Killaloe’s rich engineering treasures – past and present
14 October 2014
Killaloe in Co Clare is in the news this year on the 1,000th anniversary of the death in 1014 of High King Brian Boru, at the Battle of Clontarf. He ruled the country from his castle in Kincora. Killaloe was then the capital of Ireland. It was the capital of water skiing in the 1950s and 1960s when I lived there as a boy, a teenager and a young adult. And today it is arguably the capital of Ireland’s inland waterways.
Killaloe, with its twin ‘heritage’ town Ballina in Co Tipperary, has facilities that are the envy of many larger towns. The concept of ‘heritage towns’ was devised in 1991 with the purpose of identifying a number of towns throughout the country, which have a strong physical heritage which would be broadly representative of the heritage of Ireland.
When I lived in Killaloe, our twin town Ballina had a population of only 134 (in 1951) and was the ‘baby’ compared to our 901 population in Killaloe. However, over the next four decades, the population of Killaloe remained fairly static, while that of Ballina increased steadily each decade. By 2002, the population was the same in each town – about 1,180 persons in each. It was at this point that the population of Ballina exploded, more than doubling in the next decade to 2,442 persons in 2011, while the population of Killaloe increased marginally to 1,292.
The ‘baby’ had now become the ‘big brother’, with Ballina’s population increasing in 60 years by 18 times and that of Killaloe by less than half. Some critics have called this ‘lopsided development’, with the growth in Ballina being claimed to have been ‘development led’ rather than ‘planning led’.
Ballina from Pier Head in Killaloe – lopsided development?
The reasons advanced for the different rate of increase in population as between Ballina and Killaloe are various e.g. ease of access from Ballina to Limerick for commuting residents; Killaloe bridge as a traffic bottle-neck; planning differences as between the local authorities in Clare and Tipperary; availability of suitable land for development; aspect of land, Ballina being largely south/west facing; and archaeological difficulties in relation to building in Killaloe.
There always has been a certain friendly rivalry between the two towns, as they are in different counties, in different religious dioceses and have different sporting affiliations and loyalties. But increasingly, the two towns are working together, marketing their facilities in joint promotions such as the annual Brian Boru Festival. The recent provision of public marina facilities by Waterways Ireland has also had regard to both sides of the Shannon.
There are many aspects to the twin towns identified in my recently published books My Killaloe and Remembering Killaloe. Of interest to engineers are Killaloe Bridge (old and proposed), the nearby Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme, St Molua’s church, the ESB eel conservation project and the new marina facilities.
For ten years of my life, I looked out at this 13-arch bridge from our Aillebaun House and marvelled at how the bridge on a fast-flowing river was built and rebuilt over the centuries. We got a constant reminder that the bridge connected two counties, because Clare would repair the road to the centre of the bridge and Tipperary would look after its side. As the repair work was never co-ordinated, there was always one side of the road in disrepair.
There have been many bridges in Killaloe. It was once the only place with a dry crossing of the river south of Lough Derg. Early bridges were wooden, made of wickerwork and easily destroyed. In Brian Boru’s time, the bridge would have been wooden. The present bridge was built around 1770 and has considerable architectural and engineering merit. The ashlar (square hewn stone) is the work of skilled craftsmen.
In 1837, the bridge had 19 arches and there have been many alterations since e.g. the arch to accommodate the new railway, which was constructed in the 1890s. The bridge is unusual in that some of the segmental stone arches are of a different height and width, and there are a number of pedestrian refuges provided on both sides.
When the river level was raised as a result of the Shannon Hydroelectric scheme, it became necessary to remove some of the central stone arches and replace them with an iron swivel bridge to enable high-masted vessels to negotiate the bridge. This work was commenced in March 1929. I have read that the only occasion that the swivel bridge was activated was on the day it was completed, as part of the testing process. However, I have a vivid memory of it being activated in the 1950s to enable a very large houseboat, in which an English couple lived on the canal near the old mill, being moved to a mooring on the other side of the bridge at the canal wall, near the lockkeeper’s house, just below Aillebaun House.
However, the old bridge is not fit for purpose and is inhibiting the development of both towns. There is to be a new bridge, some 170 metres long, which will cross the Shannon about 1km downstream from the old bridge. But the project, which is estimated to cost €40m, is not just about a bridge. The scheme will provide a western bypass of Killaloe and an upgrade of the existing R494 road from Ballina to the R445 at Birdhill.
Following a nine-day oral hearing in Nenagh in October 2012, An Bord Pleanála approved the scheme in April 2013. There were objections to the scheme, mainly from landowners whose lands will be compulsorily acquired.
However, the proposed development has been generally welcomed locally as it will help to eliminate the traffic bottlenecks that have developed in Killaloe-Ballina. The reduction in traffic volumes through both towns will help to improve the area for residents and visitors. Also it will improve accessibility and marketability of the whole area, including Lough Derg, as a tourism destination.
