Neglected waterways filled with heritage and potential

Pollution is a huge problem along our waterways, according to Phil James of the not-for-profit Galway Waterways Association. PHOTOS: PHIL JAMES.
Pollution is a huge problem along our waterways, according to Phil James of the not-for-profit Galway Waterways Association. PHOTOS: PHIL JAMES.

Lifestyle –  Judy Murphy talks to Phil James of  The Galway Waterways Association about  the true value of our rivers and canals

We have a fantastic history and heritage but it’s something that most people don’t know about,” says Phil James as he produces a map of Galway City from his computer bag. He’s referring to the rivers and canals that flow through the city and which helped shape the economic and cultural life Galway City and County.

While their original purpose has changed, with some of the rivers having been covered over in the 19th and 20th century to enable the city’s growth, our waterways should continue to be an integral part of Galway’s social and economic life, according to Phil. But not in their current state.

He produces photo after photo of pollution and overgrowth along the waterways and remarks, “this is what tourists see and they must wonder is this how Galway people respect their heritage”.

One of the most shocking photos, taken near the Cathedral, shows a swan and her cygnets floating in a mass of rubbish and reeds.

That’s one reason why community group The Galway Waterways Initiative is holding a public workshop next Friday, May 19, entitled The Future of Galway’s Waterways. Individuals and groups with an interest in the waterways are invited to the event in the City’s Galway Rowing Club at Waterside. The aim, according to Phil, is to “develop a common vision for Galway’s rivers and canals”.

Galway has one of the most intricate canal and river systems of any Irish city, he says, but the community “should sit up and take responsibility” for it.

“For the past few years, I’ve watched the lock gates at Parkavera, behind the Róisín Dubh pub, fall apart,” he says, adding that since the gates rotted “it’s just a waterfall”. Watching that aspect of the historic Eglinton Canal fall into decay was what spurred him into action.

The Eglinton canal system, which opened in 1852, was developed to allow vessels travel between the Corrib and the sea – lock gates along the canal were opened at two points to release water and facilitate navigation.

The first set of lock gates were at Parkavera – now rotted away – and the second were at the Claddagh Basin. These are not currently serviceable, says Phil.

The Eglinton Canal was a busy place until the late 19th century, allowing freight in both directions between Connemara and the Corrib.

It also served as a feeder channel for rivers such as the Gaol and the Western Rivers, supplying extra water to power their many mills. In the late 19th century there were 30 mills in operation along Galway’s waterways, including grain mills, bleach mills, woollen mills and distilleries.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.