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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Apr 1943

Vol. 27 No. 21

District of Fergus Drainage Bill, 1943—Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I assume that members of the Seanad have familiarised themselves with this Fergus Drainage Bill. It is, like the annals of the poor, short and simple and has been debated in the Dáil without arousing any antagonism. The purpose of the Bill, as I pointed out in the Dáil, is to enable the Minister for Finance, the Commissioners of Public Works and the county councils for Clare and Galway to give effect to the terms of a consent which arose out of a settlement of a legal action. This legal action was taken by certain proprietors of lands in the Fergus drainage district. They sought compensation for damage done because of breaches in the embankment of the Fergus. The consent, as I said, arose out of a legal action where a certain decision was given and the judge asked the parties not to pursue the action to its conclusion as it would be rather costly. He asked them to come together and have a discussion of the matter. The consent arising out of the discussion was made a Rule of Court and it is to meet the conditions arising out of that that this Bill is brought before the Seanad.

The Fergus is, like a lot of other Irish rivers, a rather difficult proposition to tackle, and downstream of Ennis it is a doubly embanked stream. As long as we have had any knowledge of the Fergus, breaches have been occurring in the embankments and moneys were spent at various times since 1924 in trying to put matters right. Apparently about 1930, it seemed as if success had been finally achieved in controlling the flooding in the district, and at that time the Minister for Local Government and Public Health made an Order transferring the maintenance to the Clare and Galway County Councils. About the time the Order was being put into force a further breach occurred in the embankments. The county council, on the advice of their county surveyor, refused to accept the charge of maintenance. The legal action then resulted. At that particular time also a further breach occurred in the embankments and a special examination was made of the soil and the sub-soil. At varying depths under the surface there was found to be a bed of shell marl which, apparently, was penetrated by water when the high tides and high floods came along together. The weight of water seemed to bore through the bed of shell marl and came out at the weakest point in the embankments, causing the breaches.

Many people criticise arterial drainage and the results of it, and there will be a Bill which will deal generally with arterial drainage in the near future. My predecessor in office at one time said that people are generally very vocal about the benefits to be achieved by arterial drainage but are not at all vocal about its benefits when the job is done and somebody has to pay. That difficulty, of course, did arise in regard to the Fergus. There was not any difficulty in the Dáil about the Bill. It was not received with any adverse criticism. Apparently, some members of the Dáil seemed to be under the impression that, in dealing with the Fergus, we were creating a precedent whereby other rivers throughout the country might be dealt with in a somewhat similar fashion. This Bill does not create a precedent. It merely enables the Minister for Finance, the county councils and the Board of Works to do a certain work, the outcome of a settlement in a legal action. This legislation cannot be regarded as a precedent to be applied to any river throughout the country. All other rivers needing attention will have to be done under the Arterial Drainage Act, which will probably come before the Seanad for discussion in the very near future. I do not think there is anything more I have to say. It is a very simple Bill that has one special purpose.

What I have to say on the Bill is more for the purpose of getting information from the Parliamentary Secretary than by way of criticism of it. I am not quite happy about the explanation which he has just given. He said that the Bill was brought in for a special purpose, a purpose, I take it, that is outside of normal legislation—to carry out the terms of a certain contract. The Report of the Drainage Commission is very insistent on one point. I do not know to what extent Senators have read this report, but, in my opinion, it is a remarkable document that has been very well compiled by experts. The first thing the members of the Drainage Commission say in their report is that they are going to suggest a comprehensive scheme for the whole country, one which is going to be controlled by a central drainage authority. On the question of priorities, they say:

"We feel, moreover, that priority recommendations might eventually cause serious embarrassment to the central drainage authority, or lead to a suggestion of invidious treatment of particular schemes."

