Reflections on Irish Water

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CHDespite its small size, the Emerald Isle, situated between England and America, boasts more than 12, 000 lakes, or loughs. The largest lake in the British Isles, Lough Neagh, is in Northern Ireland, reputed to be formed when the sod of earth that Fionn MacCool dredged up to throw in combat at a fellow giant, displaced water inland from the Irish Sea.

Lough Corrib and Lough Mask contend for first place in the Republic. Strangford Lough, a bird sanctuary, and Lough Hyne, a Marine Nature Reserve, are both sea-water lakes. The rest are regularly refilled by famously high levels of precipitation that seep into the ground. An abundance of streams and rivers are also found. No other country in Europe contains more bog-land. Twenty per cent of Ireland’s territory once consisted of bogs.

Ireland is completely surrounded by water. It is divided from Britain and Scotland by the Irish, or Manx, Sea, containing the Isle of Man, Anglesey and other islands. The Irish Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, lapping remaining shores, through the North Channel, or Straits of Moyle, facing Scotland. It meets the Celtic Sea at the southerly St. George’s Channel, stretching out to France.

The copious rainfall irrigates the land to grow vegetation decked in forty shades of green. The temperate oceanic climate keeps the weather mild and moist, preventing temperature extremes. The North Atlantic Current flowing nearby bestows the year-round advantages of an ice-free coastline, and warmer temperatures than are enjoyed in other places on the same latitude. There are between 151 and 225 recorded wet days, receiving more than 1mm of rain, out of every 365 days of the year, with most falling in the west. Ireland is not short of water.

My mother, Kate, who grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s, remembers her family taking buckets to fill at the town pump in Killarney. The flock of domestic ducks they kept looked after themselves. Every morning they filed out the gate opposite the Friary and waddled along lanes, paths and gardens, a considerable distance of a few hundred metres, to enjoy a day paddling and diving in the Deenagh river near the Cathedral. Then, without fail, they’d wind their way back home before nightfall of their own accord, satisfied.

Like many twentieth-century Irish children, Kate’s twin brother, Dan, was sent every summer to work on a relative’s farm. His uncle lived in Lombardstown near Mallow. The family and young visitors stayed in a basic house with a flat roof, on top of which was balanced a bath to collect rain water. Whoever wanted water for washing, cooking, drinking or any other purpose would have to climb to the bath and dip in a container. This early type of water self-sufficiency is now emulated in environment-friendly buildings.

Years later the same family sold some land and built a modern house with standard running water. The new system transports water to houses through pipes from mains buried deep underground to be channelled to the conurbations. Affixed on the rising mains pipes, taps supply water for domestic purposes, while hot water conduits and toilet cisterns feed off attic tanks. Waste and foul water drains into sewers, instead of the unsanitary street canals previously used, to be treated, cleaned and filtered before flowing back out. The expediency and convenience of this operation contrasts with the effort my mother, uncle, their peers, and the ducks exerted to secure water.

For millennia, people carried vessels to and from naturally-occurring springs and streams, over whatever distance necessary, before wells became common. The ‘washing pool’ in Adare on the River Maigue, now a tourist attraction, where women used to gather to wash clothes, demonstrates another advantage our ancestors took of nature’s stores.

Underground water in was extracted via buckets lowered on ropes into stone-lined shafts dug deep into the earth. Pipes from wells were initially installed for a minority of prestigious persons. Depths of up to twenty feet would no longer be deemed sufficient to avoid pollutants. Wells were often white-washed for cleanliness, with an iron-cup attached for passers-by. For many rural, and some city, dwellers, domestic water originated from hand pumps above such wells, which also facilitated socialising, until the 1960s, when group water schemes were introduced.

It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that local authorities began to build reservoirs for alternative public water schemes, which gradually became the only type approved. Water was first distributed through filters to footpath taps, as well as to fire hydrants and animal drinking troughs, before supply was extended to individual houses.

While climate change concerns nudge a return to natural methods, as untampered with as possible, dependence on the water infrastructure installed over the past century is amongst the factors opposing further changes. Happily, Ireland is spoilt for choice.

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Caroline Hurley

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One Response

  1. Wally Burns

    September 11, 2015 1:18 pm

    It’s nice to get a short factual article describing the abundance and main sources of drinking water around Ireland, including the now discontinued water pumps and rooftop vessels for collecting rain water. Of course drinking water has to be treated and tested for public safety. Neighbourhood and farm wells were used extensively into the 1970s but were discontinued when group water schemes and other supply networks came into use. Algae, ecoli, animal pollution and other potential hazards now afflict many discontinued wells which would have to be inspected, tested and reconditioned if people wished to bring them back into use. In addition to ordinary wells there are also an estimated 3,000 holy wells dating back to celtic times. Some have disappeared underground due to erosion of limestone or other reasons. Heritage groups and some local authorities have spent money on reconditioning holy wells and paving footpaths to make them more accessible to domestic and foreign tourists. High rainfall spread evenly across the four seasons can be depressing at times, but your article reminds us that Ireland is gifted with a wonderful resource.