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Boyne Drainage Scheme

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A little history - Boyne/Blackwater drainage discussion in Seanad Éireann Debate

Mr. Fitzsimons:     I am grateful to the House and to the Minister of State, Deputy Bermingham, for this opportunity to speak on this very important and urgent matter. I am pleading for the rehabilitation of the rivers involved in the Boyne drainage scheme. A notice was published in the daily papers early in December stating that the Minister intended to sign the certification of completion on 3 February 1986 for the River Boyne drainage scheme. Many works have still to be carried out there. The main thrust of what I have to say is in relation to the fishing in the River Boyne and to amenities. I will not have time to go into the matter in any great detail so I will only refer to the matters as I go along.

With regard to amenity values and fishing I should like to give some scientific statistics. The first relates to the River Blackwater and its tributeries. The records of salmon catches are as follows: 1957, 176; 1958, 158; 1959, 166; 1960, 219; 1961, 84; 1962, 86; 1963, 205; 1964, 177; 1965, 238; 1966, 421; 1967, 141; 1968, 21; 1969, 24; 1970, 29; 1971, 24; 1972, 37; 1973, 24; 1974, 12; 1975, 30; 1976, 20; 1977, 64; 1978, 21; 1979, 40; 1980, 61; 1981,19 — in that year there was a bad kill of almost 200 salmon due to pollution; in 1982, 58; 1983, 61; 1984, 21 and 1985, 76. From 1957 we have come from a high in 1966 down to 76 last year.

I will give statistics for salmon reds or spawning beds. These are as follows: in 1957, 892; 1958, 1,483; 1959, 606; 1960, 1,047; 1961, 397; 1962, 488; 1963, 1,108; [190] 1964, 1,055; 1965, 441; 1966, 844; 1967, 408; 1968, 300; 1969, 208; 1970, 496; 1971, 190; 1972, 565; 1973, 489; 1974, 510; 1975, 498; 1976, 190; 1977, 543; 1978, 148; 1979, 475; 1980, 517; 1981, 413; 1982, 44; 1983, 238; 1984, 48; and 1985, 57. We have come from a record high in 1958 of 1,483 to 57 last year. Drainage was started on the Moynalty river in April 1982 and as a consequence reds or spawning beds dropped from 168 in 1981 to three in 1982.

Drainage on the Boyne started in 1967 and on the Blackwater in 1978. There are not salmon anywhere in the world that have a flavour to match the Boyne and Blackwater salmon and for this reason the fish usually cost 20 per cent extra. We also have the story from pre-historic times of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the salmon of knowledge in the Boyne. I would like to go into this in detail but I do not have time.

I wish to refer to the amenity for the people who live in the locality and for the people who go there to fish. In the Navan area it was decided last year, international youth year, to get young people involved in angling and there was an overwhelming response. Groups of over 100 took part and at one time a convoy of 14 car loads passed through Kells to the Virginia hatcheries. At the end of the year, the anglers got the top award for youth involvement in any sport in Meath, and the presentation was made by President Hillery.

With regard to tourism, in 1971 the fishery inspector, Mr. Thomas Barrett, was told by the head of the Tourism Department in Dusseldorf, that he would guarantee 300 tourists per day from Germany if good fishing were available. I mention Mr. Barrett’s name for verification of those figures. He is due to retire next month and I compliment him on his work, and on his brilliant career in the Army and in athletics in which he was a champion. In 1971 a party of 80 Germans came to that area for ten days and they stayed in Kells, Navan and Virginia. They caught four salmon, about 50 trout and ten pike during the ten days. That explains the value of trout to tourism and [191] the benefit to the country, to Aer Lingus and to all concerned. I recall at that time cars passing in the mornings with boats on their roof racks and with fishing gear. That no longer obtains.

There is pollution, poaching and disease of fish but nothing approaches the wanton destruction caused by drainage schemes. It is not an enemy who has done it; we have done it. It is easy to criticise. I realise that a plea was made in this House today for more funds for drainage. I know there is conflict here. I also appreciate that because of pressure the Office of Public Works have improved their drainage schemes through the years. For example, in the Clyde and Dee conditions were worse and on parts of the Boyne, towards Royal Tara and above Navan there were huge embankments. These at least have been taken care of. What is essential? I am not sure if the Minister intends to sign a certificate of completion in accordance with the Act but what is necessary is to have a survey carried out to see what can be done and if the Minister agrees to carry out recommendations as a result of that survey, the angling interests will agree to the signing. Provision should have been made in the Estimate for whatever has to be done to rehabilitate the rivers. If the certificate is signed there will be no more central funds for these works and the local authorities will have to bear the costs.

