The Royal Canal is one of Dublin's best-hidden secrets, and the walking trail alongside it rarely used by visitors. The canal itself leads from the Liffey to Mullingar, and Dubliners must cross and re-cross it millions of times every week. Often without even noticing the ideal urban walkway below them.
The Royal Canal Way is ideally suited for some serious stretching of legs after a long flight. For a brisk walk of little more than four hours (or eleven miles), simply follow the Royal Canal, starting at Newcomen Bridge on the North Strand Road.
For a shorter distance, simply take your pick with the help of a map.
From Connolly Station to Croke Park
Newcomen Bridge just a few minutes walk north of Connolly Station, and the ideal starting point. The Royal Canal has just left the (massively redeveloped) harbor and Docklands area and runs westwards from here. And the charming Lockkeeper's Cottage at the 1st Lock will have you smiling as you follow the footpath towards the futuristic structures of Croke Park.
After you pass beneath Clark's Bridge the "Croker" will tower above you, a fitting monument to the enormous role the Gaelic Athletic Association plays in Ireland's public life.
On Brendan Behan's Old Patch
The old bridle path, much improved since Victorian times, will then lead you via Clonliffe Bridge and Binn's Bridge to the other side of the Royal Canal, the 2nd Lock, and a charming statue of Brendan Behan. The well-known poet and drinker is depicted in conversation with a bird on a bench.
Why not sit down between them and have a word with the local pigeons yourself. And take an unusual selfie.
Continuing towards the 3rd and 4th Lock you will see the former Whitworth Fever Hospital to your right ... and some tall chimneys on your left. This is the air-conditioning system of the Victorian Mountjoy Jail, a former "model prison", and still very much in use for incarceration today.
Famous detainees included Behan, his ballad "The Auld Triangle" (from the play "The Quare Fellow") describes this prison "along the banks of the Royal Canal".
Industrial Heritage and Mathematical Genius
Cross Guns Bridge (officially Westmoreland Bridge) and the nearby 5th and 6th Locks are surrounded by industrial ruins, some converted into apartments - opinions on this stretch of the Royal Canal vacillate between "eyesore" and "picturesque". You can also spot the O'Connell Monument in Glasnevin Cemetery to your right. And you might notice a railway line disappearing in a tunnel underneath the Royal Canal - this marks the start of the almost unknown railway tunnel running underneath the Phoenix Park.
After the 7th Lock, you will approach Broom Bridge in a setting that nearly lets you forget you are still in Dublin. Talking about forgetting - the bridge is officially named Rowan Hamilton Bridge. The famous mathematician was out for a walk with his wife here in 1843 when inspiration overtook him. Not having pencil and paper ready he immediately scratched the formula he had arrived at into the stones of Broom Bridge. His wife must have been thrilled by so much attention.
You will not be thrilled by the stretch of the Royal Canal leading to Reilly's Bridge, it is almost ugly.
But, afterward, the scenery becomes rural again, with the odd shaggy horse thrown in. Pass the 8th and 9th Lock plus the ever-present anglers and you will arrive at Longford Bridge. The Halfway House is nearby if you are in need of refreshment - and you might choose to take the train back to Dublin's city center from Ashtown Station.
The Navan Road Interchange
Should you wish to carry on you will now pass the 10th and 11th Lock - the last being a rather complicated lock to negotiate a steep rise. The historic Ranelagh Bridge coming up next seems to make no sense, it was simply preserved when the nearby modern Dunsink Bridge was built. But all this will not have you prepared for the spectacular Navan Road Interchange, completed in 1996.
Here the huge N3 roundabout, the railway line, and the Royal Canal cross the M50 orbital, alongside sewer and water conduits, in a complex weave of concrete and steel.
Trucks thunder above and below you, the railway rattles beside you ... it gets quieter after Talbot Bridge and the 12th Lock at Granard Bridge. Some converted mills, a few restaurants, and a base station for narrowboats can be found. As well as Castleknock Station for another opportunity to catch the train back to Dublin.
Through the Deep Sinking and on Towards Leixlip
If you carry on you will pass through a suburban area and soon reach "The Deep Sinking". Here the Royal Canal is narrow and as much as 30 feet below the bridlepath, fatal for the occasional draught horse stumbling in the old days and still potentially dangerous today.
The chasm continues beyond Coolmine Station and Kirkpatrick Street. Only after Kennan Bridge will the pathway level out, become less bumpy and wider. Callaghan Bridge and Clonsilla Station are almost the last urban structures, give or take a few new estates. Because this is the beginning of the commuter belt, where Dubliners moved to a more rural home until the urban landscape, lifestyle, and problems caught up with them.
You just carry on straight ahead, following the Royal Canal past fishing stands and the Royal Canal Amenity Group's building through rural Ireland. Soon you will cross from County Dublin into County Kildare, and at Cope Bridge, you should call it a day - either catch a train back from Leixlip Confey Station or walk via Captain's Hill into Leixlip for a welcome spot of food and drink. You can catch buses to Dublin's city center from here as well.
Some Practical Hints
To maximize your enjoyment of the Royal Canal you might want to:
- Wear appropriate shoes - the urban part of the walk is tarmac or gravel, beyond Longford Bridge it may get wet, muddy and slippery;
- Walk only in daylight - the paths are rarely lighted and frequented by a dubious clientele after dark;
- Bring some food and drink - power bars and a bottle of water are a good idea, even if you plan to visit a pub on the way;
- Tell somebody where you are walking - parts of the Royal Canal are lonely and deserted, bringing a cell phone for emergency use might be a good idea too;
- Not overdo it - if you are starting at Newcomen Bridge you may not want to walk all the way to Leixlip unless you are used to long walks.