Time to regenerate the ‘Foyle’s’ forgotten canals

River Foyle.
River Foyle.

STEVE BRADLEY believes Derry’s forgotten canal heritage could boost the region’s economic fortunes

Canals and rivers play an important role in the leisure, tourism and recreational appeal of many towns and cities.

People like to spend time near water for boating, fishing, walking or cycling, whilst properties overlooking water sell at a premium to reflect the enhanced value provided by their views.

In Derry, many people are unaware that we have two canals locally that date back hundreds of years. Located at Strabane and Ballykelly, both still exist to this day and have the potential to help regenerate the area.

The biggest of these is the Strabane Canal, which opened to much celebration in March, 1796. It went on to play a significant role in the industrial and commercial life of the town during the pre-railway era, by providing a link from the town’s agricultural hinterland to the busy port at Derry’s quayside.

The Strabane Canal was built by the Marquis of Abercorn and ran south for four miles – starting at a large canal basin in the centre of the town before meeting the River Foyle approx 10 miles upstream from Derry’s quays.

It initially carried traffic mainly between Derry docks and Strabane, but over time steamers also took livestock and provisions direct to Glasgow. The Glasgow traffic came to an end in the mid-1860s when the Foyle’s navigable headroom was reduced by the building of Craigavon Bridge.

The expansion of the rail network in the mid 1880s dealt the canal a further blow, as did a series of high profile disputes over tolls and maintenance. It was still a busy shipping channel by the early 1900s, however, although half its trade was accounted for by Smyths grain mill. As well as Smyths, Strabane’s canal basin was home at that time to two saw mills, a brewery, a tannery, several repair sheds and docks, and a jetty for unloading coal for the neighbouring gas works.

In 1912, the Duke of Abercorn sold the canal to the Strabane and Foyle Navigation Company Limited, but by the 1930s traffic on it had all-but petered out. In December 1962 the decision was taken to close the section from the Canal Basin to the former swing bridge at Dysert. The basin was filled in, and the curtain fell on two centuries of Strabane’s canal history.

The other canal constructed on the Foyle was at Broharris near Ballykelly. It opened in the 1820s and served as both a drainage channel and a navigation route. It ran for only two miles - from Ballymacran Point on the shore of Lough Foyle southwards in the direction of Limavady. Its primary importance lay in transporting large quantities of the shellfish and kelp collected along the shallow coastline up to Magilligan Point, which was used extensively as fertiliser on the sandy soil around Benevenagh.

The Broharris Canal inspired merchants, farmers and landowners in the Roe Valley to push for a new canal from Limavady to Lough Foyle in 1827, but when nothing came of it their focus switched instead to securing rail links.

Serious proposals were also raised for two further canals locally. Funds were unsuccessfully sought from the Irish House of Commons in 1763 and 1765 for a six miles channel to link Lough Foyle with Lough Swilly. Three possible routes were eventually proposed in 1831 and referenced in an 1838 Act of Parliament, but technical difficulties killed the idea.

In 1811 a prospectus first appeared promoting a different canal link further south. Labelled ‘The North West of Ireland Canal’ it was intended to connect the River Foyle with Lough Erne via Strabane. It was eventually dismissed in favour of rail alternatives.

The canals at Strabane and Brohorris remain to this day, which makes their relatively low profile in Derry somewhat of a mystery. The Broharris canal is clearly visible where it meets Lough Foyle at Ballymacran Bank. From there it passes under the Belfast-to-Derry railway line en route to its end point at Rush Hall Bridge (at the junction of Broighter Road and Spallan Road). The entire two miles length of the canal is in a rural area, however, and although accessible by road it is difficult to see how it could be developed in a meaningful way in modern times for anything more than a canal-side walk.

The only vessels capable of navigating it would be canoes and with no clear entry or exit points for getting onto the water, it would appear to offer limited scope for usage.

The Strabane canal is a different story. It remains intact from its meeting point with the River Foyle below Dunnalong down to Devlin’s Lock (at the junction of Greenlaw Road and Park Road near Ballymagorry). At that point the canal bed becomes overgrown and dries up entirely, but its route remains intact as a broad strip of land between raised banks that runs for 2.5 miles alongside Park Road to the A5 on the edge of Strabane.

From there it would have crossed the A5 to run alongside Strabane Cricket Club into Dock Street and the Canal Basin. The potential for bringing this canal back into use was first spotted in the 1990s when local pressure for its restoration saw the voluntary Strabane-Lifford Development Corporation being awarded cross-border funding of €1.3m to restore 1.5 miles of it, including its two locks.

The work was carried out in 2006 and 2007 by a firm of contractors based in Belfast, but to such a poor standard that Strabane Council refused to adopt and maintain the restored section. It was, therefore, never officially opened to the public and remains fenced off to this day on safety grounds (though it is still accessible by foot). No further restoration works have occurred since, and the section that received the funding has begun to deteriorate again without maintenance.

Strabane and Derry have long suffered from some of the worst economic statistics in Northern Ireland. Whilst Derry has former army bases and a walled city around which to base its regeneration efforts, Strabane lacks a focal point for the re-invigoration of its town centre. Yet buried under concrete in a run-down part of the town lies a 221-years-old piece of history that could be the perfect catalyst for relaunching the Co. Tyrone town.

The former canal basin and its surroundings remain entirely intact - divided in modern times between the Canal Street Car Park and a concrete square known as ‘The Score Project.’ A number of the original industrial warehouses and buildings that served the old canal basin even remain in existence to this day (albeit in a run-down condition).

In logistical terms it would, therefore, be relatively straight-forward to bring Strabane’s Canal Basin back into use and to link it to a restored channel from the town centre up to Devlin’s Lock and beyond to the Foyle (although the most appropriate way to cross the A5 would require thought).

The current Canal Basin has been identified by Derry City & Strabane District Council as a regeneration opportunity/site for the town, but it is unclear whether any specific plans for that actually exist. A significant heritage and regeneration project to restore the canal to the heart of Strabane would offer one. It would not come cheap, but would give the town a new Canal Quarter destination through which to attract significant private investment in the buildings and streets that surround it.

Restoring the canal would hopefully also kick-start the use of the Foyle for leisure, recreation and tourism purposes. And restoring the 200 years old link between Strabane and the Foyle would be a great flagship project for a new council district with Derry and Strabane as its two main population centres.

Towns elsewhere have shown how restored canals can help bring new life and prosperity to the districts they flow through, yet locally we have neglected our water assets. It is time to give serious consideration to the role that our forgotten canal heritage could make towards improving the economic fortunes of our area.

Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who works as a regeneration consultant in England.