The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, commemorated the Royal Canal's 200th Anniversary in the presence of Waterways Ireland, the Royal Canal Amenity Group and invited guests in Clondra, Co Longford on the 27th May 2017. The President unveiled a plaque before speaking at the event in the presence of 300 guests.
The event took place on the anniversary of the day when the canal was completed all the way to the Shannon in 1817. During its heyday, people, coal and crops were moved to Dublin from Arigna Mines, farms and rural communities all over the North West, and people and goods returned. The Royal Canal closed in 1960 and remained closed for 50 years. The Canal reopened to navigation in 2010 following extensive lobbying and volunteer work by the Royal Canal Amenity Group and the work of Waterways Ireland staff. In its 25th year of operation the Royal Canal also saw the mass exodus of people escaping the famine by walking the towpath to Dublin to take a boat to the new world. The largest known group of 1490 people left the Mahon Estate at Strokestown House to walk to Dublin, along the Royal Canal, 175 years ago this week. They were also commemorated as part of the ceremony with President Higgins review of the bronze shoes and plaque on the plinth in Richmond Harbour. The shoes are similar to those given to the 1490 people for their journey to Canada.
As Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, in the 1990's President Higgins had responsibility for the inland waterways in the portfolio. The President drove the re-vitalisation of the canal networks, including the redevelopment of the Royal Canal, through his efforts and funding for works on the canal.
Speaking about the role of the volunteers in the restoration, Matt Kennedy Chairperson of the Royal Canal Amenity Group said "this 145km Linear-parkway owes its existence to the perseverance and hard work by volunteers from the Royal Canal Amenity Group and staff from what is now Waterways Ireland. And as the Royal Canal moves into its next 100 years we look forward to working with Waterways Ireland and indeed all those who are committed to further developing and promoting this wonderful amenity as it moves to link up with walking and cycling routes across Europe"
Dawn Livingstone, Chief Executive, Waterways Ireland spoke saying "President Higgins spoke so eloquently about the Royal Canal and its place in our heritage. The Royal Canal is a wonderful recreational amenity free for all to use. Our partnerships with the local authorities, the boating groups including the Royal Canal Amenity Group, Fáilte Ireland and organisations such as the Irish Heritage Trust, are working to deliver new and exciting visitor experiences along the Royal Canal as such as the Blueway and the National Famine Way. These developments will deliver step change for tourism and the local economy in these areas."
James Osborne, Chairman of the Irish Heritage Trust said: "As the famine walkers set off today, they will not only be walking in the footsteps of the 1,490 Strokestown emigrants, but also helping to blaze a trail for the National Famine Way. It is only fitting that we mark this occasion with the unveiling of a nineteenth-century pair of shoes cast in bronze that is inscribed: “in Memory of the largest known group to have walked the full length of the Royal Canal – the 1,490 Strokestown Famine Emigrants in May of 1847”.