County Kildare is traversed by the Royal and Grand canals, which run from Dublin to the River Shannon. Reminders of Ireland’s mercantile confidence in the eighteenth century, before the disenfranchisement of the Act of Union, they were built to service the mills, distilleries and breweries of a minor industrial revolution. Passenger boats on both canals were soon eclipsed by the railways and stopped running around 1850, but freight services continued until as late as 1960.
Completed in stages between 1779 and 1805, the Grand Canal heads out from south Dublin to Robertstown in County Kildare, where it splits into two branches. The 50km southern branch (aka the Barrow Line), completed in 1791, meets the River Barrow at Athy in the south of the county, allowing passage as far south as Waterford; the main waterway runs west via Tullamore in County Offaly to Shannon Harbour, a total of 114km from Dublin.
The Royal Canal, a rival northern route opened between 1796 and 1816, was never quite as successful, though it managed to reach a peak tonnage of 112,000 in 1847. It runs along the northern border of County Kildare, before heading northwest to Mullingar and joining the Shannon, 144km from north Dublin, at Cloondara in County Longford.
The canals are flanked by a series of pleasantly undeveloped – and easy-to-follow – trails, the Royal Canal Way, the Grand Canal Way and the Barrow Way. Go to www.kildare.ie/tourism for full details and descriptions of the routes as they pass through Kildare. It’s also possible to rent a narrowboat from Royal Canal Cruisers in Dublin (t01/820 5263, wroyalcanalcruisers.com) or, for the Grand Canal and the Barrow, from Canalways, Rathangan, Co. Kildare (t087 243 3879, wwww.canalways.ie), or Barrowline Cruisers, Vicarstown, Co. Laois (t05786/26060, wwww.barrowline.ie).