Contributed by Brian J. Goggin
There is a capstan just upstream of the bridge crossing the Shannon at O’Briensbridge in Co Clare. From the late eighteenth century until Ardnacrusha power station was built in the 1920s, the Limerick Navigation ran under the bridge, linking the Shannon Estuary to Lough Derg. There was a three-knot current through the bridge, very difficult for boats (which were poled, rowed or sailed) to get through. Horses could not help because the navigation arch, the one that boats had to go through, was the fourth out from the bank.
That was why a capstan was installed. A rope was floated down through the navigation arch; boats coming upstream secured the rope and were hauled through the arch.
This makeshift arrangement, and other deficiencies in the navigation, did not matter very much at first. Like most Irish waterways, the navigation carried little traffic: perhaps only ten small boats were using it in 1800, carrying low-value cargoes (turf, sand, lime, stone, dung) as well as more valuable slates and corn downstream, coal and timber upstream.
There are three mysteries about O’Briensbridge. First, the capstan’s rope-guide points not to the fourth arch but to the arch closest to the Clare side. Second, there is now a towpath along the Clare side; it was not there in 1832, when Thomas Rhodes drew the bridge for the first Shannon Commissioners. Third, Rhodes showed fourteen arches but there are now twelve: in the 1840s the Shannon Commissioners removed one arch, but not two.
The changes were made between Rhodes’s report of 1832 and the Commissioners’ work in the 1840s. They were made by Charles Wye Williams of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company: he also altered Baal’s Bridge in Limerick, Portumna toll bridge and Banagher Bridge, as well as building piers in several places.
Williams needed to provide for a high volume of traffic, week in and week out. He had applied the new technology of the time, steam, on the Irish Sea route between Dublin and Liverpool. Steam made crossings faster, more frequent and more reliable, but the steamers required more cargoes — and Britain needed food.
The Shannon region had food to sell, but the long sea route from the Estuary was too slow by sail and too far for the 1830s steamers. Williams realised that an inland route could take cargoes from the region across Ireland to Dublin, and steam could be used much of the way.
His Shannon Estuary steamers carried cargoes and passengers from Kilrush and Tarbert to Limerick. Cargo-carrying barges were hauled by horse up the Limerick Navigation, through O’Briensbridge, to Killaloe. His lake steamers pulled the same barges (avoiding transhipment) up Lough Derg to Portumna, picking up more barges at Williamstown. A smaller steamer took over the tow upriver to Shannon Harbour; from there horses towed the barges along the Grand Canal to Dublin, where the cargoes were loaded into Williams’s steamers and carried to Liverpool.
The Irish livestock trade did not begin with steam, but steam strengthened the link between the British and Irish economies. As well as carrying livestock, including pigs, steam allowed small traders to export fresh butter, honey and eggs (Liverpool imported 90m Irish eggs in 1850), with back cargoes of British manufactures. Steam gave Irish waterways (at least the Shannon, the Limerick Navigation and the Grand and Royal Canals) a new role: no longer just carrying local traffic, they became stages on the route to Liverpool.
The importance of the new route caused the government to spend, in the 1840s, £500,000 on improving the Shannon Navigation. Williams’s lobbying helped: he had parliamentary assistance from Daniel O’Connell and his supporters as well as from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Thomas Spring Rice, whose estate at Foynes bordered the estuary.
Williams was an innovator in both the technical aspects and the management of steam shipping. His City of Dublin company lasted until after the First World War; he became one of the founder-directors of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), where much of the original capital came from Ireland. After overcoming the current at O’Briensbridge, nothing was too difficult.