Book review by Deirdre Gillespie
Clair L Sweeney: The Rivers of Dublin, Revised by Gerard O’Connell and Michael Curtis, Irish Academic Press, Dublin.
The Rivers of Dublin was first published in 1991 by Dublin City Council. The author spent his working life in the Drainage Division of the council and what he produced initially was a historical and factual account of each river. Fast forward with modern technology, more detailed coverage of weather events and inspections, plus input from two other personnel who have worked on flood-associated projects since 2002, and a new revised edition has been produced. The extra personnel have assisted by updating, and rewriting where necessary, so that this recent publication has continuity and relevance.
As has been the way of humanity since human settlement began, watercourses have been a chief factor in where people have decided to settle, followed by suitability of topography for defence, security, availability of game, good soil and timber. The original city of Dublin was established on rising ground at the junction of the River Liffey and the River Poddle where they joined to flow together.
In some ways Dublin was no different from lots of European cities in its lack of sanitation. Having said that, the 18th century saw progressive development from no sanitation and frequent epidemics to clean streets, squares and exceptional Georgian buildings. It’s from this century that the city took it current shape. However, as the population grew and gathered near new industrial development, so started another series of dysentery, cholera and typhoid outbreaks, resulting in high death rates. Try to imagine large family (usually) groups of all ages and gender living in a space no more than 15 square feet in appalling conditions and you begin to realise how epidemics happen.
Around 1810 the systematic provision of sewers in Dublin started. Watercourses and tributaries were incorporated into the sewerage system covering a complete network of approximately 1,300 miles in all shapes and sizes. So began the water supply from the Poddle, Camac, Lea Brook, Vartry, Dodder and Liffey, as well as spring wells and canals. Some of the watercourses formed the natural boundaries of baronies, properties, townlands and parishes. This led to much litigation over the centuries as water rights were regarded as sacrosanct especially before steam power or electricity.
In the 13th century, the monks of St Thomas Abbey channelled off a watercourse from the Poddle River which provided them with a convenient water supply that became known as the Abbey Stream. In 1259 the Abbey was involved in litigation with the city authorities over rents and lack of agreed water supply. Fast forward to the 19th century and similar disagreements and claims arose where water-powered mills were concerned.
Murder and justice were also influenced by water. In 1738, Lord Santry, heavily into merrymaking at the Festival of Saturn, got involved in a brawl in a tavern and killed a servant. Sentenced to death by execution, he was instead deported because his uncle Sir Compton Domvile of Templeogue Castle threatened to cut off the water supply to the city.
The ‘old city watercourse’ had a maintenance scheme which was shared by officials of the city and the owners of water-powered mills on the course. The mayor and bailiffs were also empowered to engage citizens of the Liberties and the city to assist in maintenance, prevention of damage by livestock and illegal breaches and diversions. Think monks and monasteries. The concept of this particular watercourse was considered brilliant in its time for its simplicity, reasonable cost of construction and maintenance. Oh, and anyone who was against it was forcibly suppressed. Some things never change.
The book includes maps covering rivers and wells around Dublin and a lovely quote from Gerard Boate in his Natural History of Ireland (1642):
No country in the world is fuller of brooks as Ireland, where the same be numberless and water all the parts of the land on all sides. The brooks besides – do greatly serve for another good use – to wit, the grinding of corn, whereunto the windmills are very little used because the inhabitants have the conveniency, through the great number of brooks, to erect watermills, at less cost and labour.
This is a book for engineering buffs and those who have ever marvelled at the sheer scale of human-made structures like subway systems, flood barriers and skyscrapers. It gives in-depth information about how and when the problems of sanitation were rectified through the years and if your engineering skills lean toward the technical details of how it all came about this book will satisfy your needs. If you’re a Dubliner and familiar with most of the rivers, the anecdotal information will entertain you.