Rivers have lost their character. They are virtually canals now. The gravel in the bed of a river is most important and should have been saved and replaced instead of being buried on the banks. Natural spawning beds were destroyed when the gravel was removed.

The main cause of the decline in the numbers of salmon and trout as well as in fly life is silt. Before drainage works started the silt was covered with the gravel on the bottom of the river. It is now being deposited on the gravel. There is a never ending stream of silt from river banks being deposited on the gravel and it is cementing the bed of the river so that fish fry and fly grubs are unable to emerge. The deposit of silt also cuts out [192] the supply of oxygen. Weirs or filters would help in this regard and I believe this has been done by Bord na Móna in the Yellow River and Monga River.

Trees on banks are very important because salmon, trout, all fish life and fly life need shade. Trees and weeds and flora along banks have been removed resulting in loss of shade. Miles of banks have been left in an unfinished state. It would have been easy at the proper time to leave them in a state where fishermen could walk along the river. Long stretches of the Monaghan Blackwater River are unfishable. Pathways will have to be provided above the high water level. It is also important to provide rocks in the fish lies and the aeration which the rocks will cause will increase the amount of dissolved oxygen in the river water. The second source of oxygen in the water is photosynthesis which is reaction on the plant in the water. That has been interfered with.

Restocking with trout is important. The fauna, flora and the whole ecology has been interfered with. Otters are now almost unknown along the river. The otters would depend on the fish and would only be along banks of rivers where there are fish. The effectiveness of small rivers or tributaries which were nursery rivers has been wiped out completely. The Williamstown River, which averaged 50 reds a year, has been totally wiped out.

I realise the importance of drainage for agriculture and know it is difficult to reconcile the two areas. Areas of land prone to flooding have benefited greatly from drainage but outside of that area, the moisture in the soil was reduced and the water table was lowered. In Kilmainham, near Kells, people who had wells were compensated because those wells went dry due to the lowering of the river. It costs in excess of £10,000 per acre to carry out drainage in respect of reclaimed land and if land is sold afterwards it does not make any more than £2,000 per acre.

Conservationists claim that we should leave any marginal land as it is. We have a resource which would cost countless millions if we had to set out to create it. In the area around Kells, farmers along [193] the Blackwater have grown crops of wheat and corn on land which in human memory produced nothing but rushes. Of course, that must be taken into consideration. Some people would say that it is wrong to say that undrained land is useless, that we disturb the ecology of the place by draining it; it is irreversible although it had its very important purpose. It is important to weigh up the two sides to ascertain the value to farmers against the damage that will be done. In many instances it might be better and cheaper to compensate the farmers for these lands than to reclaim land to produce crops which might go into intervention.

I would appeal to the Minister to carry out a thorough survey before work is completed to see what has to be done and to do it. The Kells anglers stated that during most of the drainage works, spawning beds and nursery areas for salmon and trout were destroyed and not replaced. Bank foliage and other fish shelter have been destroyed and not replaced. The lives of adult fish, both salmon and trout, in well recognised angling areas have been obliterated and no effort whatsoever made to restore them. The banks have been left in a completely unsafe condition for anglers and others.

I have referred to the value of fishing. Recently we all got a complimentary copy of that beautifully produced book Irish Rivers edited by Éamon de Buitléar. One of the contributors was our own eminent and illustrious Senator Dooge. It is a wonderful book which deals with the problem of rivers. Again, it is something that I would like to go into in detail but time does not allow me. At least it is pointed out in this book that drainage work on rivers has been taking place since before the Famine. No great damage was done until the drag line and the big machines moved in, because when sections of the river were done by hand the rivers had an opportunity to come back to their normal state. With the introduction of the drag line and the machines the tendency is to lower the rivers to drain the [194] land, so that there is a faster flow of water. With the fast flow of water there would be a tendency at bends to undercut the banks and therefore the idea is to straighten out the rivers into canals. We are left with this terribly unsatisfactory situation.