The Lady Lansdowne
This treasure of Killaloe-Ballina is the one you cannot see – not now, anyway. This is because this historic paddle-steamer lies submerged at the Derg Marina since 1867-68. Over 140 years later, a planning application was made in 2010 by Eclipse Developments to redevelop the Derg Marina. In its response, the local authority asked the developer to investigate means of raising The Lady Lansdowne and preserving her as a ‘feature’ on the marina site.
This iron paddle steamship was built in sections at the Cammel Laird, Birkenhead Iron Works, Liverpool in 1833. She was the world’s first iron ship with watertight bulkheads. The ship was assembled in Killaloe from these sections and parts, which were transported initially to Dublin by the night-steamer service, and then by canal barge via Lough Derg to Killaloe.
A wet-dock had been constructed at the Pier Head a few years earlier. On 20 September 1833, twenty men and six boys arrived in Killaloe from Birkenhead with the necessary tools to assemble the ship on site. The Lady Lansdowne was launched at Killaloe on 4 March 1834. She had five distinct compartments, made of wrought iron partitions, which would prevent sinking if one compartment was flooded. She also had a shallower draft than similar-sized wooden vessels and could enter shallower harbour areas on the Shannon and on Lough Derg. She was the largest steamer to work on the Shannon and could tow up to four barges.
The Lady Lansdowne played a prominent role in the transportation of goods, livestock and cattle to and from Killaloe and around Lough Derg for over 30 years. At the end of her working life in 1867-68, she was beached in the shallows of what is now the Derg Marina and later sank at her mooring. There are several international organisations interested in the preservation of the sunken steamer and that it could become an iconic heritage project for Ballina.
Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme
As kids, we marvelled at the Ardnacrusha power station, which was 20km downstream of Killaloe. My parents were lifelong friends of Bridie and Jimmy Lawlor, who at the time (1950s) was the chief engineer at the station. We paid many a visit to the power station during those years and you could not but be impressed by the huge scale of the project.
After securing independence in 1922, the Irish Free State Government started an ambitious programme of reconstruction and development. A major objective was the provision of a cheap, reliable and plentiful supply of electricity. The Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme was constructed between 1925 and 1929 to meet this objective. The scheme was the brainchild of Dr Thomas MacLaughlin, a graduate of University College Galway. He joined Siemens Schukert in Berlin in 1922 and worked on developing the concept of harnessing the power of the Shannon to produce electricity.
The works involved the diversion of 90% of the Shannon into a head-race canal 7.5 km long by which the water was delivered to Ardnacrusha, where a fall of 34m was available. After passing through the generators at the power station, the spent water was conveyed back to the Shannon by means of a tail-race canal. The chief civil engineer on the project was Frank Sharman Rishworth from Tuam, who was at the time professor of civil engineering at UCG.
In its early years, Ardnacrusha was able to meet almost the total electricity needs of the country. It reached its peak in 1936/’37, when it supplied 87% of demand. By 2000, Ardnacrusha supplied only about 3% of annual demand and this declined to just above 1% in 2013 – a very dry summer affected its generating capacity. However, Ardnacrusha is still vitally important to the system as a ‘rapidly available’ source of power and for cover in cases of emergency or sudden breakdown of plant. It was the headquarters of the ESB until 1954.
The Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme was one of the largest engineering projects in its day and certainly the largest undertaken in Ireland. It was a massive investment by the new fledgling state, costing £5.2m, being one-fifth of the state’s entire budget of £25m in 1925. The scheme employed 5,200 at its peak during the construction phase.
It is doubtful if the scheme would get approval by today’s planning requirements because of the huge negative environmental impacts. The diverting of the river water to the head-race canal had a disastrous impact on fishing in Killaloe and Castleconnel, as initially there was no ‘fish-pass’ at Ardnacrusha to enable salmon to migrate up the river. This was subsequently rectified. However, fishing has not returned to anything like it was. Prior to 1929, there were six hotels in Killaloe serving fishing tourism. Today there is one.
St Molua’s Church
St Lua was a 6th-century saint who established a small monastery on Friar’s Island, about 1km downstream from Killaloe Bridge. He was also known as St Molua. Because he was so popular, he was often referred to as ‘my Lua’ or, in Irish, as ‘mo Lua’. His church on the island would have been submerged by the raised water level of the Shannon in 1929, due to the Ardnacrusha scheme. So the church was carefully dismantled, piece by piece, marked and labelled, and reassembled on the site of St Flannan’s Catholic church in 1930.
The church has two parts. At the west end is the nave, which provided space for a small congregation. This is the oldest part of the oratory and seems to have been originally a small self-contained church which was built around the 10th or 11th century. At the east end is the chancel, which has a very rare example of a pitched stone roof. It was added some time after the nave was built, possibly as late as the 12th century. The chancel contained the altar and had small niches on either side for altar vessels and candles.
