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Celebrating Ireland's Floating Heritage

Celebrating Ireland's Floating Heritage

Home arrow Memories arrow Last of the Horse Drawn Boats - 2001
Last of the Horse Drawn Boats - 2001 PDF Print E-mail
11 January 2009


In 1946 the English canal and railway enthusiast L T C Rolt, in his travels on the Royal, met James Leech near Moyvalley, as he was bringing a cargo of bog ore to the Gas Works in the Grand Canal Docks, Dublin. The boat was drawn by two horses, which were so surprised at seeing a boat - and one with an engine at that - that they almost bolted.

Leech of Killucan

The Leeches of Killucan have a special place in the history of the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal Docks in Dublin. They were the last of the Bog Ore traders, abandoning the trade only in February 1951. James Leech and his son Willie are now both dead. At the time of this interview, Willie may have been the only man left in Ireland with experience of using a pair of horses to pull a canal-boat.

This article is based on an interview with Willie Leech in 2001, in which he described his life on the canals. The interview was conducted by Brian Goggin and recorded on video by Niall Galway. The recording was interrupted briefly by the arrival of the Gardaí, summoned by a concerned neighbour who had seen two strange men trying to get into Willie Leech's house.
Bye Traders
Willie's grandfather had owned four boats on the canal. His father had operated two boats during the Emergency (World War II) but used only one of them after that, although he still owned a second. These two boats, Royal Canal Floats 15 and 16, can still be seen on the canal, near D'Arcy's bridge, where they were abandoned over fifty years ago.
Trade had been good during the Emergency, with turf and timber to be carried. Afterwards, though, the decline in trade, the worsening state of the locks and the return of competition from road transport made it impossible to continue. Caffrey, the other trader during this time, gave up in the late 1940s.
Willie Leech remembered some of the other traders. Kellys had two boats in Kilcock; Greene bought one and the Leeches bought one. Lar Leech had two boats, but ended with one: his family was connected to Willie's some way back. There were very few pleasure boats, especially during the Emergency.
The Trade
Willie remembered going west in 1938, when he was 16. They drew coal to Mullingar for St Loman's Hospital and for St Finian's College. There were harbours at the Dublin Bridge and at the next bridge. It could take three men two days to unload their usual 50-ton cargo with shovels. They had their own carts and horses, but would hire in the town to do the job.
As well as coal, turf and timber, they also carried bags of cement and porter. Turf and cement had to be covered; there were rings along the gunwales for securing the cover. Turf was piled much higher, but the crew still had to be able to see over it. If the boat was idle, they had to pay 6d a day in lay-by charges. The engineers were sticklers for the rules: even when a dam at Cloncurry, east of Enfield, closed the canal for months, they still had to pay the lay-by charges.
The Boats
The Royal locks are larger than the Grand's, 75' X 13.3' as opposed to 61' X 13', and the boats could be larger too. The railway company, MGWR, had run steamers on the canal between 1875 and 1886, but thereafter the trading boats were horse-drawn: Willie said that the banks were not fit for engines.
On deck, the boats had a timberhead ["the top end of a timber, rising above the gunwale, and serving for belaying ropes etc"] each side, stem and stern. They carried mooring ropes, a stop rope on deck, a boat hook and a pole for pushing out. The family's boats had a cabin at each end, accessed by ladders. The three-person crew would sleep at one end, with the stern cabin used for their turf, or for the hay for the horses.
They would cook on board; the funnel sat down on a pipe from the stove to deck level. They cooked what they could get: spuds, steak and onions, stew or coddle. Willie and two brothers worked with their father; when they were running two boats, they might employ one or two lads. The brothers continued going west of Mullingar right to the end.
Working with Horses
With a crew of three, one would be with the horses, one would steer and one would be in the cabin; they would spell each other during the day. Willie said that it was very easy to steer with the two horses. The main trackline, about thirty yards long, went from the lead horse to the timberhead (round the centre, then one turn around the two horns). About a quarter of the way back, a flyline was plaited in to the trackline; it led to the second horse, which would be right at the tail of the first. The horses knew every inch of the route, including the drinking-places, and would stretch the line to get to rest and water. They seemed to enjoy their work: Willie described them as prancing, mad to go, but they had to be looked after at the end of the day. The Leeches had their own hay, and could buy more in the city.
Their last mare was bought from Kennedy's Bakery, where she had worked on the bread cars and got foundered from heavy going. Willie's father bought her and “got her good quick”. That mare knew her way as well as the humans did. On one occasion they got held up in Dublin, with the boat needing repairs. They couldn't keep the horse in Dublin, so they brought her to Blanchardstown. They got a bus to the 13th Lock while the mare, in blinkers, walked out. Then the same procedure to Moyvalley and finally home to Kinnegad, where Willie got on his bike, went back and found the horse grazing one mile beyond the last bridge.
Rules of the Road
When two boats met, the loaded boat got preference. The empty boat would free the trackline, letting it off from the stem, then steer around the oncoming boat and edge in to the bank. The stopropes were used in locks. The trackline might be freed, but that was more likely if the lock was followed by a bridge: if the horses couldn't walk under the bridge, they would free the line and pull across, then throw it in.
The boat needed a pass for each journey. Willie’s father dealt with that, collecting it from an office at Spencer Dock, across from the sea lock. The boat's measurements would be recorded and the weight and charge calculated. At their usual load of fifty tons, the boat would be three feet down all around, and the markings would show that.
Bog Ore to Dublin
Rolt defined bog ore as a limonitic deposit of bogs and stagnant pools which occurs where the water in the locality is, or has been, charged with salts of iron. It was used for producing sword blades in Scandinavia from the seventh to the tenth century but from about 1863 onwards it was used in Europe for purifying coal-derived "town gas". The Dublin Gas Company, based beside the Grand Canal Outer Basin in Ringsend, would place the bog ore on a grid; the gas would come up through it. When the company had finished with it, it was mixed as fertiliser.
When the company needed a load, their agent would get word to James Leech, who in turn would contact the three families, located a mile and a half beyond D'Arcy's Bridge, who supplied the ore. They would dig out the sticky ore, which looked like wet clay; some was red and some darker. They brought it by horse and cart to the canal, where it was loaded on to the boat using barrows on planks. In good times, two loads per month might be needed.
It was a three-day trip to the Gas Company. The first night was spent near Cloncurry Bridge, with stabling at a farmer's yard. The second was at Mary Brady's, 13th Lock, beyond Maynooth. The third was spent in Spencer Dock, with stabling at Summerhill or with relatives at Ballybough.
So how do you get a horse-drawn boat across the Liffey from the Royal to the Grand? They man-hauled the boat down Spencer Dock; then a Port & Docks tug would pull the boat from one sea-lock to the other, going with the tide and using the larger lock to get into the Grand Canal Basin. The Gas Company was at the far end of the basin, so they man-hauled the boat again. Willie said that it was easier to pull in deep water. The ore was unloaded by crane and the Gas Company hired horses to bring it from the boat to the gasworks.
On the Grand
After the trade ended, Willie worked for CIE (and its successors) on the repair boat. In 1980 the weeds on the Grand were very bad; the Royal crew was moved to the Grand to help out and never made it back, except for occasional small jobs. As a result Willie, having started on the Royal, actually retired from the Grand after thirteen years there. He and his wife Eileen spent their later years living at Killucan, back on the Royal again.
© Brian J Goggin
Horse Drawn Barges Carlow 1908 Floats 15 & 16 from the Royal Canal
Horse drawn Barge
Barge Horse Sculpture Dublin
Last Updated ( 03 April 2011 )
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