Concern over the neglected state of Galway City’s canals has prompted the formation of a group to create awareness and to include the many users of the waterways, some of which have been working at cross purposes with each other.

Galway Canal Distillery River

Distillery River

Phil James, who chairs the Galway Waterways Association, spoke to Inshore Ireland about the challenges ahead.

He said the purpose of the project was threefold, to raise awareness about the various networks of waterways that run throughout the city; to improve their maintenance – not only by the authorities but involving schools, interest groups, clubs etc; and to enhance the waterway network by cleaning and planting the banks, creating new walkways, and demonstrating the potential of hydro-electric power generation.

How do you plan to achieve this?

We are a group of people who wanted to do something ‘active’ for Galway’s canals so we formed the Galway Waterways Association which is a non-profit enterprise. It’s a trading name of ProActivate Ireland the NGO of which I’m a director. ProActivate Ireland is a non-profit DAC (Designated Activity Company) established to undertake community development work. Most of our work centres on securing European Union support for projects that benefit the people of Galway.

Who or what entity has ownership of or responsibility for Galway’s waterways?

It’s a messy ownership and responsibility structure. To the best of my knowledge, legislation in the middle of the 19th Century put the ownership of all the waters, banks and beds in the hands of the Commissioner of Public Works. Part of this responsibility however was divided up when the Eglinton Canal was created.

Galway Canal Parkavera River

Parkavera River

The navigation through Lough Corrib and extending down through the Eglinton Canal and out into the Cladagh Basin was handed to trust to a group called the Lough Corrib Navigation Trust. An Act in the 1940s – the Lough Corrib Navigation Act and the Drainage Acts around the same time – designated who should be on the Lough Corrib Navigation Trust.

So basically, it now comprises Mayo and Galway City and Council Councillors who are responsible for this one stretch, the rest is shared between the OPW, the City, and the University.

What about access to the city’s waterways?

Even before the Eglinton Canal was built Galway was a city of seven streams and seven islands. Over hundreds of years the natural rivers were gradually covered over, culverted or incorporated into the canal system.

They’re still there but not many people know they’re there, and not many people would know what they look like because of access issues. Many have been badly maintained and are now overgrown by trees that are literally hiding them from view.

Trees are also growing out of the canal walls, and none of the banks of any of the waterways are particularly well maintained in terms of clearing and planting. Down the years, efforts have been made by various bodies such as the sub-aqua and kayaking clubs to clean up the banks and the beds.

There have also been efforts by other groups to beautify the banks but nothing ever gets sustained, that’s the problem.

It sounds like Galway has an incredible but invisible asset that you want to reveal, why hasn’t this been tried before?

There have been many attempts in the past but a combination of a lack of public awareness and the apathy that goes with that; a messy ownership structure and a divided community of clubs and interest groups has resulted in not much happening.

Galway Canal Continuation of the Gaol River

Continuation of the Gaol River

The thing is we have a tremendous asset here in Galway city. This is very unusual, perhaps totally unique among all major cities in Ireland. Galway has an intricate network of waterways, and not many people think of it that way.

We know of course, Dublin with the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal, and we know about the Lough Erne system and the Barrow but as far as a city interlaced with canals and rivers, I think Galway is truly unique.

What’s your plan of action and will you be looking for money?

We’re hoping to make a presentation to the City chief executive Brendan McGrath, about our plan. We’re not looking for money at this stage; we just want to raise awareness and outline what could be done with little or no funds, such as clearing, planting and lighting.

How do you hope to get the general public involved?

We plan to hold a public meeting – probably in May – involving the clubs that I mentioned earlier; neighbours and businesses along the canal, etc. We’ll be asking for their vision of what should happen to the waterways, which we will then consolidate into an overall vision. Once we get groups active, our next step will be to create a public education programme for schools, scout groups, civic groups etc.

Have you done anything to promote your ideas so far?

No, purposely not. First, we want to go to the City CEO before we do anything controversial. We want him to be supportive. We don’t want to publish a provocative article that he gets questions about and suddenly he’s on the defensive as soon as we go in to see him.

We want to describe to him what we plan to do, get his feedback and then, after that I plan to publish a series of articles in one of the local newspapers – The Galway Independent, The Galway Advertiser or the City Tribune for example – just to get people’s interest.

At this stage if I was publishing something it would be more for general information rather than trying to be provocative.

Galway Canal Slaughterhouse River

Slaughterhouse River

Then, once we get a little bit of steam behind the effort, I’m willing to be more provocative and critical of what has or has not been done. But I don’t want to do that just yet. It’s absolutely not been publicly announced in any way; we are not pushing it in any way at the moment; but we are working intensively behind the scenes to get our act together and get all the people on board that we want supporting it.

What do you foresee will be your main problems and challenges?

The biggest problem is public awareness, and getting the groups together and singing from the same hymn book – even if it’s not exactly the same hymn sheet, at least that the general tune is the same. I think funding will come to a good cause – and this is a very good cause.