• A newly discovered stone cross at Baltyboys, Co. Wicklow

    While it has always been suspected that the old graveyard at Baltyboys was the site of an early medieval church site, there has yet to be any confirmation of its antiquity. It is mentioned in late medieval documents as Kilpatrick (a name that is now obsolete) which certainly implies that this must be a much older church site.

    The graveyard is situated near the top of the Baltyboys ridge that formerly divided the River Liffey and the King’s River. Today there are fine views across the Poulaphuca Reservoir towards the Wicklow Mountains.

    On a recent visit to the site I was determined to find some evidence that would prove the antiquity of the site. As luck would have it, local man Fergus Cassidy had been strimming the tall grass in the graveyard, making the features much easier to see. Within minutes I spotted a stone cross that immediately stood out from several 19th century stone crosses that mark graves throughout the cemetery.

    The granite cross measures 56cm across, while the upper transom is 28cm wide and 19cm high above the cross arms. The shaft is slightly wider that the upper transom, measuring 33cm across.

    At the intersection of the arms, on both faces of the cross, is a domed, circular bosse. On one face this bosse is 16cm in diameter and raised 4cm. It is enclosed by a raised ring, 25cm in total diameter and 1cm high. On the opposite face, is a very similar bosse, though it is more weathered, which measures 16cm in diameter, also enclosed by a ring (23cm in total diameter).

    The cross is clearly not in its original position, and may have been placed here as a grave marker. It almost certainly had a separate granite base, but the remains of this are not evident at the site today.

    This cross is quite modest in terms of its size, and it many respects its antiquity may not be obvious at first glance. However, the encircled bosses on this cross are very distinctive, and are peculiar to this area. They are a feature of two quite different stone crosses nearby, namely, the wheel headed cross at Ballymore Eustace, and the massive cross known as St Mark’s Cross that stands in the new cemetery at Burgage outside Blessington (which formerly stood near the medieval church tower, situated on what is now the shore of the Poulaphuca Reservoir). The date of these crosses is not clear, but they most likely date to about the 10th century. There is no doubt that the cross at Baltyboys is related to these crosses, and may even have been carved by the same mason. However, in the absence of any historical documentation about any of these sites, what may be more significant is that these crosses echo important ecclesiastical and political links between these churches. It is probably no coincidence that Baltyboys Upper, Ballymore Eustace and Burgage were all intimately associated with the River Liffey. Equally, the small scale of the Baltyboys cross may reflect that this church was of a lower status than either Ballymore Eustace or Burgage, and may have been subservient to one or both of these sites in the early medieval period. During the later medieval period (some two centuries after these crosses were carved), Ballymore Eustace was firmly at the centre of the Archbishop of Dublin’s manor, which included Baltyboys and Burgage.



  • Liam Price and Wicklow

    William George Price, youngest son of George Roberts Price and Katie Askin, was born on 23rd February, 1891. William, or Liam as he was more usually known, went to Aldenham Public School in England. He was a graduate of Classics from Trinity College, Dublin, where he subsequently qualified as a barrister. While apparently unsympathetic to the Republican cause during 1916, only a few years later he practiced in the underground Republican courts, and after the foundation of the State he became a District Justice, serving as such initially in Mullingar and Kilkenny, and from 1924 until his retirement in 1960 he served in Wicklow.

    In 1923 Price met Dorothy Stopford, a medical doctor, and a niece of the historian Alice Stopford-Green. One day during the autumn of 1924 at Luggala in County Wicklow, Price proposed, and they were married on 8th January 1925. The best man at the wedding was his good fried, Dermot Coffey, son of George Coffey, a former Keeper of Antiquities in the National Museum of Ireland. The diaries of Signe Toksvig, the Danish-born wife of the writer Francis Hackett, provide rare glimpses into the personalities of Liam and Dorothy Price. Following a visit to their home on 11th October 1932, Toksvig wrote; “Price so straight-forward and shyly sweet and she herself well in hand, was a good hostess” (Pihl 1994, 213).

    Liam Price had an inexhaustible passion for local archaeology, history, folklore and placenames. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy and a member of the Board of Visitors of the National Museum of Ireland. From 1949-1952 he was President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting that he began his term of Presidency during the centenary year of the Society. He was also editor of the Society’s Journal for twenty years, and the diversity of his own interests and research is highlighted by the impressive range of topics featured in his own articles and notes, which appeared frequently that Journal, and also the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Outside archaeology and history, as a member of the Folklore Commission since its foundation, Price encouraged the documentation of oral folk traditions. Joseph Raftery noted “his interests took precedence over his formal work, so that, in the minds of his contemporaries, he appeared to be a scholar of note whose hobby was the law” (obituary, Annual Report of the Royal Irish Academy, 1966-7). Price principally focused his research in County Wicklow, and he published a wide range of articles on the antiquities, history and placenames of the county. He frequently used his free time before or after a session at one of the Wicklow Courts to visit an antiquity or interview an old man about the local placenames and traditions. Over the years Price recorded much of his field work in a series of 28 notebooks (Corlett & Weaver 2002), which provide a wonderful account of his travels, primarily through Wicklow, and highlight the breadth of his interest.

