The Newry Ship Canal, in its present form, was opened in April 1850 in an attempt to enable the town to increase its ship-handling capacity. The original ship canal completed in 1769 and entered via the Fortescue Lock was lengthened and deepened as far as Lower Fathom, where a new sea lock the Victoria Lock, was constructed, capable of accommodating vessels up to 205′ in length. The harbour area was vastly increased by the building of a huge floating dock, the Albert Basin, the second biggest of its kind in Europe. The “basin” as it was known locally was adjacent to the centre of the town. At this period substantial emigrant vessels were sailing from Warrenpoint with passengers fleeing the hardships of the Great Irish Famine. Many of these vessels were both registered in Newry and operated by Newry ship owners. Foremost among these was Francis Carville, who decided to sail his vessel “New Zealand” from Newry to Quebec at the end of April 1850. Passengers were to embark in the Albert Basin. However the limitations of the new waterway soon became very apparent when Carville announced in the “Newry Telegraph” that his ship would instead be sailing from Warrenpoint because of the Newry Canal not being large enough for a “ship of this burthen.” From its inception, the new canal could not accommodate large or even moderately sized ocean-going vessels. This was to become even more apparent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the dimensions of merchant ships accelerated dramatically. However vessels from America, Scandinavia, and Russia sailed into the town in addition to those from Great Britain and the continent. A sizeable fleet of steam vessels soon became established in Newry. In 1869 the Newry Steam Packet Company purchased the “City of Belfast” renamed her the “Newry” and began operating cross channel passenger and livestock services from the Albert Basin. In 1871 the company was assimilated into the Dundalk and Newry Steam Packet Company, which had a new Newry registered steamer “Bessbrook” built in 1877 followed in 1892 by the S. S. “Iveagh” also registered in Newry. For almost 60 years this innovative little company operated regular cross channel passenger services from the Steam Packet Quay in the Albert Basin to Liverpool and Glasgow.
Joseph Fisher established a coal importing business on the opposite side of the basin in 1852 purchasing his first vessel, the elderly brigantine “Brothers” in 1867. From a few small schooners and brigantines the fleet expanded into one of the best-known steam collier fleets operating in Great Britain and Ireland. These little steamers or “coasters” could be found sailing throughout Britain, Ireland and the continent. Initially called after town lands, Newry ships were later identifiable by the fact that they were named after trees such as ” Pine,” “Upas,” “Opepe” and “Karri”. By 1940 Fishers of Newry had fifteen of these vessels in operation. Another well- known Newry fleet was owned by the Clanrye Steam Ship Company. Conditions on these vessels were harsh. They sailed in all weather and were steered from an open bridge until the Second World War. Electricity was unheard of on board until the late 1930s. Between 1900 and 1942, seventeen Newry registered colliers were lost at sea. Four, the steamers “Clonallon”, “Orior”, “Privet”, and “Walnut” disappeared without trace, whilst several others foundered with heavy loss of life. In November 1916 the S.S “Retriever” of the Clanrye Steamship Company collided with the passenger steamer “Connemara” at the entrance to Carlingford Lough with the loss of over 90 lives in one of the worst maritime disasters in Irish history.
Up to the 1950s the Albert Basin was a hive of activity as Fishers’ colliers discharged on one side of the harbour, whilst at the “steam packet shed” the M.V “Dundalk” loaded livestock for export to Liverpool. On the same side of the basin coal was also imported by O’Rourkes of Newry and Lockingtons of Dundalk. On the colliers gangs of Dockers literally dug out the coal into wooden tubs, which were hoisted by the ships’ derricks (cranes) into waiting railway wagons. A gang of dockers could discharge 400 tons of coal in eight hours. But the restrictions imposed by the ship canal system meant that there were now even coasters which the port was unable to accommodate and a decision was made in the late 1960s to move ship handling facilities to the nearby town of Warrenpoint where a deep water berth was to be built. Newry’s cause was not helped when in January 1968 the Glasgow collier “Saint William” collided with and wrecked the seaward gates of the Victoria Lock. As a result of the collision a number of vessels were trapped in the canal for several weeks.
In March 1974 the last commercial ship, a Dutch tanker sailed out of Newry and for several years the future of the canal system was uncertain. Newry and Mourne District Council subsequently took control of this historic waterway and overhauled the Victoria Sea Lock. Then, in 1994, the residents of Newry woke up to a sight few thought they would ever see again. A passenger vessel the M.V. “Balmoral” was berthed in the Albert Basin. She had been chartered as part of the Newry 850 celebrations and at 203′ was one of the longest vessels to have sailed into the town. Three years later sail returned to the canal when the Irish national sail training vessel “Asgard II” graced the town with her presence, accompanied by a variety of sailing vessels including a Galway hooker and the Ocean Youth Club Ketch “Lord Rank” which sailed with a trainee crew from the Newry and Mourne area. The “Lord Rank” made two further visits in August 1997 and in April 2003. In 1999 “Asgard II” also returned to Newry accompanied this time by the restored sail-fishing vessel “Vervine Blossom” which at one stage in her career had been registered in Newry. After a four day stay in the town “Asgard II” departed with a cross community, cross border complement of trainees from Newry, Dundalk and Derry.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this historic waterway Newry and Mourne Millennium Company chartered the theatre ship “Fitzcarraldo” for a 5 day visit to the town. This delighted not only shipping enthusiasts but also the general public as thousands turned to view the floating theatre company’s premier of “Moby Dick.” Two months later, almost thirty traditional and modern sailing craft sailed into the “Basin” for an overnight stay as part of a “Folk Boat Week” hosted by Dundalk and Carlingford Sailing Club. Since the visit of the folk boats Carlingford Marina Club has organised several visits to Newry and such events have become a regular feature of life on the canal. The rejuvenation of Newry Rowing Club has meant that the old waterway has also become a focus for rowing competitions and training by several Irish clubs. Even Santa has got in the act and since 2001 has forsaken his trusty reindeer preferring instead to arrive in Newry by boat via the Newry Ship Canal!
The present Albert Basin is a setting the old Newry sailors would scarcely have recognised. Gone are the old coal yards relocated in 1998. In their place now stands a bold state of the art commercial development, “The Quays”, boasting a supermarket, multi-screen cinema complex and several retail outlets. The “Quays” and its logo of a sailing vessel reflect not only Newry’s ever- changing mercantile spirit but also its proud maritime tradition. At this period substantial emigrant vessels were sailing from Warrenpoint with passengers fleeing the hardships of the Great Irish Famine. Many of these vessels were both registered in Newry and operated by Newry ship owners. Foremost among these was Francis Carville, who decided to sail his vessel “New Zealand” from Newry to Quebec at the end of April 1850. Passengers were to embark in the Albert Basin. However the limitations of the new waterway soon became very apparent when Carville announced in the “Newry Telegraph” that his ship would instead be sailing from Warrenpoint because of the Newry Canal not being large enough for a “ship of this burthen.” From its inception, the new canal could not accommodate large or even moderately sized ocean-going vessels. This was to become even more apparent in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the dimensions of merchant ships accelerated dramatically.
Information and images provided by Sean Patterson