A flotilla of six boats left the Albert Basin shortly after 8.30am this morning bound for Victoria Lock, Carlingford Lough and beyond. Several of the crew used the trip to highlight the imminent danger faced to the Albert Basin and Newry Ship Canal if a fixed bridge forms part of the proposed Newry Southern Relief Road.

Local boat owner Jonathan Cully was joined on his craft by Shay Daly from Love Your Lough. Jonathan a member of the IWAI Newry and Portadown Branch, is concerned that the proposed fixed bridge over Newry Ship Canal as part of the Southern Relief Road will spell the end of spectacles like today's.

The Department For Infrastructure project linking the Warrenpoint Dual Carriageway to the A1 is already at stage three of its development and DFI have stated that a fixed bridge is their preferred option. As owners of the Newry Canal, Newry, Mourne and Down Council can insist that any bridge over the canal must be an opening one, but to date they haven't.

The boats wait to exit Victoria Lock, Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
The boats wait to exit Victoria Lock, Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

The Last Bell

Daly spent the trip ringing a bell, reflecting on the doom and gloom that would visit our area if the Albert Basin and Newry Ship Canal is cut off from the world forever.

Jokers Hat

Speaking about his years of campaigning for Newry Canal. Cully said "I've got my Jokers hat on today but I've normally got my Inland Waterways hat on. We've been working on the inland canal and the ship canal for almost 15 years. We've been fighting for attractive charges, trying to bring boats, trying to put it on the regular circuit of Tall Ships which race world wide. 

"Fifteen years ago you could bring ships into Newry in a flotilla and the council would open the hall and would feed you your lunch and welcome you. Now it's almost impossible to get through the lock gates, there has been a real period of decline and what seems to me if not a lack of investment, investment in the wrong type of structures and management procedures to do with the whole thing. It's become very unworkable for the ship owner because you're never really sure if you can get in. When you get in you're never sure if you're going to get out"

"So today we are getting out, and many of these ships are leaving Newry and they'll have to leave Newry for good, because the DFI's insistence and Stormont's insistence of running the Southern Relief Road bridge across Newry Canal, closes down over 300 years of navigation. That's it - it's finished! Newry the droving town and the town that was built on the back of ships, and the movement of ships and people and goods and stock is essentially closed forever and that's the end of 300 years of navigation.

No Fixed Bridge

The DFI must have no fixed bridge over the Newry Canal. They must have an opening structure. They musn't close down over 300 years of navigation. That's absolutely vital, and I think the local council need all the support they can get, get a management structure and a management procedure up and running, that makes this viable, gives life to it and makes it possible for the boat owner to use.

Jonathan Cully. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Jonathan Cully. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

"Albert Basin is Perfect"

One craft taling part today was a barge owned by Hilary Hunter. Hilary was leaving to travel to Bangor, Co Down to take up residence there. Hunter is leaving reluctantly “It’s beautiful here, lovely setting, beautiful surroundings. Albert Basin is perfect for this sort of boat.”

The barge 'Drie Gebroeders' (Three Brothers) has been in Newry since the Autumn but due to Newry, Mourne and Down Council regulations, people aren't allowed to live aboard. Newry's loss is Bangor's gain!

“I bought her in Holland six years ago and I’ve been living on her in England until I brought her here. She’s been in Newry over Winter and I’m taking her to Bangor Marina where I can live on her again there"

Hilary Hunter and her dutch barge Drie Gebroeders (Three Brothers). Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Hilary Hunter and her dutch barge Drie Gebroeders (Three Brothers). Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

Sharing his vision Jonathan Cully added "There's no reason why we couldn't have 200 boats in the middle of Newry, it would be very thriving and economically very viable and that's something we should fight for.

"All of these different structures rely on each other. You've got the Marina, needs a park, needs ancillary services, the shore side services. The park needs boats, needs vibrancy, life and it needs traffic. It needs people to want to come to Newry for all sorts of different reasons. The minute we start to pick some of these reasons away we are left with an empty shell"

Lack of Reliability

Speaking of the lock structures in place Cully says "At this moment the infrastructure is threatened by a lack of reliability. This might be the last movement of ships in the Victoria Lock that you see for some time.  With the best will of the operatives involved, they are doing their best to make sure it can operate today but there's a lot of outside agencies involved to make the mechanisations work. It should be a press button operation and it should be easy for the staff to use and I don't think the council are backing up their own operatives with something that is easy to use,

Shay Daly rings the bell as the ships depart from the Newry Ship Canal, possibly for the last time. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Shay Daly rings the bell as the ships depart from the Newry Ship Canal, possibly for the last time. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

Come to Newry

Jonathan says as well as an opening bridge we need "Something that's vibrant, something that's push-button, something that works. Something that we can guarantee to the boating community worldwide. Come to Newry, we want to see you here. Come and enjoy our park, come through our new swing bridge structure, come through Victoria Lock and take shelter from the storm and whatever else befalls the maritime community. But Newry will be operable and open and regular and guaranteed and I think that goes a long way towards assurring everyone that it's somewhere that people want to come to visit and invest."

Today the boats are leaving to  "All around the world. That's the good thing about boats, you can just get on them and go all around the world. Whatever port isn't closed due to Covid-19 might accept our wee ship. We'll find a port somewhere. Somewhere that doesn't potentially in its future a fixed bridge structure which we might run into if it doesn't open." says Jonathan as he sets sail for the open sea.

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