    Price was also a patron of the Irish Placenames Commission until his death. He was not a fluent Irish speaker, but he acquired a good knowledge of the language. Despite this, Price is best remembered for his outstanding work The Placenames of County Wicklow, which was published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in seven volumes (1945-1967). He compensated for his lack of fluency in Irish, with a methodical analysis of the evolution of placenames in historical documents. Following his publication of the placenames of the barony of Arklow in volume 46C of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, T.F. O’Rahilly wrote to Price proposing to him that he should publish his research into Wicklow placenames in book form for the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. In his letter (dated 21/3/1941, and preserved in Price’s papers in the Placenames Branch) O’Rahilly wrote “I regard your work as a model of its kind”. Following the publication of the second Wicklow volume for the Institute, Michael Duignan of University College Galway wrote; “What labour, care and patience and skill you have brought to your task” (letter dated 29/1/1947, preserved in Price’s papers in the Placenames Branch). Price did not confine his work on placenames to the seven Wicklow volumes published by the Institute – he also published a variety of short notes on placenames elsewhere, and his familiarity with both placenames and historical document must have proved invaluable in his compilation of an index to accompany the publication of Archbishop Alen’s Register (McNeill 1950).

    Another important piece of work which Liam Price was involved in was the Poulaphuca Survey of 1939. Co-ordinated by Price, small teams of people from various backgrounds volunteered their time and skills during the summer months of 1939 in an attempt to record as much information as possible about the landscape to be flooded the following year by the Liffey Reservoir Scheme. The main fieldwork was carried-out during the months of May, June and July, 1939. The fieldworkers quickly returned typescript copies of their reports, supported with sketches and photographs, to Liam Price. The main themes targeted by the Survey were placenames, vernacular architecture and folklore. The vast majority of photographs and sketches relate to the exteriors and interiors of houses, as well as domestic and agricultural furnishings. In terms of folklore and folk life, special attention was given to aspects of vernacular architecture, including thatching, as well as farming and land divisions. One of the great strengths of the Survey is the photographic record. Price would not see this material published in his own lifetime (Corlett 2008).

    In an introduction to Volume 95 of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, papers in honour of Liam Price, A.T. Lucas wrote that wherever “there was good to be done by counsel, persuasion, diplomacy and, above all, by work, he has been there to do it, but so successful has he been in doing good by stealth that even his closest friends hardly realize how pervasive has been his influence”. In an obituary only three years later, Eamonn de hÓir (1968) wrote “He was kindly, considerate and hospitable, and was always willing to help others from his own store of knowledge, often going to considerable trouble to do so”. An obituary in the Journal of the County Kildare Archaeological Society claimed “His passing is not only a loss to our Society, but to the many other Societies of which he was a member” (Anon. 1966/7).


    Anon. 1966/7 Obituaries. Journal of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society 14(2).

    Corlett, C., 2008, Beneath the Poulaphuca Reservoir – the 1939 Poulaphuca Survey of the lands flooded by the Liffey Reservoir Scheme. Dublin.

    Corlett, C. & Weaver, M. 2002 The Price Notebooks, 2 Vols. Dublin.

    de HÓir, E. 1968 Liam Price. Onoma 12(1966/67), 2-3.

    McNeill, C. (1950) Calender of Archbishop Alen’s Register c. 1172-1534. Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Dublin.

    O’Broin, L. 1985 Protestant nationalists in revolutionary Ireland: the Stopford Connection. Gill and MacMillan, Dublin.

    Pihl, L. (ed.) 1994 Signe Toksvig’s Irish Diaries 1926-1937. The Lilliput Press Ltd., Dublin.



  • The Liffey Scheme and the Poulaphuca Reservoir - Part 2

    The target for the reservoir was the flooding of all the land in the area below the 188.4m (612ft) OD, with an aim of maintaining the low water level at no lower than 177 m (580ft) OD. Taking the 612ft OD as an average level of the reservoir, some 4960 acres (2007 hectares) would be flooded, creating a shoreline of over 30 miles. Additional to this, the E.S.B. also required a sufficient buffer area between the reservoir and the surrounding agricultural area, in case there was a need to raise the lake levels, and also to prevent contamination of the drinking water by farming. This buffer area was subsequently planted with forestry in order to prevent stock from gaining access to the reservoir, and to limit human access to the reservoir also. In effect over 5,500 acres (2225 hectares) would be affected by the proposed reservoir, including some 55 residential holdings and 12 labourers cottages, 50 farms and extensive bog land used for fuel by local families from a wide area. Some of the houses would not be flooded by the reservoir, however, in order to ensure the necessary quality of the water as a water supply, houses situated beside the proposed shoreline were to be purchased and demolished.

