• 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.

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