by Peter Newell

Water. Let us pause for a moment and dwell upon this element which is essential to all life. Our bodies are believed to be made up of 60% water and this same substance covers 70% of the earth’s surface in oceans, rivers and lakes. It’s also contained in vast quantities as ice in the Polar Regions which contain three quarters of the earth’s fresh water.Water is present naturally in three states – solid as ice, liquid as oceans, lakes and rivers and in a gaseous form as vapour. This element has been an integral part of our existence since the beginning of humanity and provides us with life and leisure but yet can be a source of fear and danger.

Before the development of roads, the only means of travel and transport was by water. Dugout canoes, used universally, were the earliest type of boats but restricted travel to rivers and lakes. Later on, with the development of ships, people were able to venture further afield and this led to the great voyages of discovery. Before the onset of railways and roads, as we know them today, a system of canals was developed for the transport of goods and passengers. Some examples of these canals that exist today in our own country are the Royal and Grand Canals that link Dublin to the Shannon system and on to Ballinasloe, and the Shannon/Erne Waterway which links Enniskillen in County Fermanagh to the sea at Limerick. In our own Galway City, we have the Eglinton Canal. This was constructed to connect Lough Corrib to the sea at the Claddagh Basin. On a local level, canals were developed by the Congested Districts Board along the Cregg River Basin in the early twentieth century. These still exist to the present day. The existence of these canals led to the invention of a flat-bottomed boat, peculiar to this area, which was used to transport turf, hay and various sedges. Some of these boats can still be seen today.

On a grander scale, major canals have been constructed internationally to shorten voyages. Two of the best-known of these would undoubtedly be the Panama Canal which links the Pacific to the Atlantic at Panama in Central America and the Suez Canal in Egypt which links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, both of which eliminate the need for circumnavigation of whole continents. These great feats of engineering came at a huge humanitarian cost as a lot of lives were lost in their construction, especially in Panama, where more lives were lost during the building of the canal than were lost during the AmericanWar of Independence.

Anybody who has ever visited Galway City must have noticed the numerous waterways. These are not to be confused with canals as they are, in fact, mill races. On a short walk through the city centre, one would easily be able to locate all twenty-seven of them. These were used to power their twenty-seven corresponding mills during the nineteenth century and are prime examples of the intelligent use of water power. Within our own parish, there were three water-powered corn mills. These were located at Furey’s in Bunnatubber, at Alcorn’s in Kilroe and atWade’s in Cregg. Since the earliest times, water as a power source has been used worldwide. Here in Ireland we have a number of hydro-electric generation stations; on the River Erne at Ballyshannon in County Donegal, on the River Lee at Iniscarragh in County Cork and the most famous on the River Shannon at Ardnacrusha in County Limerick. At the time of the construction of Ardnacrusha in the early 1930s, it was the biggest civil engineering contract in Europe and it led to the full-scale electrification of Ireland. Universally, all electricity generating stations use water converted to steam as their power source whether oil-fired, coal-fired or nuclear powered.

With the development of railways the amount of goods and passengers transported by the canals waned, but ironically, water, in the form of steam, was the source of energy used to power the railway engines. Let’s wind back the clock to earlier times. The beginnings of all the greatest of our civilisations sprung from river basins or great deltas of the world’s most famous rivers. The Romans began on the River Tiber while Egypt sprang from the River Nile. Further east, in what is today known as Iraq, the Euphrates and Tigris rivers provided a lifeline for the Sumerian civilisation, the earliest of all. These rivers provided each of its people with the ability to flourish. Rome was one of the first to build mighty aqueducts to channel water from one source to reach many, conveying to all a supply of water. In more recent times, one of the marvels of modern water-delivery is the Manchester water supply which channels water from the Lake District via an underground tunnel to the city of Manchester.

It was constructed during the Industrial Revolution but is still more than adequate today. Other cities’ water supplies worth noting are those of Birmingham City which is also piped underground, but this time from a giant reservoir at Ebbew Vale in the Welsh Valleys and the marvellous supply to New York City which also comes underground from the Finger Lakes District of upstate New York and is capable of reaching the top of
the tallest skyscrapers in Manhattan under its own pressure. Within the Emerald Isle, there are numerous supply systems. The city of Dublin is supplied from a pumping station at Roundwood in County Wicklow which draws water from the Blessington Lakes and at the moment is barely adequate. Plans are afoot to boost supplies to Dublin City from Lough Derg on the River Shannon.

In rural Ireland, up to the mid-1960s, the sources of water for domestic and farm use were shallow wells of local water and tanks constructed of concrete to store rainwater. Those who could afford to do so, brought in well-boring contractors to provide better water supplies but these were few and far between. By the early to mid- 1970s, local group water supply schemes were being formed with a view to providing a universal supply to all group members to both homes and farms. Organising these schemes was a daunting task as it was undertaken on a voluntary basis mainly by community-minded individuals. Firstly, there had to be a source identified and approved, then a design for the scheme had to be drawn up and costed, which led to the members’ contributions bring decided on and later collected. There were a number of hurdles to get over, not least of which was to convince some members that all this was possible. We were fortunate in Annaghdown in having an endless supply of water in Lough Corrib to draw from. Our scheme was designed to eventually be linked
to a regional supply and this link has now taken place.

This design feature, which has enabled the link to take place, was carried out at the instigation of the scheme organisers, a fortuitous piece of foresight. In rural Ireland, in a very short period, we have moved from a way of life which hadn’t changed much in a thousand years, to the modern lifestyles and facilities which we enjoy today. This ever-ready water supply along with rural electrification has been the most significant step to achieving our new-found lifestyles. To those of a certain age who remember the old system, we need no reminders of the marvellous improvements in our standard of living and to those of more tender years we merely ask you to consider what life would be like without these facilities and to give them the respect with which they are due.

So far we have looked at water as a source of power and transport and in its most benign form for domestic use but let us not forget its awful destructive powers. Fresh in our minds is the tragic tsunami that occurred in 2004 in the Indian Ocean and more recently a tsunami in Samoa last year. Caused by landslides or underwater earthquakes, these massive forces gather momentum and force as they reach land where they destroy everything in their paths. Thank God, we haven’t experienced anything as devastating as tsunamis in Ireland. The worst we have witnessed in our lifetimes have been floods similar to those of last November which caused so much destruction and upset to the large amount of families who had to abandon their homes as a result.

Let us not dwell on those upsetting events for too long but rather enjoy the scenic and beautiful aspects of all the aquatic wonders that grace our planet. Each day hundreds of people visit these sites to gaze in awe at their immensity, to marvel at their beauty or to immerse themselves in their tranquillity. The mighty Iguazu Falls and Angel Falls in South America, the Niagara Falls in North America, contemplating the sheer scale of the Amazon, Nile and Yangtze rivers, enjoying the beauty of the Seine in Paris or floating along the canals of Venice, tossing a coin in the fountains of Rome, diving in the crystal-clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef or keeping your eyes peeled for the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. Without having to travel across the water, we can take a jaunting car by the Lakes of Killarney, go surfing in Bundoran, sail on Galway Bay, watch the mighty waves crash against the Cliffs of Moher or take a cruise on the Shannon but none of these can compare to a fine summer’s evening watching the sun go down on our own beautiful Lough Corrib.

This article first appeared in Anach Cuain 2010.


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