    The issues concerning compensation did not go away after the passing of the Liffey Reservoir Bill at the end of 1936. Indeed, it would become the focus of much resentment. Local political representations argued that the proposed measures could not compensate for the loss of independence that would impact certain farmers, and that there would be no compensation for disturbance caused to those forced to move. In particular, farmers whose holdings would be partially covered by the reservoir would also only receive compensation for the acquired land at market value, without any consideration of the impact the reduction of their farmland would have on their livelihoods. Speaking to one farmer who would be affected in this way, a journalist reported:

    “I talked to a man with thirty acres of land, twenty of which – and the best twenty – he expects to lose. He asked, reasonably; “What use is this house and ten acres of poorish mountain land? I cannot live on it, but I will not be compensated for the house, because it will not be flooded”. (The Irish Independent, 6th October, 1937).

    For these farmers, who used much of the low lying ground as grazing for dairy farming, the loss of this land meant that they would be forced upland. This land was not suitable for dairy stock all year round, and meant that these farmers would be forced to change to another form of farming, such as sheep.

    There were also concerns about the effects of the reservoir on the holy well known as St. Bodin’s Well at Templebodin. According to tradition there were two fish in the well, which would escape once the area was flooded, thereby causing the well to loose its power (National Folklore Collection, Schools Manuscripts 913:131). There is a hint of sarcasm in a correspondent writing in the Irish Press:

    “Perhaps the believers in the old tradition will shake their heads in doubting; perhaps they will make the best of it and relate how it is that the Liffey hydro-electric scheme assumes its power from a blessed well”. (The Irish Press 28th March, 1938).

    This reflects a general change of attitude during this period, one which turned its back on the old ways, and saw not just the electric revolution, but also the scheme itself and the use of this technology to harness the power of electricity, as a means towards achieving a modern Ireland. One newspaper reporter wrote:

    “The seanachaidhe frowned. Who now would listen to the titanic prowess of the legendary heroes of old, when a number of ordinary, present-day mortals, without the aid of any magic wands or magic hokus-pokus, could transmute Anna Liffey into a form of tamed lightening that could do their bidding at will in a number of fantastic operations, such as lighting a whole city thirty miles away, driving trains, unloading ships, curling ladies locks, shaving men’s faces, taking pictures of people’s insides and throwing the voices of child prodigies, prophets and the like from one end of the world to another through the ethereal void in less than one flick of a Wicklow lamb’s tail – all sorts of things like that out of just ordinary water!” (The Irish Press, 24th April, 1940).

    The protracted nature of the proposed scheme appears to have weakened any desire to vigorously oppose the scheme when it was finally proposed officially. This is evident from a newspaper report in 1936:

    “Ballinahown, while doomed, is prepared to accept what the future holds. “Eleven years ago”, I was told, “something like this was in the air, but they went off to the Shannon, and built there. Two years ago there was more talk about water works”.

    On that occasion, it would appear, notice was given to people who would be affected that their homes should not be repaired or added to in any costly nature. Since then no other information has been received, but, as the man here in the heart of affairs told me, “they mean business this time”.” (The Irish Independent, 27th May, 1936. The informant was not named, but may have been one of the Quinn’s of Ballinahown).

    In an interview with John Quinn of Ballinahown in 1937, a journalist provides a valuable insight into the psychological effect the imminence of the scheme had on the communities:

    “He states that for the last ten years this depressing threat of dispossession has retarded development. He had noticed it depressing the young, progressive farmers, chilling their enthusiasm”. (The Irish Independent, 6th October, 1937).

    Local resentment was aired at several meetings held in the area during 1938 and 1939. Fr Francis O’Loughlin, Parish Priest of Valleymount was also critical of the scheme, and together with some local politicians, set up The Disturbed Owners Association to highlight deficiencies in the plan. The Chairman of the Association was Peter P. O’Reilly, who, in an interview with the Irish Press, came out in support of his fellow Ballyknockan stone cutters:

    “Above the valley 500 men work at the quarries. They are trade unionists, they care not for any other trade; they depend on the valley, some of them for produce of little gardens which they have patchworked into its marshes after years of toil, their work being from father to son; those who do not actually dwell in the valley, but in the foothills, depend on it for the grazing of their few cows, for turf from its bogs, their only source of fuel.” (Irish Press, 20th April, 1938).

