How 19th century paddle steamers transformed economic & social life on the Shannon estuary

A 19th century paddle steamer passes Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary

Paddle steamers were in operation before the railways and were the fastest mode of transport along wider water ways, estuaries and rivers.  Their hulls were built of wood and they were driven by paddle wheels housed in paddle boxes amidships.  Their steam engines used trapped steam to move pistons which drove shafts which in turn turned the paddles.  Single expansion engines were commonly used in paddle steamers.  They used steam expanded through only one stage causing all cylinders to operate at the same pressure.  The engines were also located amidships and sails continued to be carried as back up power.

Technical detail of a typical paddle steamer

Early steam-driven ships brought the first reliable transport system to the Lower Shannon.  A typical boat of the time was one built in 1816 by Scotts at Greenock, Scotland.  It’s length 77 ft. 7 in / 23.46 metres, with a beam of 15 ft. 3 in / 4.572 metres and a depth of 9 ft. 1 in \ 2.7432 metres. It also had fore-and-aft cabins and the engines were of 14 horse-power nominal. Later, ironclad steamers were larger such as the Mermaid also built in Scotland in 1864 length 161.4 ft, / 49.19 metres, beam 19.1 ft  / 5.82 metres and depth 7.9 ft / 2.40792 metres.  It operated from 1877 to 1903 on the Limerick to Kilrush service on River Shannon. 

Operating on the Lower Shannon, using relatively low engine power of an early steam-driven vessel, was a navigational challenge.  The paddle steamer captains had to face the predominantly westerly winds, strong currents and turbulent confluence of river and ocean waters.  An addition challenge of the Shannon was the fact that it has the highest tidal range in Ireland.  The earliest operational days of these boats were further complicated by the the lack of stone quays to easily load and discharge cargo and passengers
The ports of call mapped for the Shannon estuary paddle steamers 

The arrival of paddle-wheeled steamers on the river in the latter part of the 1820s boosted trade and passenger traffic dramatically.  The Shannon paddle steamers sailed daily between Limerick city quays and Kilrush on the north side of the Shannon estuary in Co. Clare and stopping on the south side at Foynes, Glin and Tarbert.  While the main service initially was for passengers the operators found that it was necessary to take on personal and bulk cargo of “Stout, merchandise, groceries, etc”.  At Kilrush passengers could get a horse drawn coach to the seaside town of Kilkee on the Atlantic coast.  This was the start of the development Kilkee as a popular holiday destination which it still remains today.  The trip from Limerick to Kilrush would have taken approximately four hours.  The Tarbert stop also served the towns of Tralee and Killarney - the latter also being highly popular tourist attraction. 
A full paddle steamer S S Shannon berths at Kilrush Co. Clare in 1900

This brought an economic boom that the various paddle steamer services brought to the ports they served is explained in a letter from Mr O’Brien, Agent to the Inland Steam Navigation Company.  In 1847 he wrote “Kilrush was a very insignificant little place, quite deserted, without trade or commerce.  It is now a rising town, with a number of respectable inhabitants and merchants; and the corn market.  This improvement, so important to the farmer, was certainly caused by the cheap and expeditious conveyance between this port and Limerick”.  The passenger influx brought a tourist boom mentioned earlier and mentioned in the same letter.  Mr O’Brien states “At Kilkee there are 305 very fine lodges, some of which brought £30 per month, last season; at Miltown there are 204, and at Ballybunion there are 96, with excellent hotels and boarding houses.“

The passage down the Shannon was sometimes not without incident.  A newspaper report of the time (18th December 1893)  was headlined “Collision in the Shannon”.  It read “Some mornings ago the screw steamer Leven belonging to Messrs. M. Glynn and son, Kilrush collided with the paddle steamer Mermaid.  Both vessels sustained severe damage.”

West Clare Railway at Kilkee station 1957 (thevintagelensphotoarchive)

In 1849 a railway which opened between Dublin to Limerick led to a dramatic drop in freight and passengers numbers.  Inevitably the rise of road transport and its associated reliability in the 1950s killed off the last remnants of the steamer trade on the Lower Shannon.  At that time the last of the vessels belonging to the Shannon Steamship Co. were sold off.  They had been in operation for over 150 years.
An displayed related to the paddle steamer trade at Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum

At Foynes Flying Boat and Maritime Museum you can go aboard a paddle steamer cabin and watch an insightful presentation about past and present life on the river and the river's role in the region's development.  You can also find out about life as a dock worker in the 1800s and the various types of cargo passing through the port.  In addition you can explore our extensive display of commercial and leisure boats from the river, as well as a large-scale model of the River Shannon's estuary.

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