The tools, displayed in archive exhibition ‘Reflections, the Lasting Legacy of the Waterways’, brought to life the story of the strong men who powered the construction of Ireland’s canals system over 200 years ago.
Commissioned by the Directors General of Inland Navigation in 1813, the final section of the Royal Canal in Ireland to connect with the Shannon River was an extraordinary feat of ingenuity, engineering and sheer hard labour.
The contract to build the canal — complete with 21 locks, an aqueduct, 38 bridges, 40 tunnels, and numerous quays and harbours — was undertaken by Henry, Mullins and MacMahon in 1814 under the direction of the pre-eminent Irish engineer of that time, John Killaly.
Remarkably, that final section was completed within three short years at a cost of £198,110, covering a distance of some 24 1/2 miles.
What is most striking is that the tools available to the canal builders at this time, the world-famous ‘navvies’, were so basic.
Under the building contract, a detailed design specification was prepared for the manufacture of these tools to the company standard.
Local man Albert Robinson, a carpenter with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, meticulously recreated these tools – a hand barrow and a wheelbarrow – using the specific wood types, elm for strength and ash for flexibility.
Patterson’s Spade Mills, owned and run by the National Trust, is the last remaining spade mill in daily use in Britain and Ireland. They, too, faithfully recreated objects from the original drawings, producing a spade and shovel.
The tools were on display throughout the World Canals Conference — which attracted over 320 delegates from 12 countries across three continents over its three days last month — and provoked much positive comment and requests for further displays of this quality work.
Commenting on the unique collection of handcrafted tools, Dawn Livingstone, chief executive of Waterways Ireland, said: “Working in partnership with Fermanagh & Omagh District Council and the National Trust, we have brought back to life a remarkable era of canal construction and created objects that tell the story of the men who built the amazing waterways that we continue to enjoy today.
“I commend the skill of the craftspeople involved from Fermanagh & Omagh District Council and Patterson's Spade Mill and would encourage visitors to see this extraordinary collection for themselves.”
Speaking about the exhibition, chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Councillor Howard Thornton, said: “I am tremendously impressed by the craftsmanship shown by Albert in the recreation of the tools used in the construction of the final section of the Royal Canal.
“Albert’s ingenuity and craftsmanship have often been utilised in his work with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and I am delighted that his talent has been showcased to a wider audience at such a prestigious event.”
Nathan Domer, visitor experience officer with the National Trust, added that “this type of project is at the forefront of our core aims as a charitable organisation to conserve our heritage on land and on water for all to enjoy for ever, for everyone."
The tools and the original blueprint drawings in the exhibition can be viewed at Waterways Ireland HQ at 2 Sligo Road, Enniskillen weekdays from 9.30am to 5.15pm till Friday 9 November.