    At the beginning of October 1938 a large protest meeting was held at Lacken. At this meeting many of the concerns were discussed, not for the first time. At the outset the chair of the meeting, Martin Murphy of Carrig, claimed that “no one was officially informed of his position, and the only notification they got at the start of the proceedings was from a map which was sent to the local Garda Station”. It would appear that even at this stage there was much confusion as to when people would be required to leave their houses and farms. There was also much resentment against the compensation offers made by the E.S.B., which were claimed by some to have been as much as £200 and £300 less that the estimates of the land valuers. At the end of the meeting a resolution was passed unanimously:

    “That we, the farmers of Blessington, Lacken and Valleymount, view with alarm the inadequate compensation offered by the Electricity Supply Board for our lands which are acquired for the Liffey Hydro Electric Scheme. The prices fixed in the original offers were considerably below the ordinary land values, and having regard to the consequential losses which will be entailed by all affected, and considering that we are forced from our lands against our will, we demand the fullest measure of consideration. In the event of arbitration, we demand that the arbitration court consists of one of the Electricity Supply Board, and an independent Chairman, who will be mutually agreed upon by both parties”. (Leinster Leader, 8th October, 1938).

    Arbitration proceedings were held at Blessington in October 1938 for those who were dissatisfied with the standard compensation rate offered to them. A newspaper correspondent reported that at the opening of the proceedings John A. Costello, K.C., for the E.S.B (and future Taoiseach) refuted the perception that the arbitrator, J.J. McAuley, would be in some way biased in favour of the E.S.B. He stated that the appointment had been made by an independent committee, consisting of the Chief Justice, the President of the High Court and the President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He further stated:

    “The E.S.B. had been charged by an Act with the gravest public responsibility and duty in connection with this scheme. A great hardship would undoubtedly be caused to individuals, but public purposes had a right to over-ride private grievance.

    The Board fully appreciated that numbers of these people would be dispossessed of their lands in which they had lived for generations, and that no amount of money would adequately compensate them for their sentimental loss or the sentimental value they attached to their holdings. The principle they had to follow, however, was laid down in the Liffey Act and there was nothing new in this principle on which the compensation must be assessed.” (Quotation of correspondent reporting in The Wicklow People, 15th October, 1938).

    Clearly there was no tolerance of sentimentality in the momentum for the improvement of infrastructure during these formative years of the State, though the accusation that sentimentality was the primary grievance of the people involved is arguably unfair and misrepresentative. As one contemporary journalist wrote:

    “In such a community the loss of friends and neighbours is much more than a sentimental loss”. (The Irish Independent, 6th October, 1937).

    Subsequently Tim Lennon, who lived with his father Matthew Lennon at Ballinahown, said of the arbitration proceedings; “we can say that the arbitration was held in Hell and that the Divil was the arbitrator”. Lennon summed up local feelings:

    “The feeling of the local people was that it was back to the days of Cromwell…that they were evicted whether they were willing or not and anyone who didn’t take the money, there was no sheriff needed, the dam was built and the water was the sheriff”. (From an interview with Séamas Ó Catháin on the RTE Radio Programme “Folkland”, broadcast in February 1984).

    In the long run, however, the landowners lost their battle for a substantial increase in compensation. The implied national importance of the scheme inevitably won the day.

    Construction work on the 100 feet high dam at Poulaphuca began in November 1937:

    “The erstwhile lonely, silent conditions in Poulaphuca waterfall district have suddenly been displaced with extraordinary hum and activity. Fifty men have already started work on the Poulaphuca scheme”. (Leinster Leader, 13th November, 1937).

    Once a beauty spot famed for its waterfall and favoured by tourists for over a century, the gorge now became a massive construction site. The dam was built from both sides of the gorge, towards the centre where a culvert channelled the River Liffey through the construction site. Construction work continued round the clock on three 8-hour shifts. Much of the labour was taken on by local men. Some 10,000 cubic metres of rock were excavated for the foundations of the dam, and some 18,000 cubic metres of concrete were used in its construction. Below the dam, construction work soon began on the Power Station itself. Work also began on a pressure tunnel, 5m in diameter, cut through the bedrock in order to feed the water from behind the dam directly to the power station. Work on this tunnel was slow through the hard slate and sandstone, as little as 8 or 9m a week. Further downstream at the rapids known as the Golden Falls, construction began on a second, smaller power station. Between these two power stations a smaller reservoir was constructed to regulate the flow of water into the lower stretches of the River Liffey. With the construction of the dam under way, workmen were engaged to erect some thirty-five miles of fencing around the proposed perimeter of the lake. The fringes of the reservoir were later planted with trees as a barrier to livestock, in order to prevent contamination of the water supply.

    Apart from the dam and power stations, it was also necessary to construct replacement roads and three new bridges, Blessington Bridge, Burgage Bridge and Humphreystown Bridge (for an engineering description of the construction of the bridges, particularly Burgage Bridge, see W.G. Ebrill & F.G. Clinch, ‘Liffey Power Development. Design and Construction of reinforced concrete bridge’, Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland 67 (1940-41), 211-47). The contracts for the construction of the dam, tunnel and power station were awarded to Francois Cementation Co. Ltd, an English-based company from Doncaster, whereas the contract for the bridges was awarded to C.S. Downey. Near the dam an entire village was specially constructed for the workforce. The buildings housed some 200 men and included a canteen and billiards room. On the opposite side of the dam there were bungalows for the contractors’ representatives and the Resident Engineer, Vernon Dunbavin Harty, as well as head quarters for the engineers and inspectors. The Chief Civil Engineer for the E.S.B. was Joe Mac Donald. Both MacDonald and Harty had previously worked on the Shannon scheme. Harty described the concreting construction of the dams and power stations at Poulaphuca and the Golden Falls in a paper to the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland in December 1940 (‘Liffey Power Development I. Concreting Methods’, Transaction of the Institution of Civil Engineers of Ireland 67 (1940-41), 23-43).