The second part of that paragraph refers to two schemes, one of which, unfortunately, happens to be in my own county. In this paragraph they qualify their previous statement by saying:

"We consider, however, that it is incumbent upon us to refer specially to two catchment areas, namely, the Brick-and-Cashen in Kerry.... and the River Brosna in Offaly. Our tours of inspection so convinced us of the relative urgency of drainage works in these two areas that we feel compelled to recommend priority of treatment for these two schemes."

In spite of that recommendation, what do we find? That out of a big number of schemes, the execution of which is estimated to cost about £7,000,000, only this scheme in Ennis is to be done. I refer to that because the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned why this Bill is required. The story of this scheme is shortly this. Some 130 years ago the embankments on the Fergus estuary above Ennis and right down as far as Donkey Island—a distance of about 33 miles—were constructed by hand. They worked fairly well until about the year 1924. I admit they had broken before that, but about that time the situation in regard to them got a bit more serious. The result of the breach in the embankments was that a certain area of land, covering about 270 acres, and beside the town of Ennis, began to be subject to flooding. Consequent on the flooding, the occupiers took action against the Clare County Council and the Galway County Council. The Government also came into it, and, finally, in order to save expense, a consent was arrived at to which the Government was a party. The outcome of the consent was that we have this Bill before us.

Several points of importance arise on this Bill to which I would like to refer. I would be glad if the Parliamentary Secretary would deal with them when replying. The first one that I wish to put to him is this: if these embankments were originally made by hand labour and did not suffer any really serious breach over all that long period of years, why is it that with modern machinery, transport, cement and other modern material, it passes the engineering skill of the present day to repair the damage? I know that the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned about borings of marl. It seems rather odd, in view of what one sees elsewhere, that these particular embankments cannot be put right by hand labour. They were originally made by hand labour. It seems to me to be a most unfortunate thing, at the present time, to flood 300 acres of this land. This land had previously been the subject of a drainage scheme. I do not suppose that drainage scheme would have been undertaken if the engineers of those times did not consider it a sound proposition. I know that a certain amount of money has been spent on maintaining the scheme. In my opinion, it is a calamitous thing to abandon it now. I believe that not only are these 270 acres going to be abandoned but considerably more land, between the River Gaurus and the northern portion of the county.

I come back to the point I raised earlier: Why this scheme is being selected in preference to schemes to be executed under the legislation to be administered by the proposed central drainage board. In one of the schedules to the Bill, there is a rather curious item, namely, a reservation of £12,000 for the building of sluices at Clarecastle, their purpose being to control the high tides. The schedule says that these may not be necessary. That seems to me extraordinary: that with all the years of experience of this and other rivers, their outfall and so on, it is not possible for the engineers of this country to say now "I will have to put in these sluices when the material becomes available or I will not." The schedule also says that if the sluices are not necessary they will consult with the two county councils with a view to the provision of some other figure which is not specified. That seems to me most extraordinary. It would appear that these engineers do not know what they are at.

Looking at the Second Schedule, it seems extraordinary that, with knowledge of the fact that this Drainage Commission had reported and had big proposals in hand, it should have joined in the consent which eventually resulted in giving us this Bill. That does not seem to me to be as it should be. I cannot understand why the objecting authorities joined as they have done. I feel that the Parliamentary Secretary should give the House more detailed information before he gets away with this proposal. I know that he has not been sufficiently long connected with the Board of Works to grasp all about this matter, but I think that he ought to tell us a little more about it. There is a great deal more to be said for a general scheme on a very big problem in which I should like to interest the House. The Fergus river at Clarecastle opens out into a very big but shallow estuary. A considerable number of embankments protect some first-class land. A great portion of the estuary is bone dry, but the river Fergus runs down one side between two islands—Donkey Island and Fergus Island. It seems to me that much more employment would be given, and very much greater work undertaken if this question had been examined before going on with a small scheme, joining the two islands together, putting in sluices and reclaiming from six to 11,000 acres of slobland of the same quality as there is to the west and the east of the embankments. Incidentally that would be carrying out the type of recommendation on which the Drainage Commission has expressed its views, not in this particular case but on general lines. What you are proposing to do on a very much smaller scale would not involve flooding 300 acres of land, and paying compensation to the occupants at a time when families are being transferred from Connemara to Meath at very great expense, and putting them down in rather uncongenial surroundings. These people could be put on this slobland, which would be very much better for them, as they would be closer to their relatives and neighbours. As the position is I feel that it is rather topsyturvy legislation to flood some land and reclaim other land. Even if it cannot be undertaken now, there might be a very much bigger scheme for which I understand there is technical support. In future I hope that viewpoint will be carefully examined.

