By Martin Gleeson
To enable transport of both, people and cargo in Ireland in the 1790s, investors decided to build a canal linking the city of Dublin with the River Shannon. Work on the Royal Canal commenced in May 1790 at Cross Guns Bridge, Phibsborough.
Passing through Maynooth, Kilcock, Enfield, Longwood, Mullingar and Ballymahon, the waterway reached the River Shannon at Cloondara, Co. Longford. Another spur went north to the town of Longford. The construction of this 90-mile-long canal with 46 locks was completed in 1817 at a cost of £1,421,954.
By the 1830s the Royal Canal was carrying 80,000 tons of freight and 40,000 passengers each year. The fares were cheaper than by stagecoach. Travelling by Bianconi Coaches cost a penny farthing (1¼ pence) per mile.
People travelled from Dublin to Mullingar in seven and a half hours. Fares per person were 6 shillings and 6 pence in the first-class cabin at the front and 4 shillings and 4 pence in the second-class cabin at the stern. The boats were drawn by two or three horses.
On the canal, near Clonsilla, Co. Dublin, there is a stretch of very deep water where the banks are high. Here, on the 25th of November 1845, while famine was raging in many parts of Ireland, the canal boat ‘Longford’ was being pulled westward by two horses. In charge of the two horses was George Slack, who often rode one and drove the other ahead of him.
There were 47 passengers on board and a crew of 7. The boat steerer was Mullingar-man James Dunne. On this chilly Autumnal evening, at around 4 pm, two hours into its journey, as the boat passed under Porterstown Bridge on its way to Clonsilla Bridge, disaster struck. James Dunne had passed control of the steering to young man Patrick Teeling, so that he could go below for his dinner. Teeling was a labourer working for the Canal Company and was just travelling to Longford as a free passenger. He did not have great boat-steering skills.
Suddenly the boat collided with the high canal bank. All 54 persons on board were thrown sideways. Because everyone was forced on one side of the boat, it was unbalanced. The passengers below deck fell from their seats. The bow moved up the slippery canal bank causing the stern to sink into the deep waters. The fore cabin passengers were safe but the passengers in the stern of the Longford were pushed underwater into the deepest part of the canal. The stern quickly flooded, and the passengers were trapped.
The windows had been barred, making escape impossible. The boat’s Captain Christopher O’Connor and one of the passengers broke open a section of the roof and managed to haul one of the female passengers through it. Among a small group of passengers on deck was Private Robert Jessop of the 8th Hussars who was returning to his regiment in Longford. He rescued three trapped passengers. Sixteen passengers, among them two children, drowned in the cold dark water. The recovery of the bodies went on until darkness fell. The dead were initially piled on the towpath and then loaded onto a lumber boat.
An inquest on the tragedy of the canal boat ‘Longford’ was held by the county coroner and lasted 2 days. The coroner suggested that Captain O’Connor should be charged with manslaughter, but this was not done. In December 1845 crew member Patrick Teeling faced 4 charges of negligence but was acquitted. Private Jessop was commended for his bravery. However, regarding their failure to adhere to regulations concerning the construction of the canal boat, the number of passengers carried and the duties of the crew, the Royal Canal Company were fined £100.