    While the ESB pressed ahead with the construction of the dam and power stations, Dublin Corporation began work on a tunnel to take water from the reservoir to filtration and purification plants under construction at nearby Bishopsland Hill, outside Ballymore Eustace, Co. Kildare. Work also began on the construction of a 12 mile long concrete conduit to south Co. Dublin. This work was completed in 1944. For a description and history of the water works aspect of the scheme see E. Healy, C. Moriarty and G. O’Flaherty, The Book of the Liffey from source to the sea (1988).

    As part of the compulsory order, the E.S.B. claimed ownership of all fittings in the houses. This was to lead to an embarrassing situation with Wicklow Co. Co. when the E.S.B. reported that fittings, including fireplaces, doors and presses were found to have been removed from three labourers cottages purchased from the council. The E.S.B claimed that if the fittings were not returned that they would be obliged to review the purchasing figure (Co. Wicklow Board of Health Minutes (1939), 622).

    The agreement signed between the E.S.B. and Dublin Corporation in June 1936 covers a multitude of technical issues, however, most relevant here is Section 4(a), in which the E.S.B. agreed to demolish all dwellings and farm buildings, as well as to remove the burials at Burgage graveyard. The sites of these houses were then to be sanitised with a ‘sprinkling’ of chlorate of lime. Furthermore, all trees were to be removed, and all obstructions, including field fences, that might be exposed should the water levels be lowered to 575ft OD. The E.S.B. agreed to meet the costs of these preparatory works, which included the blowing up of Baltiboys Bridge by the Irish Army on 6th September, 1939. By mid-September many of the houses had been stripped and/or demolished. This was significant because it meant that any attempt to document the area had to be made before these initial clearance works began.

    At 10.00am on March 3rd, 1940, the sluice gate diverting the River Liffey around the completed dam was closed. The opportunity for the use of poetic licence was not lost by some reporters:

    “She [the Liffey] backed up, and spreading out, started to muster the forces of her ancient ally, the King’s River, three miles above, for a grand assault on her prison; but, having found it was so impregnable that the base of it was capable of withstanding a pressure of three tons to the square foot, she surrendered. Great stuff, this Irish cement!” (The Irish Press, 24th April, 1940).

    Gradually the water began to build up, and by September of that year the water level had risen to one-third of the proposed area of the reservoir. During the summer of that year, in a race against the tide as it were, many local people extracted as much turf from the bogs surrounding Ballinahown as they possibly could before this important fuel source became permanently submerged. According to one newspaper account:

    “small boys and women with donkeys and carts, men with horse-carts work from dawn until dark to secure the fuel”. (The Irish Press, 12th September, 1940).

    In August 1940, Jimmy Cullen paid a final visit to the family home in Lacken:

    “On that occasion he met some household articles, including a crucifix, coming out through the kitchen door on the rising tide”. (M. J. Kelly, ‘Tales from a drowned land’, Journal of West Wicklow Historical Society 1 (1983-4), 14).

    It is hardly a coincidence that during these early years of the Second World War the exodus from the valley became known as ‘the evacuation’.

    While the water levels of the reservoir were gradually rising, the mechanical plant was being delivered to the power stations. However, the Second World War had begun in earnest by this time and much of the plant required for the power stations had been specially commissioned outside the State. The war brought an almost complete cessation of shipping, and heavy engineering plants in Britain and elsewhere were prioritising the needs of war. Many of the crucial elements required for the power stations did not arrive until after the end of the war, and the main power station at Poulaphuca was not put into full commission until early 1947. Despite these setbacks, the ESB successfully began operations of its smaller power station at the Golden Falls in December 1943, and improvisations allowed limited operation of the main power plant at Poulaphuca a year later. (L. Kenny, 50 Years on the Liffey (1994), 43-4). However, it is somewhat telling that the local people, including those who had sacrificed their lands and homes for the reservoir, did not see any immediate benefits of the scheme. Finally, on 11th December 1952, as part of the diamond jubilee celebrations of Fr O’Loughlin, the priest who had opposed aspects of the reservoir scheme switched on the electricity power for the parish. Electricity was brought to these people, no longer part of an integrated community, but divided and scattered along the shores of a massive lake. For many years after, those people who were forced off their lands due to the scheme became known locally as the ‘washed outs’.



