HC Deb 29 March 1836 vol 32 cc829-34
Mr. Fitzstephen French

rose for the purpose of moving for a Select Committee to inquire into the state and condition of the Irish canals. It was not his object to interfere in any manner with the private affairs of these companies; he meant to confine himself solely to that system of combination, monopoly, and intimidation, which had, for a long period, prevailed on them, through which many lives had been lost, and by which the country was deprived of the advantages which might naturally have been expected as the necessary consequence of their formation. He did not consider such an inquiry could be fairly objected to; and when the House, in addition, would take into consideration the very large sums of public money which had been granted to both these bodies, 400,000l. to the one, and 250,000l. to the other, they probably would agree with him, that it was not only desirable for, but incumbent on, Parliament to institute it; he was also anxious that the Committee should direct their attention to the state of the tributary rivers falling into the Shannon, on the state of which their information was at present very confined. It was known, generally speaking, they laboured under similar disadvantages as the Shannon, but as to the particular nature of the obstructions, or the cost of removing them, every person who had been examined on the subject seemed totally ignorant; these rivers were neither few, nor unimportant: for the information of the House he would briefly enumerate them, taking them in the order in which they fell into the main river; the Shannon was generally divided into four parts; the first of these was from the sea to Limerick; here were the rivers Moy, Feale, Brick, Geale, and the estuary of the Cashen; on the other side was the Fergus, five miles in width, at present navigable to the town of Clare, for vessels drawing sixteen feet water; at a trifling expense the navigation could be continued through the Upper Fergus to the town of Ennis; this river had, in the shallowest places, at the lowest summer level, from thirteen to fourteen feet of water, and generally from eighteen to twenty-five; it flowed through the heart of Clare, a district unsurpassed in fertility; the second division was from Limerick to Portumna, part to Killaloe, under the direction of the Limerick Navigation Company; the remainder, Lough Derg, under the control of Government, traversing the Scariff the Rossmore, the Cappagh, and Ballysheale rivers; the third division was from Portumna to Athlone, under the management of the Grand Canal Company; here, on one side was the Upper and Lower Bresna, and, on the other, the Suck, a river described by Mr. Rhodes, in his able Report of 1833, to be little inferior to the Shannon itself; it found a circuitous course of about sixty miles—passed by the towns of Roscommon, Athleague, Mount Talbot, Ballyforan, Ballygill, and through the town of Ballinasloe; more money was expended in making a canal for twelve miles in this direction, than would have rendered this river navigable for steam-vessels to Ballyforan, a distance of twenty-five miles; so far back as the year 1715, an Act passed the Irish Parliament for making this river navigable to the town of Castlerea; into the last division, that from Athlone to the source, fall the Inny, the Camlin, the Carnedoc, and the Boyle waters—the two latter flowing through the most fertile portion of Roscommon, a district almost exclusively devoted to grazing, from the want of means of conveying the produce of their soil to market. Mr. Mullins declared that, for a few thousand pounds, the benefit of forty miles of Inland Navigation, through these rivers, could be given to this county and the counties adjoining it; all these rivers, and there were several others he had not thought it necessary to name, were, at present, for navigation, totally useless. The various petitions he had presented to that House, stated them to be choked up with mill-dams, eel weirs, and other obstructions, by which thousands of acres in the country adjoining them were annually injured. How was it, he would ask, that a magnificent river, such as the Shannon was universally admitted to he, with tributary streams, such as these flowing into it, running through the most fertile portion of a fertile country, had been, up to the present hour, almost useless for the purposes of inland transport, and for the promotion of industry?—that was a question not only of great local but of national importance—one equally affecting the manufacturing prosperity of England, and the agricultural welfare of Ireland—one which afforded a curious illustration of Irish government and of Irish history; it would be a mistake to attribute that phenomenon solely to that want of union for national purposes—to that total absence of combined enterprise which had long been the distinctive mark, and the destructive bane of Ireland. The policy of Government, from a remote period to the present day, had materially contributed to render that magnificent river useless to the nation it was destined to civilise and enrich: no improvement was made in its navigation—no approaches to it from the interior of the country on either side were made, or would have been permitted to have been made, by successive Administrations, who regarded it merely as a line of defence between three provinces of Ireland and the fourth; and it had, up to that moment, but little connexion with the interior, whose inhabitants knew its waters but as the organ of destruction—as the source of wide-spreading waste. After a good deal of research on this subject, the first indication he found of any desire, on the part of Government, to put an end to this baneful policy, was contained in the instructions given in 1664, by Lord Ormond, to the Council of Trade; but, although these instructions were given, nothing was done; it was not, until the commencement of the last century that the state of that river occupied public attention, and the attention of Parliament. In 1703, 1709, 1715, Committees were appointed, and Bills passed through Parliament for the improvement of its navigation; in 1729, an Act was passed, declaring it was fit and expedient that works of great public utility, such as this, should be carried on at the expense of the nation; in 1767, the principle of contribution was introduced, afterwards so advantageously adopted by that House in the case of the highland roads of Scotland, 6,000l. having been granted for the improvement of the Shannon on condition of a further sum of 10,000l. being supplied from other sources; in 1780—but he would not detain the House by a recapitulation