By Michael O’Brien
Recently an aquaintance of mine, Patrick, passed away. He was about 84 years old. I mention him because he was the last baby born in the townland of Ballinahown now long since buried beneath the giant Poulaphuca reservoir which is situated on the borders of Co. Kildare and West Wicklow.
Just like more than 75 other families, including my late mothers family, the families had lost their properties to compulsory purchase in order to create the giant Poulaphuca reservoir. Not all of my mother’s homeplace was flooded.
Some of what remains now forms part of the spectacular siting of the Valleymount Gaelic Football Stadium. The stadium setting was much eulogised in 2020 by our national media with photographs showing off its’ spectacular setting. I grew up about 200 yards from the edge of the reservoir and honed my modest football skills in the nearby football field, now the football stadium.
Shortly after the birth of the late Patrick, his family and all the other “purchased” families who resided in what were called the Parnell cottages had replacement houses built in the immediate locality. I feel that the cottage families did well in their new abodes. Many were my neighbours when I was growing up.
The Vartry reservoir in east Co. Wicklow served Dublin with water since 1865. The Lord Mayor of Dublin was Sir John Grey. He also owned the newspaper ‘The Freeman’s Journal’. In an old copy of that paper I read an account of how Dublin Corporation was eyeballing the Liffey Valley as the site for their next major water supply.
That was before the founding of the Irish Free State. In the early years of the new State Dublin had major social problems – terrible slum dwellings leading to diseased large families. The new government was anxious to improve the lot of the city and its residents. Pre 1800 and the Act Of Union, Dublin was the second City of the Empire. A new and constant supply of fresh water topped their agenda.
In 1932 the new Fianna Fail government, under Eamonn De Valera, were anxious to proceed with the Liffey scheme. The Corporation felt that they alone could not carry the cost of the scheme so Dublin Co. Council and the Electricity Supply Board (E.S.B) decided to come on board.
The Liffey rises on the border in the Dublin/Wicklow mountains with the larger King’s river travelling down the mountains from the Glendalough area. Neither river is very large. They meet near Blessington to form the Liffey and then travel on through the Poulaphuca gorge and so through Co. Kildare entering Dublin from the west side.
Because neither of the rivers was powerful the E.S.B. decided that, in order to proceed with their generating station project, they would have to create a large head of water. Hence their beady eyes fell on the 7000 acre plain between the course of both rivers. That plain was occupied by numerous small farming families and several cottage families.
The E.S.B. decided to build their dam at the gorge and construct their generating station a little further down, the flow of water to be controlled from the dam. Many thought that the scheme was a good idea as the area to be flooded was a sort of no place, all right to come to for a few hours of weekend recreation walking or duck shooting many travelling down on the Poulaphuca tram to avail of these pastimes.
Eventually concern was raised for the plight of the farming folk and cottage holders who were to be displaced. There were differences of opinion of course. Meetings were held locally. Many of the older people were sure that the scheme would never happen because tradition ordained that some of the holy wells in the area could never be disturbed. Both sides went to arbitration.
Batting for the authorities was none other than John A Costello K.C. S.C. who later went on to become our Taoiseach in 1948. He was the one who took the State and me out of the Commonwealth. Summing up, Costello explained that he realised that flooding the valley would destroy an ancient community.
While he understood the hardship and pain that would be heaped on to the older people he concluded that public purpose must override private sentiment. So the the scheme was signed off between the three authorities in 1936 and went ahead. The project was surely the largest in the State at that time and attracted some of the biggest and strongest men from Wicklow and beyond.
They stood in line on Monday mornings hoping to get the start. The English foreman moved along the queue like he was picking a hit squad. He put the question to the chosen ones “have you got your cards George?” And so he picked his chosen ten or so. Later he would walk on to the site and tell an equal number that their cards were in the site office for collection. They were sacked. It appears that the policy was to spread the labouring jobs out to as many as possible.
A neighbour who worked on the site felt that the slaves who built the pyramids had better working conditions. The sluice gate on the dam was closed on the 3rd March 1940. By the time that I came along in late 1944 the disturbed had departed to pastures new, their old homes demolished and their pastures now smothered by six thousand acres of dark grey water.
For me the reservoir, just like Cliabhan hill in Ballyknocken, and the Kippure mountain were just a presence in my daily life, nothing special. While attending national school I crossed a neck of the water twice daily on one of the new bridges.
I had long since left home when I began to take an interest in the area and I began to regret that I did not sit my late mother down and quiz her more about the characters who cropped up often in her daily conversations, souls like Mick the Bowie, Kit the grocer, Joe (the sprigger) Tyrell, Jimmy the skinner, and Johnny Callaghan who thought that he could defy the water and remained in his house until he had to be rescued by the neighbours using a boat.
On the extreme of the picture sit the borderlands of Kildare and Wicklow. Looking directly across the grey waters towards the mountains is the granite village of Ballyknocken. It is reported that the quarries were initially developed to provide quality granite stone for the construction of the nearby Russborough house, the 52 roomed mansion built for the Leeson family, the Earls of Milltown. The construction took ten years.
At their peak the quarries employed up to 500 men. All men had to have their insurance and wet time cards, these sometimes being referred to as your ‘Comics’. My paternal grandfather was a skilled stonecutter and my maternal grandfather supplemented his farming income by carting the cut stone from the quarries to the construction sites around Dublin City. The dray men travelled in their specially constructed carts through the night so they would arrive on the building sites early the next morning.
The round trip was about 55 miles. Over 100 years ago the fee paid was five schillings per trip later to be increased to one pound. By the 1930’s the dray men were finished and the petrol engine had taken over. Several of the great public buildings in Dublin were constructed using Ballyknocken granite.
The quarry village had its own brass band. It also had its own cinema which sometimes doubled as a dance hall. The building was originally a grain loft. I first went to the pictures in that cinema. The quarries closed in guillotine fashion about 1958. With the skills and jobs gone many of the employees, especially the young, emigrated to England never to return permanently. To the left of the quarries is the scattered community of Lacken, the hinterland of my fellow scribe, Mr Mattie Lennon.
Buried too beneath the grey waters is the Killough bog. It is suggested that, because of the prefix “Kill”, there may have been an ancient church there at one time. The bog was where the locals cut their fuel supplies and now that the Killough was covered the locals had to trudge to the blanket bogs in the mountains.
Pre the flooding of the valley farmers could graze their sheep on the mountain sides having what was known locally as grazing stints for X amount of sheep from the local Landlord or his agent. As I write I do not believe that there is any person living who grew up and lived in the now flooded valley.
Several whom I knew lived on into ripe old age. Recently their memoirs were collected and published in “Stories of the Liffey Valley” by St. Joseph’s Church in Valleymount Parish. One female contributor spoke of growing up in an area known as the Big Meadow. Her father had a State job and thus had a regular weekly income. Her family had their own goats, grew their own vegetables and potatoes and provided their own fuel from the Killough bog.
Their house was what was known as a mitch house or ceili house. It sounded idyllic. I am sure that the contributor knows that distance can lend enchantment to a view. The contributor reminisced that, as the rising water advanced, she saw the old folk down on their knees sobbing and crying, heartbroken.
They just did not want to leave their homes and community but the rising water was the big boss and they had to scatter. A community was decimated and scattered. Never again would they be able to sing, dance and play their music in their beloved Ballinahown. Yes public purpose did override private sentiment.
P.S. The small photograph, from a family collection, was taken at my late mother’s house on the day they finally departed. In the photograph are neighbours and friends. My wheelchair bound Granny is in front and at the back right is my late mother. Their house was also a mitch or ceili house.