During this year’s World Canals Conference, an archive exhibition entitled ‘Reflections, the Lasting Legacy of the Waterways,’ included a selection of tools created by Fermanagh craftsperson, Albert Robinson. The handcrafted tools were a key feature in the exhibition as they brought to life the story of the strong men who powered the construction of Ireland’s canals system over 200 years ago.

The final section of the Royal Canal in Ireland to connect with the Shannon River, was an extraordinary feat of ingenuity, engineering and sheer hard labour. Commissioned by the Directors General of Inland Navigation in 1813, the contract to build the canal was undertaken by contractors Henry, Mullins and MacMahon in 1814. Under the direction of the pre-eminent Irish engineer of that time, John Killaly the project was completed within three years at a cost of £198,110, covering a distance of some 24.5 miles.

The tools available to the "Navvies," the canal builders at this time, were very basic. A detailed company standard design specification was prepared for the manufacture of these tools under the building contract. Using specific wood types, local craftsperson Albert Robinson, a carpenter with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, meticulously recreated these traditional tools – a hand barrow and a wheelbarrow.

The National Trust own and run Patterson’s Spade Mills, the last remaining spade mill in daily use in Britain and Ireland. The mill also recreated tools using the original drawings, producing a spade and shovel.

The tools were on display throughout the World Canals Conference which attracted 320 delegates from 12 countries and three continents over the three day event in September. There was much positive comment on the tools and many requests for further displays of this quality work.

Dawn Livingstone, Chief Executive of Waterways Ireland, commented on the unique collection of handcrafted tools. She said:

“Working in partnership with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and the National Trust, we have brought back to life a remarkable era of canal construction and created objects that tell the story of the men who built the amazing waterways that we continue to enjoy today.”

She continued: “I commend the skill of the craftspeople involved from Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Patterson’s Spade Mill and would encourage visitors to see this extraordinary collection for themselves.”

National Trust Visitor Experience Officer Nathan Domer added: “We are very excited to be involved in this project along with Waterways Ireland as this type of project is at the forefront of our core aims as a charitable organisation to conserve our heritage on land and on water for all to enjoy forever, for everyone.”

The tools can be viewed, along with their original blueprint drawings, at the exhibition ‘Reflections, the Lasting Legacy of the Waterways’ in Waterways Ireland from October 22 to November 9, Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5.15pm.