21st Century City; 18th Century Canals

When Joe Willcocks left Ireland for Upper Canada in 1799, he said goodbye to the "Second City of the British Empire" to seek his fortune in "Muddy York."

Both Dublin and Toronto are thriving in the 21st century. In Dublin, far more than Toronto, it's still possible to get a feel for the city as it once was. Last week, we had the privilege and pleasure of a barge ride through the transportation system that helped make Dublin such a wealthy city in Willcocks's day.

The barge had the unromantic name of 4E. In 1980, she was purchased by a young man named Joe Treacy. He paid 1,800 pounds for her, and he and 4E have been aging elegantly together ever since.

Her original name was Horse Boat Number 54 -- back in the days when a barge was pulled by a horse treading the towpaths alongside the canals.  

She carried turf into Dublin and wheat back to the Odlums’ Mills, which was a well known institution in the Irish food industry, located at Sallins about 40 kilometers from Dublin in County Kildare, 

When she was fitted with an engine in 1913, her name was changed to 23M. Over the next decades, she went through several more name changes -- all involving combinations of letters and numbers. In the 1950s she was breached and abandoned; she became the home of a former canal employee who made some repairs. Joe Treacy bought her and had her hauled by tractor and truck and refloated in the Grand Canal. 

That's not where we found her and Joe. Instead, they were docked near the Five Lamps on the Royal Canal, within sight of the football stadium at Croke Park. 


Work on the Royal Canal  began in 1790, and it took 27 years build the link across Ireland to the Shannon River. We travelled through locks that operated on the same hand-cranked technology of Joe Willcocks's day. Here the lockmaster and her crew crank open the sluices.

This allows the water to drain to the lower lock.

The boat lowers with the water level, and we look back at the gates we've passed through.

Once the water level is even on each side of the lock, the gates can be swung open.

And we pass through, under the bridge, along the next stretch of the Royal Canal.

Within a few decades, canal technology was overtaken by the transformative revolution of railways. Here is a spot where the railway track must be lifted so the barge can pass underneath.

The railway workers are happy to oblige.

In fact, when E4 runs aground on a turn...

And we have trouble poling her back into mid-channel...

The railway men help haul back on course.

We make our way down the Royal Canal. Here's a houseboat in the style used on the canals in Great Britain.

As we reach the end of the canal, the 21st century begins to show itself.

We reach the end of the Royal Canal, where the last locks bring the watercraft down to the River Liffey.

The technology is modern too.  No hand-wound cranks to operate these locks!

We enter the River Liffey.

As a young man, Paula's grandfather used to swim this river.  Now swimming is prohibited.  In fact, Paula's brother is among the firefighter crew that rescues people who have jumped into the Liffey.

We enter the river at the Samuel Beckett Bridge with its distinctive "pirhanna" design.

And we turn to port and head downriver toward the Irish Sea.

All along our voyage, we've been accompanied by a second barge, owned by Joe Treacy's 20-year-old son Ben.

Ben salvaged his barge from Tullamore, where it had sunk many years before. He regards refurbishing it as a long-term project while he finishes engineering school.

As we steer toward Dublin harbour and the mouth of the Liffey, we come to Ringsend - the neighbourhood where the high tech sector is building offices and accommodations for information technology workers.

Turn to starboard and head up the Royal Canal's southside sister, the Grand Canal.

The tide is low, but rising.

While we wait for the tide to rise, we're visit by a traditional Irish currach -- lads out for a row during their lunch break.

Finally the tide has risen enough for us to take our places in the lock.

It's a tight fit.

The water enters the lock and the boats rise.

Up to the next level.

We enter the Grand Canal Basin.

This is the heart of hip, trendy, 21st century Dublin.

But Captain Treacy decides to make his presence known.

Up in the Grand Canal Basin, the water levels are high. It's a tight squeeze.  "Low bridge. Everybody down. Low bridge. We're coming to a town..."

Through the other side we find a place where the centuries meet.

And we've reached our docking place.

Home at last.

Thanks for the ride, Joe.