Could I refer to another publication The State of the Environment, which was a report prepared last year for the Minister for the Environment, a very comprehensive study. I am disappointed in a sense that in the section dealing with rivers no reference was made to the problem in relation to fishing on the rivers drained, the effects on the amenity, the ecology and the damage that was done there. It would seem that in any comprehensive survey — and this was a comprehensive survey and report — this would be one area that would be considered. It does give details of the physico-chemical analyses and the biological examinations of the water, but the actual damage to the environment, the actual effect on fishing, should have been included in a comprehensive survey and report.

In conclusion, I would make an appeal to the Minister. We have a serious situation here. I know the rivers well. I worked in my youth along most of them. They were at that time rivers with bushes and trees beside them, rivers meandering slowly, lazily and naturally in those situations. They have been changed completely. I am saying to the Minister: We have a serious problem here; we have a wonderful natural resource. I am making this appeal — not to sign a certificate of completion, or if a certificate must be signed, only to sign a certificate of partial completion until all of these works considered necessary to restore the fisheries so that we can have fish in large numbers, can be carried out. I make this appeal to the Minister to do everything possible to try to solve the problem and improve the situation, and if at all possible to bring it back to what it was then the drainage works started.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. J. Bermingham):     I am glad [195] to be given this opportunity of speaking to you on the subject of one of the most important functions of the Commissioners of Public Works, arterial drainage. The motion before me deals specifically with the Boyne catchment drainage scheme, the largest such scheme ever undertaken by the commissioners.

Works on the Boyne scheme commenced in 1969 and have continued since. As can be gathered from this motion it has now reached the stage when works are virtually complete. In fact, the Minister for Finance, in December 1985, published a notice of his intention to issue a certificate of completion for the scheme as provided under the Arterial Drainage Act, 1945, and, when the commissioners have attended to a number of outstanding matters, the Minister will be requested to issue this certificate.

Before I deal further with the question of the certificate of completion, I would like to dwell for a short time on the general question of the execution of the scheme. As I have already stated, it is the largest so far undertaken in the national programme of arterial drainage. The catchment covers an area in excess of 660,000 acres extending over Counties Meath, Kildare, Offaly, Westmeath and Cavan before the river discharges into the sea near Drogheda.

The need for a comprehensive drainage scheme for the catchment was apparent for many years. The topography of the area, being part of the Central Plain, is very flat, a factor which did not lend itself to natural drainage. This is evidenced by the fact that in the 130-odd years prior to the commencement of the scheme no fewer than 45 partial schemes were undertaken in various areas throughout the catchment. These schemes, carried out under different legislative regimes, were done in piecemeal fashion and did not take into account the overall problems of the catchment.

The present scheme is a comprehensive one, like all others carried out under the Arterial Drainage Act, 1945. The enormity of the task can be gauged from the fact that upwards of 1,300 miles of [196] channel were included in the scheme, together with ancillary works to bridges, about 4,500 in all, weirs, water supplies and other structures and installations. The works were designed primarily to benefit about 93,000 acres of agricultural land, damaged through flooding and water-logging and represent a very substantial investment of State funds. There have also been many secondary benefits, including the drainage of some 26,500 acres of bog, the relief of urban flooding and flooding of roads in the catchment and, not least, the employment the scheme has generated in the area. All of these have of course led to an improvement in the economy and social wellbeing of the region.

Having commented on the aim of the Boyne scheme and the magnitude of the task undertaken by the commissioners, I feel it would be remiss of me if I did not allude to the fact that certain areas within the catchment did not fall within the scope of the scheme. It became clear at an early stage in the planning process that it would not be possible to devise a scheme which would solve at economic cost all the drainage problems of the catchment. In all, about 19,000 acres of damaged land were excluded on economic grounds. A large proportion of this area is situated in the northern part of the catchment. Both prior to and during the course of works many requests for the inclusion of some of these lands in the drainage scheme were received and all were given careful consideration in the Office of Public Works. Indeed, many additional works were subsequently incorporated in the scheme but requests for others had to be turned down on economic grounds. Decisions to omit areas were reached only after efforts to evolve proposals that would bring about their improvement at an economic cost had failed.

I would now like to refer to the environment, specifically to the effects an extensive programme of works such as the Boyne scheme can have on the environment. I need hardly state that interest in safeguarding the environment has been growing steadily over the years, [197] and rightly so. Let me assure you that the Commissioners of Public Works are fully alive to the importance of this matter; indeed their interest extends over a wide number of activities, including the National Parks and Monuments Service. The importance of the environment is not lost sight of in the carrying out of the arterial drainage programme. In recent years the growing importance of taking comprehensive account of ecological and other environmental considerations has been fully recognised and accommodated in the design of schemes. Regard must be had to the value and benefit afforded by wildlife, landscape, fishery and other interests.