  • The Liffey Scheme and the Poulaphuca Reservoir - Part 1

    “Like the fisherman, all who know it now may then, but in dreams, look through the “waves of time” and see this valley of other days”. From an article by T.J. Molloy on the drowning of the Upper Liffey Valley for the Liffey Reservoir Scheme, The Irish Independent, 27th May, 1936.

    One of the largest infra-structural schemes carried-out during the formative years of the State was the Liffey Reservoir Scheme. With the construction of a dam at Poulaphuca, a large reservoir was created within the upper stretches of the River Liffey in Co. Wicklow. The reservoir was designed to supply water to Dublin city and provide additional electricity supply to the national grid. For many visitors to the area today this man-made lake seems as if it has been ever-present in the landscape. However, as the water levels of the reservoir gradually rose in 1940 it submerged a historic landscape that only a few months previously hosted a thriving farming community.

    Poulaphuca area

    The River Liffey, synonymous with Dublin City, has its origins high in the Wicklow Mountains. At the point where the river arrives at the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains it entered a basin-like landscape, subsequently flooded by the reservoir. Towards the end of the last Ice Age the basin-like area was formed by a massive lake of melt water. Rather than taking a direct route to the sea, the Liffey was forced south through this natural basin, finally exiting to the plains of Kildare at the natural chasm at Poulaphuca, which was for many years favoured by tourists who came to see the dramatic falls. The construction of the hydro-electric dam reduced the tumbling waters at Poulaphuca to a mere trickle. A large section of the King’s River, which joined the Liffey at Burgage was also flooded. The high ridge at Baltiboys separated the Liffey Valley from the King’s River Valley, and today forms a peninsula extending into the southern part of the reservoir.

    Prior to the flooding by the reservoir the area did not form a clearly defined geographical unit. The landscape to the west consisted of rolling gravel ridges, providing reasonably fertile land. Here the land dropped steeply to the plains alongside the Liffey. These plains were marshy meadows prone to flooding by the Liffey itself, but the land was generally quite fertile. Above these low-lying plains the fertile land attracted large estates in the 18th century, including Russborough, Russellstown, Tulfarris, Baltiboys and Blessington Demesne. Along the east the area was dominated by the Wicklow Mountains. The low-lying land between the Liffey, the King’s River and the mountains was boggy, drained by a number of small streams, but mostly capturing the run-off water from the mountains. This land developed as small farm holdings, and those on the fringes of the basin also held land on the rising mountain slopes.

    The townlands most affected by the reservoir were Baltiboys, Ballyknockan, Burgage, Humphreystown, Lacken, Monamuck and Russellstown. In the middle of these was Ballinahown, which was completely removed from the map by the flooding. Contrary to more recent mythology, no villages (or churches) were flooded by the reservoir, these were all spread around the area that was to be flooded; Manor Kilbride to the north, Lacken and Ballyknockan along the east, Valleymount at the south, and the town of Blessington at the west. Where the people of Lacken and Ballyknockan now look onto a shimmering lake, the people before them once looked over farms and bog.

    Origins of the Liffey Reservoir Scheme

    The proximity of the upper reaches of the River Liffey to Dublin attracted many to the potentials of the river as a source of water-driven power. Even before the foundation of the State a British Government commission, established in 1919 to examine Ireland’s waterpower resources, argued in favour of the River Liffey as a primary candidate for generating stations. The water flow of the Liffey was insufficient in itself to power electricity generating stations, however, this could be overcome with the creation of a reservoir to provide a manageable water supply. The natural basin-like landscape of the upper reaches of the River Liffey and King’s River was an obvious choice for such a massive reservoir. In 1923 and 1924 there were a number of proposals to the Dáil for electrification schemes aimed at harnessing the River Liffey. These included Dublin Corporation’s ‘Dublin and District Electricity Supply Bill’, Sir John Purser Griffith’s ‘Dublin Electricity Supply Bill’ and ‘Dublin Electricity Supply Bill’ introduced by Anna Liffey Power Development Co. Ltd. One of these, the East Leinster Electricity Supply Bill, submitted by J.F. Crowley and Partners, was remarkably similar to the scheme finally adopted by the E.S.B. a decade later. Despite this, a powerful lobby argued more strongly in favour of exploiting the River Shannon, and these more adventurous proposals were approved in June 1925. However, the electrification of Ireland was still in its infancy and it was recognised by some that the economic development of the State would require an expansion of the electrification scheme. Not long after the Shannon Scheme came into operation it became clear that consumer needs were rapidly increasing beyond the capacity that could be provided. In 1925 there were some 36,000 consumers of electricity. By 1936 this number had dramatically increased to 130,000. Not unrelated to the rise in consumption of electricity was the contemporary expansion of Dublin’s suburbs, which required infrastructural investment, in particular an expansion of water supply. With the coming to power of a Fianna Fail government in 1932, a government driven by policies of self-sufficiency, the Liffey Scheme was again actively pursued.

