03 Dec 2021

We should not forget the human price paid to create the Blessington Lakes

Local History

Our local amenities have never been as popular as they were in the last few weeks, and Blessington, County Wicklow, just 16 minutes from Naas, found its streets choked with traffic as families headed out to enjoy the beautiful walks and scenery around the lakes at the start of the Covid-19 crisis.

But 80 years ago, the scenery that greeted them would have been very different.

Between 1938 and 1940, the beautiful valley at Poulaphouca changed from sheltering communities complete with bridges, houses, villages, farms, a church, a graveyard, and the village of Ballinahown, to a man-made lake which provides a water supply to Dublin city and surrounds as well as electricity.

Some 76 houses were demolished and bridges at Humphreystown, Baltyboys and Burgage were blown up, a 12th century cross was moved to the safety of Blessington cemetery, and Poulaphouca Dam and hydroelectric station were constructed.

Flooding of the valley began in March 1940, eighty years ago this month, and the landscape at Poulaphouca was changed forever.

As water levels rose, the lakes gradually submerged over 5,000 acres of farmland, bog and homesteads.

The move was clouded in controversy at the time as entire communities were uprooted from their homes, many of them after generations in the same house. And not all farmers in the area were fully reimbursed for the loss of land.

Hardest hit though were those who made a living from the land but were not land owners.

“There were people who had rights to bog land, for instance, and they made a living from saving turf and selling it to places like St. James’ Hospital,” explained local man Aidan Cruise. “Those families were left with no place to live and no way to make a living. They were completely destitute and never got a penny in compensation because they weren’t landowners.”

Aidan’s parents John (from Straffan) and Mary ran a butchers shop in Blessington village. “People who were really struggling to feed themselves and their families used to leave a bag on the gate at the end of my mother’s house and they might put a bit of money in it if they had it, like maybe half a crown which would buy very little, but my mother would take the bag and fill it up with food, and leave it back at the gate for them.

“She knew who each bag belonged to and she knew they were in need, but she never told anyone, nothing was ever said. She would know if there was a baby in the house and would also fill a mineral bottle with milk, stuff the top with newspaper and leave it in their bag. Milk was very scarce at the time.

“My father would also drive to Sallins to pick up tea chests for Hennessy’s shop. He didn’t get payment but they gave him tea so my mother would put tea into the bags too. And she would even cut up old sheets to make nappies for the babies.”

The Poulaphouca reservoir is now the largest man-made lake in Ireland and is a great base for outdoor activities like fishing and boating, but swimming is prohibited because of dangerous currents.

The road around the lake offers amazing views over the reservoir and the Wicklow Mountains, with routes by car or bike taking in historic villages such as Valleymount, Ballyknockan and Lacken.

The popular Blessington Greenway is a 6.5km walk which links Blessington with the Palladian mansion at Russborough House. The trail starts at Avon Ri Activity Centre in Blessington and leads south along the shores of the Blessington Lakes and through forest and natural woodland as far as the historic Russborough House.

Since the valley was flooded, at times of drought the water levels go down to reveal the submerged farms and remains of buildings.

While patrolling the Wicklow division in September 2018 for example, the Garda Air Support Unit noticed the ruins of a homestead and a piece of farm machinery (mowing bar) on a raised piece of land which had previously been submerged in the lakes.

The lakes are now a beautiful local amenity but we should not forget the price paid by those who watched helplessly as their homes and farms were submerged, the landscape they grew up with slowly sank underwater and the life they knew was lost forever.

Many thanks to Aidan Cruise who provided most of the photographs for this article



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