The maintenance of these banks is a very serious matter. When repairs are effected it appears to be nobody's business to look after them, and as a result rats and rabbits cause serious damage. I happen to know something about the embankments of tidal waters, and a rat-hole that could be closed with a shovel in five minutes, when not attended to, is enlarged by the tide, and the breach becomes a serious problem after some time. As far as I am aware these embankments are not subject to supervision. When a breach occurs complaints are made, and the local T.D.'s are approached with a view to getting the Land Commission or some other authority to take action. If there was some supervision and if there was a stitch in time serious damage could be avoided. I have not followed the question with sufficient knowledge to know who will be responsible in future for the maintenance of embankments. I take it that when the Bill dealing with drainage on a large scale comes along, provision will be made for the supervision of these drainage works, so that any damage that occurs will be tackled in the incipient stage. In the meantime the particular work to be dealt with by this Bill and the expense incurred may be largely nullified if there is not proper supervision.

I wish to welcome this Bill. It is long overdue. Responsibility for the delay could not be placed on anybody, certainly not on the Government. Flooding has been going on for a great number of years, and the small farmers interested in the 270 acres of land involved have suffered. This was never good land, but it was useful. As the Parliamentary Secretary explained, this Bill implements an agreement that was come to as a result of a big legal action between the various parties concerned. The farmers affected have been in a very bad way in not being able to use the land for a number of years, while demands for rates and annuities constantly arose. I am not prepared to say with what success they were met. It is time that the question was settled. The channel of the river is too narrow to take the volume of water that passes through that area. Even before the banks broke the water that now covers the flooded area often flooded the town of Ennis to a depth of four or five feet. It caused a great hardship to farmers along the river and also to the people of Ennis. If the banks held, the water was driven back and flooded the town. Since the embankments broke and the water formed the lagoon that is there now there has been no flooding in Ennis. The town has been saved by the lagoon, but 270 acres of land are flooded.

On the point that Senator the McGillycuddy has mentioned about closing up the islands and stopping the whole river down below Clarecastle, I suppose that would be possible, but I wish the Senator to remember that Clarecastle is an important seaport town in normal times, and, if you carried out that scheme of closing up the two islands, Clarecastle would be finished, and Ennis would be finished without a port.

It could be covered by locks quite easily. Could the Senator possibly let us know what tonnage goes up to Ennis?

The boats take 500 ton cargoes, but the number of boats varies, of course. Certainly, the carters would not like to see it closed down, because the goods are mainly carted a distance of two miles from Clarecastle to Ennis, and a lot of carters get employment in that way. I do not think it would be a popular scheme; whether it would be practicable I do not know. My main purpose in speaking was to welcome the Bill, and to hope that it will go through very expeditiously. I trust that it will pass all its stages this evening.

This Bill does not deal with a particular drainage district out of its turn. There is no question of giving the Fergus priority. The Bill is very definitely for the purpose of meeting a legal commitment, and the question of priorities—which have been referred to by Senator The McGillycuddy as recommendations of the Drainage Commission—cannot be considered until the legislation which implements that Drainage Commission report is brought into force. The Senator says, truly enough, that I am quite unfamiliar with the Board of Works. I might also say that I am quite unfamiliar with drainage, but while I remain politically optimistic always I do not think there should be any undue optimism about the tremendous benefits that arterial drainage is going to confer upon the country. Most reformers who deal with rural matters are generally urban dwellers. Most of the reformers we have had in this country—even the Labour Party—have put afforestation and drainage in the forefront of their reform system. Well, I would not bank too much on the tremendous benefits that are to accrue to this country from afforestation and arterial drainage. There will be benefits, but they will not be all-embracing benefits.

