, however no action was taken and it was reconsidered in 1709 when it was estimated the cost would only be £3,000 to make the river navigable from the sea as far as Athy. It wasn’t until 1715 that the Barrow scheme was granted and even after this no action was taken until 1759, when the “Burgesses of Carlow and the adjoining counties” lobbied for £2,000 to remove obstructions on the river from Monasterevin to St. Mullins. It wasn’t until 1761 that the first progress report was submitted to the parliament, by engineer Thomas Omer and the overseer John Semple. They reported that a further £5,263, would be needed to reach Graiguenamangh from St. Mullins.

But even by 1767 they had not completed the first 4 mile stretch from St. Mullins to Graiguenamangh. He reported to the parliamentary committee on the necessity of dredging the river to make the channel navigable, as well as the building of two short lateral canals each with a lock. It was also reported that it was a difficult stretch of the river to construct a towpath.

In 1783 more than 20 years after the project began progress was slow and expensive, at this time they had only reached Clashganny a few miles upstream of Graiguenamanagh and £32,000 were required in achieving this. Around this time some shallow draft boats up to 18 tons did manage to reach the Grand Canal at Monasterevin which was completed in 1785, only to be turned away unless they were carrying a minimum of 30 tons as the Grand Canal Company would not waste water passing small boats through the lock.


Many attempts were made at forming a company to take over the works, but were unsuccessful until a group of subscribers produced a survey by Charles Tarrant and undertook to complete the navigation within ten years if they received a grant of £30,000, which they promised to match with subscriptions. Some of the subscribers asked William Chapman for his advice on the course of the river and published his report on “the means of perfecting the Navigation of the River Barrow from St. Mullins to Athy”.  In the report he stated the characteristics of rivers that are particularly suited for navigation, which are rivers “that have their general sources in low grounds and a moderate declivity to the sea”. Essentially rivers which are not very susceptible to flooding nor to drought. In Chapman’s report he indicated that the river Barrow would require up to twenty more locks in addition to the seven already completed, to allow boats of up to eighty tons to navigate to the Grand Canal.

In 1790 the Barrow line of the Grand Canal to Athy was completed by Archibald Millar, it is reported that nearly 4000 men worked on the line. In 1790 the Barrow navigation company was incorporated by charter and works progressed under the direction of Chapman. Ten new Lateral Canals with locks were constructed and four of the original locks were enlarged to allow larger boats of up to eighty tons navigate the system.

In 1800 the company approached the Directors General as they were in financial difficulty; they needed more money as it was proving very expensive to reach their target of a minimum depth of 5ft throughout the system. They reported that five more lateral canals were required to bypass shallow areas. Eventually an agreement was made which resulted with the company accepting a reduction in tolls for finance. In 1806 William Jessop inspected the progress, he stated that he believed the Barrow could be made navigable with a 5ft depth even in the driest season and that it would be of considerable benefit to the mills and the land around them. This encouraged the company but only led to them seeking more financial assistance in 1810. So far they had spent over £120,000 a quarter of which had come from public funds.

After many more surveys, reports and new estimates the Directors General agreed to give £30,000 pound which was half of the estimated cost to reach the target depth of 5ft. Ultimately in 1813 the Directors General refused to hand over anymore money as the company had not reached the target, which forced the company to admit that the best that could be achieved was a depth of 3ft in the dry season.

Despite the imperfect state of the navigation trade did increase from 16,000 tons in 1790 to 60,000 tons by 1830 more than half of which was generated by the mills along the river bank. The money generated from tolls encouraged attempts at improving the navigation which included raising some weirs and the construction of a new bypass canal and lock at Clogrennan in 1836.

In 1878 the Barrow Navigation Company restricted its trading business to the river as the Grand Canal Company’s rates were too high. At this time The Barrow Navigation Company started to suffer from increasing competition with the railways and traffic on the waterway started to decline. It was decided that they would sell to the Grand Canal Company. They proposed a price of £54,000 but it was rejected by the Grand Canal Company, in turn the Barrow Navigation company refused an offer of £48,000. Eventually it was sold in 1983 for a much lower figure of £30,000. The Grand Canal Company now controlled all the waterways in the south of Ireland, the company used newly acquired barges and steamers to transport cargo and it was expected to facilitate a much improved service. However this never came to fruition with the ongoing difficulties with navigation and the railways had gradually taken over most of the trade from the Barrow.

Ask about Ireland’s website features a lot of interesting information about the Barrow Navigation sourced from local library archives. To visit their site click here

For more information on the Barrow Navigation please visit the Inland Waterways association of Ireland Website.

To view the IWAI’s clickable map, which divides the river into sections and provides information on navigating each stretch click here

37M in Bagenalstown. The crew were Tom Connolly, Sean Murphy and Jack Prendergast. All from Graignamanagh.