Eel fishery and conservation
Killaloe had a thriving eel fishery in the 1800s. There were numerous eel fisheries above and below the bridge. A major one was located at a weir upstream from the existing bridge, near the old railway station, and just below the Lakeside Hotel.
The fishery was moved to the bridge itself, on the downstream side, when the Shannon Hydroelectric scheme became operational in 1929 and the water level rose. As kids, we were fascinated by the operation which saw huge quantities of eels being caught in nets at night (attracted by lights on the bridge), boxed and transported to Shannon Airport, to be flown to France, and being available for breakfast at fancy Paris restaurants next morning.
While we marvelled at the efficiency of the whole operation, we found it hard to believe that the French, who we knew from our cinema-going to be a sophisticated people, regarded the Killaloe eels as a delicacy. It was only in later years that we learned that eels were a very nutritious food, with a protein and calorific value about equal to salmon, and that they had a lifestyle quite different from salmon. Eels begin their life cycle in the ocean and spend most of their lives in fresh water, returning to the ocean to spawn and then die. The Killaloe adult eels (known as European eels) travel over 4,000 kms across the Atlantic to spawn in the Sargasso Sea and then die.
The European eel is now critically endangered. Since the 1970s, the number of eels reaching Europe is thought to have declined by around 90%. Contributing factors include overfishing, parasites, barriers to migration such as hydroelectric plants, and natural changes in the North Atlantic oscillation, Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic drift.
Since 2009, each member state in the European Union is required to develop and implement an Eel Management Plan with the objective of improving the likelihood of its ‘silver eels’ escaping to the sea to spawn. Ireland, unlike the UK, decided to ban the commercial fishing of eels from its inland waterways. The Shannon fishery is owned and managed by the ESB. They now capture migrating silver eels at Killaloe and transport them for release downstream of the Ardnacrusha Hydroelectric power station. The ESB also traps juvenile eels at the base of the Ardnacrusha station and transport them for release upstream into the existing habitat.
As kids in Killaloe in the 1950s, we did not know that our local eel fishery was preventing our Killaloe eels from making the journey to the mystical Sargasso Sea, and instead were being delivered to a Parisian breakfast plate.
Mooring and marina facilities and wastewater treatment
The new public mooring facilities provided in 2011 by Waterways Ireland, upstream of the bridge on the Killaloe side, have transformed Killaloe for boat users, local residents and visitors alike. Apart from providing superb facilities for boat users, the new facilities provide a 1km looped walk, along the water’s edge on the decked old canal wall, with fantastic views of boats, river and mountains, across the flow control gates, and then back to Killaloe bridge, along the old canal towpath, parallel to the road called Canal Bank where I lived in the 1950s.
For the boat user, the new marina facilities provide 340 metres of floating moorings (including 100 metre for small boats) on the Shannon and 370 metres of fixed moorings on the Killaloe canal. The floating moorings are to the highest modern standard with electrical shore power and potable water.
Beside the playground area in Ballina and discreetly designed to blend into the background, is a wastewater treatment plant. I attended the official opening of the plant in 1996. The plant is designed in a modular format so that any future expansion can be incorporated without undue disturbance. The plant must be doing a good job, because Limerick City Council extracts water for public consumption, following treatment, at Castleconnell, about 12km downstream of the plant. These are just some of the engineering treasures identified in my books on Killaloe. There are more – it is a magical place.
* Photographs with an asterisk are reproduced with kind permission of Clare County Library.
Henry Murdoch is a chartered engineer, a fellow of Engineers Ireland and a barrister. His memoir recounts his route to engineering, via a BE from UCC in 1959, a graduate apprenticeship in the UK and aircraft leasing in Aer Lingus. Murdoch is the author of two books on Killaloe. The first is ‘Remembering Killaloe’, a 278-page memoir of living in the heritage town of Killaloe in the 1950s and the ’60s, with links to the present, including 170 black-and-white photos (RRP €19.95).
‘My Killaloe: A Nostalgic Tour’ is a 172-page tour of the twin towns of Killaloe/Ballina and their people, identifying 100 places of interest, with 142 colour photos plus a brief history of the area (RRP €18.95). Of interest to engineers are the proposed new bridge to bypass the towns, the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station in 1929 which nearly destroyed fishing tourism, and the eel conservation project of the ESB.
The author’s royalties in respect of both books go directly to The NRH Foundation for the benefit of the patients of the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin.The books are available in good bookshops or may be ordered at a discount online from www.theliffeypress.com or from David Givens, publisher, at (01) 8511458 or 086-8561815.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2014/10/14/killaloes-rich-engineering-treasures-past-present/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/New-Picture16.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/New-Picture16-300x300.pngCivilbridges,Clare,construction,ESB,heritage,Mayo