    In 1922 a water level gauge had been installed at Poulaphuca gorge and over the following years daily readings were taken of the flow of the River Liffey. Geological borings and trial holes from Blessington to Poulaphuca had resolved initial concerns about the water retention capabilities of the gravel ridges along the western perimeter of the required reservoir. All the available data showed that the proposed reservoir for the hydro-electric scheme would be viable. However, it was not the E.S.B. who actively pursued the proposals for a reservoir at Poulaphuca, instead this role was adopted by Dublin Corporation, Dublin County Council and the other local authorities in that county. The water shortage was discussed at a special meeting of Dublin County Council in February 1936. The Chairman Patrick Belton (TD) “said that the Poulaphuca scheme was considered to be the only solution.” (Leinster Leader, 15th February, 1936). The costs of the scheme could not be borne by the Corporation and the County Council alone, and required the involvement of the E.S.B. through the Department of Industry and Commerce. It appears that the Corporation and County Council felt that the water shortage had reached a critical point, and that the urgency was not being taken seriously by the Department. At a meeting later that month:

    “Dublin Co. Co. decided on the motion of the Chairman (Mr Patrick Belton, T.D.) to request from the Minister for Industry and Commerce an immediate decision as to whether the Poulaphuca joint hydro-electric scheme would be undertaken without delay. The Council otherwise would petition the President to have the obstacles placed in the way of an adequate supply of water for the city and county by the Minister for Industry and Commerce and the E.S.B. removed immediately, so that a water famine might be averted.” (Leinster Leader, 29th February, 1936).

    On 8th June, 1936, an agreement was signed between the E.S.B. and Dublin Corporation, setting out the details for the scheme. The Poulaphuca scheme, or Liffey Reservoir Scheme as it was officially known, came on stream with the introduction in November 1936 of the Liffey Reservoir Bill to the Dáil by a future Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, then Minister for Industry and Commerce. In his introduction to the bill, Lemass said:

    “It will be gathered from what I have already said that such a supplementary scheme was not one of immediate urgency from the view-point of the Electricity Supply Board, but nevertheless, it was felt that it would prove of definite economic value eventually and that the best results could be achieved by the Corporation and the Electricity Supply Board uniting in carrying out a scheme which would meet both their purposes”. ( Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 54. 4th November, 1936).

    There immediately followed an intense debate in the Dáil, centred around the proposed compulsory purchase powers to be given to the E.S.B., and in particular the method of compensation to farmers that would only allow for the value of the land as it stood at that time of depression, and not on the higher values of ten years earlier. The O’Mahony reacted by saying of the Minister:

    “He has drawn attention to all the great benefits which are going to be received by the vast majority of the people concerned. Enormous benefits are going to be conferred on the people of Dublin, not only the people who live there at the present moment, but on the people of Dublin in future generations. But not one word has yet been said with regard to the unfortunate people who are going to lose their homes…..They are a small minority who are going to confer great and vast benefits on Dublin and on the surrounding areas, and also with regard to the supply of electricity vast benefits are going to be conferred on the whole Saorstát. Not only are they conferring those benefits on people living today, but on generations yet born”. (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 58).

    The O’Mahony continued:

    “There are certain people in that district who may have only a small bit of land. Some people might regard it as merely a little bit of bog, but it is their home and not only their home but their main source of living. It is not alone that they enjoy that little plot of land but they have the right of grazing on the mountains. Unless they can get a similar home within reasonable distance of the mountains they will lose their main source of livelihood ….. I was over there last Sunday at a meeting and it was really piteous to see the state of uncertainty in which these people were. They did not know where they were. After all is said and done, the Minister and rest of us when we go to bed tonight will not have to worry as to whether or not we are going to lose our homes. Every night these men when they go to bed wonder what is going to happen to them and what is going to be done for them, and whether they are going to get the treatment they expect – fair treatment – from an Irish Government”. (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 61-2).

    It is clear that the members of the Dáil were aware of the many issues that affected those people who would be forced to move to make way for the reservoir, though it is arguable to what level they understood or were sympathetic of these issues. Indeed, they seem to have been deliberately played down by some Deputies. For example, Thomas Kelly claimed:

    “I do not think that the doleful tales which the Deputies from Wicklow have put before the House today are necessary…..They will get ample compensation, sufficient to recompense them for even any sentimental values attached to their old homes.” (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 71-2).

    During the Committee Stage the issue of compensation was again discussed. In particular, The O’Mahony proposed an amendment that would base the compensation estimates on the average value of the land during the years 1928-1930, plus 50% of such an estimated value by way of compensation for disturbance. The O’Mahony argued that the compensation based on the value of the land in 1936 when the Bill was introduced was inherently unfair given the poor value of the land at that time, as a result of the Economic War with Britain. William T. Cosgrave, whose government had sponsored the Shannon Scheme, argued:

    “Our case is not against the justice of the compensation basis. Our case is that this land is being taken at a time when, owing to circumstances for which those farmers are not responsible, its value is at a low ebb”. (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 601).

