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Restore – Regenerate – Reimagine

The Restore Regenerate Reimagine Theme running through the 2018 conference will enable us to reflect on how 200 year old man-made navigations and infinitely older natural waterway corridors remain relevant and engaging places for people to live work, play and visit.


Ireland’s inland waterways, once the location of Viking water-borne battles and Norman invaders building forts and castles are now a magnet for leisure, tourism and recreational activities. Even the canals system constructed over 200 years ago to service a new commercial age, were outpaced by the railways and ceased business many years ago and fell into varying stages of dereliction. Restoration of our built heritage has been the catalyst for breathing new life into the waterways and their communities.

Since establishment in 1999, Waterways Ireland has invested over €88m in infrastructural improvements to all the navigations. Using our own teams of specialist craftsmen, environmental staff, design and electrical engineers as well as external contractors, Waterways Ireland has restored harbours, developed marinas and jetties, extended navigations and improved navigations and navigation channels and supplied new services at 100’s of locations including electricity, water, toilets, showers and launch facilities. Contractor’s projects have included the construction of 7 fixed and moving bridges on the Royal Canal costing €14m, the fitting and commissioning of a swing bridge across the Shannon at Portumna at €2m and the installation of flow control gates with an integrated bridge in Killaloe.

The Royal Canal (144km) celebrates its bicentenary in 2017 after 50 years of closure and a 30 year restoration programme. Linking Dublin to the Shannon in a north westerly direction, it was faithfully restored using traditional materials and is operated by Lock-keepers similarly to how it was first operated in 1817. Having reopened to navigation in 2010, the canal and its towpath are in active use with barges, boats, canoeists, walkers and cyclists.

Shannon-Erne Waterway (63km), formerly the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, reopened in 1994 and is the navigable link between the River Shannon in Ireland and the Erne System in Northern Ireland. Its electro-hydraulically operated lock system were the first automated lock system on the inland waterways and are operated by the boat crew using smart cards. It is used by hundreds of boats and canoes annually and with the additional of walking and cycling paths is attracting an even more diverse range of users.

Off the River Shannon an extension of the River Suck navigation was completed in 2001.  This 16km extension included the installation of 90 navigation aids, excavation of the River Suck for 3 miles to Ballinasloe town, a new harbour at the edge of the town and a new reinforced concrete lock at Pollboy.

The restoration of the Ulster Canal (74km) is a long-held ambition by many in the public and voluntary sector. Waterways Ireland has been authorised to undertake restoration at the Western end of the Canal to extend navigation from Lough Erne up to Castle Saunderson. Dredging has been completed in the 2km stretch and a new bridge and canal cut are under construction with works due to be completed by late Spring 2018. The International Scout Centre at Castle Saunderson will be one of the main customers for the newly extended section.

The Newry and Portadown Canal is the oldest summit level canal in Ireland and Britain. Construction began in 1730 and it was designed to transport coal from the coalfields of Coalisland to the hungry hearths of Dublin. This groundbreaking experiment in mass freight transportation was the space shuttle of its day. In the 20th century the canal fell into disuse and disrepair. A small band of campaigners succeeded in keeping the waterway intact and their efforts over the last 40 years have restoring the canal and once again joined Carlingford Lough with Lough Neagh.



The infrastructural works undertaken by Waterways Ireland only marked the start of the process of moving the navigations from their commercial orientation and subsequent decline into modern leisure and recreational resources. In partnership with other public bodies, funders, the private sector, voluntary waterways organisations and communities, Waterways Ireland has worked to develop social and economic partnerships which provide regeneration opportunities.

The Lough Derg Marketing Group, Destination Athlone, Upper Lakelands Group, Destination Fermanagh and Dublin City Canals have all successfully delivered product development and marketing programmes, built community and business capacity and created new business and social prospects.

Waterways Ireland’s own product development initiatives, marketing programmes, education and sponsorship, heritage and archive programmes have all served to engage different communities in passive and active on water and waterside recreation.

Tourism has also grown, benefitting from business growth and confidence. The charter boat fleet exceeds 400 boats, and there are a plethora of tour boats, day boats, and hotel barges, as well as outdoor activity centres providing tours both on and off the water.

The private boating fleet (now in excess of 14,000 vessels) continues to grow bringing life and economicactivity to waterside locations.




Over the past two decades the public perception of waterway corridors has been transformed. They are now seen as attractive destinations where the towpaths and waterfront spaces have been re-imagined into linear parks and amenity spaces. The services and facilities have been reimagined and where appropriate rebranded into Blueways, opening up the waterways to whole new audiences.

While walking was always an attractive activity on the waterway corridors, the growing trends in cycling, stand-up paddle–boarding, off-road running, triathlon and adventure races have seen an incredible uptake in the use of Waterway corridors by groups, clubs and individuals. The most significant growth has come from families engaging with the outdoors. The alignment of flat, safe, off-road multi-activity trails with the new demographic and market trends towards outdoor soft adventure has seen an explosion in demand from families and those seeking soft adventures in our waterway towpaths.

Since Autumn 2014, Waterways Ireland has been developing a new initiative to encourage increased uptake of recreational activity on and around the waterways. With the development of a series of on-water and land-based trails primarily in the North Shannon area, Waterways Ireland has developed a new product offering, the Blueway.

Blueways are recreational outdoor activity trails centred on the scenic environs of the waterways of Ireland. They offer a range of activities, both on and alongside the water with cycling and walking complementing the paddling trails. They offer experiences that are safe and accessible.

Building on the successful creation of the Shannon Blueway, the perception of the Grand Canal, Royal Canal and Barrow Navigation is broadening to include the heritage experience – imagining what once was, alongside a waterway corridor full of new and vibrant activity – imaging what is and will be into the future.

The role the outdoors and in particular waterside spaces play in physical & mental health and well-being is growing. Central government programmes delivered through agencies such as Healthy Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the local authorities are funding outdoor gyms, ‘Everybody Active 2020’ and the European ‘Get Wet’ programmes, engaging people across society with their environment. The waterways are a beneficiary of this interest with ‘Health Routes’ taking in the towpaths as part of urban and semi-urban walking loops.

Ireland’s waterways are now seen as a major economic and recreational asset combining leisure navigation and outdoor activities for the benefit of visitors and local communities.



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