of Acts of Parliament—suffice to say, resolutions were entered into by the grand juries of several counties, declaratory of the necessity of opening the navigation of this river. Various grants of money for this purpose were made by the Irish House of Commons; but through the want of connexion in the different undertakings—the absence of any plan embracing the entire river—the jarring of the different interests—and, more than all, the low state of engineering skill, the money granted was wasted, and the object sought for unobtained. The fault was not with that body so oft, so unfairly calumniated—the Irish House of Commons. Out of a trifling revenue, grants nearly amounting to 600,000l. were made for the improvement of the Inland Navigation of the country. By that the nation had been saved the payment of 100,000l. a year bounty for the importation of corn into Dublin; and Ireland which, fifty years ago, imported to the value of half a million sterling, now exported, in that article alone, to the value of several millions. However their Parliament might be blamed for a lavish expenditure of public money, it could not be denied they created trade where it never had before existed, and materially improved what was their best, their only resource—their agriculture. Had the 2d Geo. 1st, c. 10, been carried into effect, two-thirds of Ireland would at that moment be within five miles of the sea, or of some river or canal communicating with it—the great difference in trading activity, so apparent to every casual observer, between the two countries would not have existed—each nation would have had the same facility for the disposal of the produce of their soils—the labour, skill, and industry of the inhabitants of both would have been on an equal footing—and Ireland, equal in prosperity to England, would furnish a far different proportion of the national revenue from that she was then capable of doing. The only objection he could imagine likely to be made to granting him the Committee he sought for was, the existence of the Commission under the Shannon Improvement Act of last year. Having attentively examined the instructions given by his Majesty's Government to the gentlemen composing that Commission, which had been laid on the Table of that House on the motion of his noble Friend, the Member for Leitrim, he confidently asserted, there was not anything, either in the Commission itself or in the instructions, which could be fairly urged against his motion. The Commissioners were desired to report what works were necessary, to estimate their expense, and to determine the districts directly benefitted by the improvements about to be made. They were also to determine the portion of the expense to be borne by these districts, to adjudicate compensation, to fix the rate of toll, and to ascertain proper places for havens, piers, and wharfs. Independent of those duties which were prescribed to them in the Bill, there were two others:—1st, To see if it was possible to combine the useful drainage of the adjoining lands with the main object, the navigation of the river; and, lastly, to consider the engagements and liabilities of the Grand Canal Company, with respect to the Middle Shannon. This last, the only one which could be pretended to bear on the present motion, did not do so in reality. The engagement to be considered was confined to the river Shannon—to that portion of it called the Middle Shannon. It related exclusively to an agreement entered into by the Grand Canal Company, with Government in 1806, for the execution and maintenance of certain works, on condition of a sum of 54,000 odd hundred pounds being paid to them, and the navigation of that part of the river delivered up to them. This navigation had been put under their control; the sum stipulated for had been paid, but the works had not been executed, nor had the contract on the part of the Company been performed. Such had been the Report of a Committee of that House, and all the Commissioners could do would be to bear their additional testimony to the fact. What had that to do with the state of the canals or the tributaries? Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, and his desire not to detain the House, he could not sit down without drawing their attention to the assistance and encouragement given by other Governments to the developement of the resources of their countries by means of inland navigation. The wealth and enterprise of the people of England had, from private sources, rendered Parliamentary assistance needless. Private speculation had given her the advantage of more than 5,000 miles of canals and navigable rivers, but no other nation was similarly circumstanced. Elsewhere, national assistance was required, and had been universally afforded. Ireland, with a population of 8,000,000, had but 340 miles of canal. He would ask the right hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was, he understood, to reply to him, ought such a state of things to remain?—ought they not rather to learn wisdom from the example shown them by the Parliament of Ireland, by the countries adjoining them, and by the United States of America? Considering, as he did, that facility of transport was the first step towards the improvement and civilization of a country, he called on England no longer to suffer Ireland to remain, both physically and morally, an exception to every general rule by which the prosperity of nations was advanced. He would now beg leave to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the expediency and practicability of improving the navigation of the rivers Suck, Fergus, Bresna, and the other rivers flowing into the Shannon.

Mr. Shaw

seconded the motion on a subject which, he was happy to believe, every Irishman would gladly combine to promote.

Lord Morpeth

thought the main object of the motion would be better obtained, when the time would arrive for entertaining it effectively, by separating it from the latter portion of the Resolution.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought, that the best way of advancing the object the hon. Gentleman had in view was, to begin by obtaining from the engineers who had charge of the improvements in that district, the preliminary information as to the levels of the broad water on the Upper Shannon, &c. That done, the hon. Member should have his best assistance. But as any attempt to effect the object of his motion, at present, must be premature, and would only confuse the whole proceedings for the improvement of the lower part of the river Shannon, he must advise the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his motion.

Motion withdrawn.