    The amendment was defeated. While the ESB would later take the blame for the rates of compensation offered to those affected by the scheme, it is clear from the Dáil Debates that the issue of rates of compensation to be offered to landowners was a Government-led decision.

    Others questioned the viability of the scheme. When pressed on this during the Committee Stage, Lemass finally admitted that:

    “I was explaining to the Dail that the ESB if it were merely concerned with its own business would not proceed with this development at the moment. It is proceeding with this development because it has made an agreement with the Dublin Corporation to do so – an agreement which arose out of the special needs of the Corporation”. (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 559. 18th November, 1936).

    This further highlights the primary motive behind the emphasis on the Poulaphuca Scheme, in which the provision of electricity was secondary to the increasing needs of Dublin City and County for a water supply. This is reflected in the estimated costs of the project. The costs of the construction of the dam and all ancillary works, including new bridges and roads, as well as the clearance of the area to be flooded, was estimated to be in the region of £760,000. Dublin Corporation agreed to contribute a sum of £126,000 to the costs of this aspect of the project. However, the Corporation had their own costs to bear, and the construction of the filter beds and the main to feed water into the city were estimated to cost £694,000 (Dáil Debates, Vol. 64, 55. It was estimated that the dam and civil construction works would cost £387, 000, the roads, bridges and acquisitions of lands £183, 000, and the mechanical-electrical works and equipment £190, 000). As part of the agreement signed between the E.S.B. and Dublin Corporation in June 1936, the Corporation was entitled to use not more than 20 million gallons (90 million litres) of water a day.

    The initial proposal for a reservoir at Poulaphuca was greeted by many as a wonderful opportunity to provide a variety of amenities. According to one newspaper correspondent:

    “A few years hence…instead of getting out its cars to go picnicking on the golden strands of the coast on a summer afternoon, Dublin will probably be speeding to the sophisticated park-like shores of the great inland sea in the midst of the Wicklow Mountains.

    Where now lie thousands of acres of bog and poor pastureland will then lie an immense shimmering sheet of oriental water. Boats with coloured sails and dipping oars will be skimming over its calm surface”. (The Irish Independent, 27th May, 1936).

    For many people who lived in the area the concept of a large lake offering leisure and sporting amenities was an alien one.



  • Medieval wall paintings on Clare Island, Co. Mayo

    Picture, if you will, a medieval stone church, once on the edge of the known world, still standing today despite suffering the full force of Atlantic storms for hundreds of years. This is not the context in which one would expect to find the remains of Ireland's finest surviving medieval wall paintings. Nor are such sophisticated and accomplished paintings something we would tend to associate with the O'Malleys, who founded this church, a family conventionally painted as treacherous pirates on land and sea.

    In the late 1990s a team of conservators painstakingly restored and stabilised the paintings on the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chancel of the Abbey Church on Clare Island. At the time I had the privilege of visiting the team led by Christoph Oldenbourg and Karena Morton and had the opportunity of seeing their work close up. The term 'watching paint dry' doesn't even come close to capturing the process of conservation team that took several years of painstaking work to complete.

    This summer I returned again to see the paintings and was delighted to see that they are in remarkable condition – a testimony to the work of the conservation team over 15 years ago.

    In a country where this kind of artwork is such a rare survival, the Clare Island paintings are a national treasure. Indeed, they are a treasure trove of images and iconography. Two phases of painting have been identified where the plaster has fallen away and exposed an earlier layer of plaster beneath that was also decorated with paintings. Scenes include a cattle raid, a knight dressed in chain mail on horseback, wolves attacking stags, dragons, griffinsand musicians, including a unique and fascinating image of a medieval church organ. The vault was painted with false ribs, which divided the surface into 16 triangular areas. In the north wall of the chancel is a beautiful canopy tomb, in which there are faint traces of a crucifixion scene painted on the back wall. The canopy tomb is traditionally the burial place of Grace O’Malley, though it is probably 15th century in date. The tracery of the tomb was painted in black and red colours. A curious feature is that on the wall between this tomb and the east end wall of the chancel are faint traces of the shape identical to the canopy tomb also painted in similar red and black colours onto the wall.

    The attention to detail that the conservators have lavished on these wall paintings, in terms of stabilising, conserving and recording them, is a fitting tribute to the artists who deliberated, composed and executed their designs. Of course, we are also indebted to the original O’Malley patrons of these artists, and the more recently inspired choice to see them restored.

    For a detailed description of the paintings and their conservation see New Survey of Clare Island Volume 4: The Abbey. Edited by Conleth Manning, Paul Gosling and John Waddell. Published by the Royal Irish Academy 2005. ISBN 1 904890 059

    See video




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