That is made very clear by the fact that the engineers concerned in this matter of a settlement in regard to the Fergus drainage—the engineers representing all parties to the discussion— were convinced that the only way in which relief could be given in regard to the flooding and bursting of the embankments was by the abandonment of 300 acres of land. It was said in the Dáil—I think it was also said here— that that seemed rather a retrograde step; that we were giving up to the river what we had taken from the river. The knowledge of the things of the earth and under the earth which some people think they have completely acquired is not really all-embracing, and the Fergus, in view of the shellmarl substratum, is a most difficult river to handle. Senator The McGillycuddy mentioned hand labour. I suppose you could, with machinery at the present day, excavate sufficiently deeply to get beneath the shellmarl, and you might brace the embankments wholly or in part with concrete. It is quite possible that you might be able to do it, but it would be wholly uneconomic. Anybody who has dug in a river bed or dug where water conditions are difficult, where gravel subsoils or anything of that nature have to be handled, knows that the Fergus, where it is 100 yards wide, might be a mile wide before you get down to the bottom and have it propped thoroughly. All the engineers, taking all the circumstances into account, decided that 300 acres of land would have to be abandoned and converted into a reservoir to take the extra weight of water which would bore through the shellmarl.

About the rats, I did not know that there was anything in the Blackwater near Lismore except a weir. Senator Honan was wise when he said he was not prepared to say what success attends the collection of the rates for maintenance. He has also been reticent about the tonnage at Clarecastle. There has been a rate for maintenance, and the maintenance devolved on the Trustee Board. The fact that they did not wholly perform their duties—perhaps they could not carry them out successfully; anyway, they did not do so—was perhaps in some sense the cause of a little of the neglect, but, judging by all the reports, no matter what the trustees did I do not think any efforts with a spade in stopping the rat holes would have had any particular effect in repairing the breaches, Again, those embankments were made by hand labour, I expect, because our knowledge of them is after 1842, and, when the 1860 attempt to drain the Fergus was undertaken, those embankments were in position. But they have not been successful against the water. All over the years that we have knowledge of them, they have been breached, and have been giving trouble. It was not in 1924 or after 1924 that they began to give trouble.

In regard to the sluices, it is hoped, of course, that it will be possible to create such a position in the Fergus, above and below Ennis, that the sluices will be unnecessary. There is a certain amount of divided opinion in regard to them, and before the erecting of them would be undertaken—even if the material for the making of them were available at the present moment—there would have to be a certain amount of observation and examination of their effects on the whole drainage question.

Finally, in regard to the responsibility when this work is done and until the main legislation for arterial drainage is undertaken which may make certain changes, the responsibility for maintenance will be on the County Councils of Clare and Galway. The Senator has remarked that my speech has been very short, but when I have said everything that I have to say, I do not like to repeat it. If there are questions I can answer, I shall be very glad to do so.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take the remaining Stages now.
Bill passed through Committee, reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I will not press the Minister for any more answers to the questions I put, as I am satisfied that he has told us as much as his present experience enables him to tell us. However, I do not want one thing to go out from his lips to the country—that this country will not benefit from arterial drainage. There is not a farmer in this House who does not know that, until you get arterial drainage you cannot dry your fields and fences, and that every spot of lime and manure put on a field that is wet is so much waste. I feel that the report on arterial drainage should be carried out, up to the end of the £7,000,000, and with as much more money as can be scraped together, to clean our main rivers and carry away the streams, to make it possible to dry the fields and to grow better crops than we are growing.

