The Newry canal is a scheduled ancient monument, and is the oldest still-water canal in the UK and Ireland. Opened in 1742, it provided a template for the many miles of canal soon to be built in England. Abandoned in 1949, it had fallen into increasing dereliction.
Newry and Portadown Branch of Inland Waterways Association of Ireland had the ambition of seeing the whole canal re-opened. The branch has around 50 active members drawn from all the communities that border the canal. The volunteers share a passion for the canal and making its unique heritage more relevant and accessible to the 250,000 visitors that annually use the canal towpath. Although Northern Ireland does not have a working canal network, Newry has the unique distinction of possessing the oldest summit canal that is intact.
In 2014, the group undertook a restoration pilot project to restore eleven lock gates and re-water 4 miles of canal. The aim of this project was to make the canal’s history more make the canal’s history more relevant and accessible to visitors who visit the towpath annually. Re-watering part of the canal offers visitors the opportunity to better understand how a canal works, as well as enhancing the whole area. This was a highly successful project, as the canal is now regularly used by canoeists throughout the summer months. To compliment the re-watering project, the group created a website and a ‘Towpath Tour’ guided walk app to allow visitors to engage with the area’s unique heritage. A disused visitor centre on the towpath has now been reopened at weekends and is staffed by volunteers to inform visitors about the canal, the project and the potential for future regeneration.