This was written mainly by Harry Warren
The Vartry lake water scheme. The reservoir was the brainchild of Sir John Gray (1816-1875), with much of the ground and building works being carried out and completed by men using only picks, shovels, horses and carts. Development of the Vartry reservoir was greatly driven by Dublin’s cholera epidemic of 1832 where more than 5,200 people died.
Basic sanitation and clean water were scarce at that time, especially for the poor, and the overcrowded living conditions led to rapid spread of disease and infection. The death rate from cholera was extremely high at the time due to a lack of medical knowledge of the disease and how it spread. Some of the most well-known graveyards today have little-known corners that were used as cholera mass graves
As Dublin’s population expanded the need for additional fresh water supplies greatly increased. In October 1860, a Royal Commission, being mindful of previous cholera outbreaks urgently, recommended that a new fresh water supply should be provided from the Vartry River in Wicklow.
The project had an estimated cost of £500,000, around €71 million in today’s value. The canal companies provided the now inadequate water supply to Dublin and facing financial ruin, they did their utmost to prevent the Varty project and engaged in “many underhand ploys” to prevent it.
The Vartry scheme was completed due to the efforts of John Gray , a nationalist politician, he was an Irish physician, Surgeon, Journalist and Politician. Gray was born in Mount St Claremorris Co Mayo and educated at Trinity College and went on to Glasgow University in 1839. Growing up, he became interested in politics and the needs of communities.
Becoming proprietor of The Freemans Journal, he advocated repealing the Act of Union with England.Due to his political activity, he was imprisoned for 9 months with “The Great Emancipator”, Daniel O Connell. Gray helped to establish the Tenants League (1850) after the Famine.
Arguably his greatest public contribution was his work leading to the improvement of clean water in Dublin, resulting in disease free public sanitation thereby greatly reducing outbreaks of cholera and other diseases associated with contaminated water.
The new water supply also increased the water pressure to fight fires by the various Fire Brigades of the day. Gray employed all of his political skills to push the 1861 Dublin Corporation Waterworks Act through the Houses of Parliament allowing the Vartry scheme to proceed. To ensure the necessary land, he even purchased it using his own money and sold it on to the Corporation at cost price, to prevent profiting by speculators.
In November 1862 Work began on the Vartry scheme and it took six years to complete. A major earthen dam over 18 metres high was constructed and lined with stones to create a reservoir with a capacity of 11.3 billion litres and a maximum depth of 18.3 metres, it held 200 days’ supply of water, initially seven filter beds were constructed, three more were added in 1873. Another four were built in 1930, and two more in 2005. Work on a tunnel through Callow Hill began in 1863, and was completed in September 1866.
The tunnel was approx. 2 metres high, 1.5 metres wide and more than 4 kilometres long, large enough to contain a small car. It linked the Vartry reservoir to 40 kilometres of trunk water mains into a reservoir at Stillorgan then along to Dun Laoghaire and Dublin.
Today it currently supplies about 15 per cent of drinking water for the greater Dublin area. Some of the original iron work piping into Dublin can be seen beside Dublin’s Leeson Street bridge .
John Gray was deservedly knighted for his work on Vartry and rightfully credited with helping to reduce outbreaks of water borne diseases including the scourge of cholera.
So, today if you are strolling on O’Connell Street take a moment to glance at Sir John Gray’s statue, a man who did immense service for public health by providing fresh water and wonder what politician today would spend his own money in the interests of the public good, not too many I imagine.
by Harry Warren.