Senator The McGillycuddy wants to make sure that certain questions in connection with arterial drainage should not go to the country. It might be well that certain other suggestions made by Senator The McGillycuddy would also be reserved for somewhere else. In his speech he suggested that, rather than put the families from the Gaeltacht in the West on to the rich lands of Meath, they should be put on the sloblands. He made a statement that these people are in uncongenial surroundings in Meath, and would be happier and more at home on the sloblands.

Wherever the people from the congested areas should be moved to, they at least should be moved to good land, whether in Meath, Tipperary or Limerick. It should also be the policy of every member of this House to ensure that, as far as possible, and as soon as possible, those people will be relieved and taken out of the congested areas and put on good land, and not on slobland. The people of this country were driven——

What has this to do with the Bill?

It has as much to do with the Bill at the present time as it had five minutes ago, with all due respect to Senator Baxter.

I suggest it has not. It is not dealt with in the Bill.

If it had been referred to by someone on his side of the House Senator Baxter would not resent it, and if the Senator wished to speak on it himself he would take an hour and a half if he thought it would do his political Party any good in this nonpolitical Seanad. As I was saying, when I was interrupted by the Senator, the people of this country were driven to the hills and mountains centuries ago. In the last ten or 11 years, a good number of those people have been taken back from the bogs and mountains, and it should be the policy of Senator Baxter and every other Senator to say: "God bless the work and God speed the day when the congested areas will be cleared." Those people should be driven back again—driven back if necessary, I say deliberately—to where they will have a reasonable chance to live, and a reasonable hope to provide for their families in comfort.

Ba mhaith liomsa cúpla focal do rá i dtaobh an Bhille seo. Sílim go mba riachtanach an rud é an socrú a rinneadh i dtaobh an cheist sin in aice le hInis do chur l bhfeidhm agus an Bille seo do thabhairt isteach. Ba mhaith an rud é dá ndéantaí cuid de na hoileáin eile, mar a bhfuil an t-uisge ag teacht thar bruacha, do shocrú chó mhaith. Tá mé ar aon intinn leis an rud adubhairt an Seanadóir O Cuire—go mba cheart na daoine d'atarú ó na háiteanna atá fá uisge. Ba cheart agus ba chóir iad do chur isteach ar thalamh mhaith mhín. Mar adubhairt seisean, díbrígheadh ó na báinte iad go dtí áiteanna iargcúlta atá fá uisge faoi láthair. Sé is cóir agus is ceart iad do thabhairt ar ais go dtí an áit inar dual dóibh a bheith.

Nílim ar aon intinn le rud adubhairt an tAire fá fhás crainnte. Ba cheart tuille crainnte do chur ag fás, agus is obair riachtanach í chó maith le obair dréineála. Áit ar bith a bhfuil crainnte ag fás, tá snas agus slacht air. Feabhsuíonn crainnte dáinte na ndaoine. Tugann sé deis oibre do na na daoine. Sa tseanaimsir bhí an tír seo trí huaire maol agus trí huaire fá chraínnte agus níl slean ná slat sa tír seo nach féidir crainnte do chur ag fás ann anois mar bhí siad fadó.

There is one thing I like about the Seanad. It has always been very courteous to me. I thought it was rather a gathering of conservative and learned greybeards who had their optimism dulled by contact with the roughness of the world. I am very glad to hear that Senator The McGillycuddy and Senator O Máille are quite as optimistic as I was 25 years ago. I did not, as I think Senator The McGillycuddy said I did, make the statement that arterial drainage was not going to benefit the country nor would I admit, by any sort of inference, that I disagreed with Senator O Máille's view that afforestation would benefit the country, but I think it is rather boyish of the Seanad to be of one mind with youthful reformers of the country in thinking that forestry in Ireland should be the Bible of Irish nationality. I think that benefits will accrue to this country from a forward policy of arterial drainage and forestry, but I do not think that either of those activities is going so tremendously to revolutionise conditions in the country that we might not even need a Seanad after they have been carried out.

Question put and agreed to.
Ordered: That the Bill be returned to the Dáil.