This leads me to the subject of fisheries in the Boyne catchment area. An integral part of all drainage schemes carried out by the Commissioners of Public Works is that provision is made for the replacement of fish and eel weirs, installation of fish passes and otherwise improving weirs, replacement of gravel in spawning beds, constructing pools or deeps to reinstate fish lies.

Before I go on to relate the current arrangements agreed at the Boyne between the fishery authorities and the commissioners I would like to give some details of the measures so far taken by the commissioners to alleviate the problems which arose during the course of works on the river and its tributaries. Between the years 1971 and 1981, the commissioners funded the construction of a fish hatchery at Virginia, County Cavan and the restocking of certain tributaries in the catchment; they installed a fish counter and reconstructed salmon traps at Blackcastle near Navan and they developed spawning beds at various locations.

It is, of course, not always possible to carry out all rehabilitation works either during or immediately after completion of drainage. It is essential that in some areas, a period of time be allowed to elapse between completion of drainage works and the commencement of rehabilitation works. This allows the post-drainage flow behaviour and bed patterns to develop.

On the question of the outstanding [198] fishery rehabilitation works in the Boyne catchment, it is clear from my earlier comments that the involvement of the fishery authorities is an essential element in the evolution of any rehabilitation programme to be undertaken. The Fisheries Act, 1980 established various regional fisheries boards, whose purpose is the preservation and development of our fisheries resources. It is appropriate that these boards should play an active role in the physical execution of the programmes. To this end it has been arranged with the Department of Fisheries and Forestry and the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board that future rehabilitation works will be carried out by the Fisheries Board.

The arrangement is that when the Department and the Fisheries Board have agreed a works programme with the commissioners, the commissioners will facilitate the execution of these works by the Fisheries Board by making men and machinery available and indeed by paying for them. The Fisheries Board have already undertaken works on the Stoneyford and Trimblestown Rivers to the satisfaction of the parties concerned. The cost was met by the commissioners. Plans for further works, which will also be funded by the commissioners, are in hands and will continue for some years after the drainage works have been completed. It will be appreciated that 1985 was not a good year for rehabilitation works because of the extremely bad weather conditions and the resulting high water levels.

There are a few points I would like to make. Senator Fitzsimons indicated that there was nothing in the Estimates for this work. This is not true. There is an amount in the Estimates for this work this year. I do not think he examined the Estimates very carefully.

Mr. Fitzsimons:     Excuse me, I said that I hoped there was.

Mr. J. Bermingham:     That is different. The Senator said it was not there. That is what I understood. It is there.

[199]Mr. Fitzsimons:     I did not say it was not there.

Mr. J. Bermingham:     That is fair enough. The Senator, if I understood him correctly, said the cost per acre was £10,000. The average cost on the Boyne scheme is £450.

Mr. Fitzsimons:     These are not my figures.

Mr. J. Bermingham:     Whoever’s figures they are, they are not correct. Servicing policy and the type of work to be done includes general spawning beds, and restoration of angling facilities on the banks will be part of the programme I have mentioned to be devised with the Fisheries Board. It will be paid for by the Office of Public Works and carried out to the satisfaction of the Fisheries Board [200] and the Department of Fisheries and Forestry. I do not think there will be any complaint. The Senator’s fears are groundless. I want to assure him of that.

Finally, I return to the question of the certificate of completion to which I referred in my opening comments. I hope that what I have said will allay fears that the issue of this certificate by the Minister for Finance will have the effect of preventing any further rehabilitation works being undertaken. This is not the case. The fact of the matter is that the signing of the certificate will not in any way preclude the completion of necessary fishery rehabilitation works at the expense of the commissioners.

Mr. Jack Fitzsimons

(26/04/1930 – )

Party: Fianna_Fáil (Fianna_Fáil members of the 18th Seanad)

Defeated in the Seanad election of 1989.

Mr. Joseph Bermingham

(09/05/1919 – 11/08/1995)

Profession: Shopkeeper
Party: Labour_Party (Labour_Party members of the 24th Dáil)

Co. Kildare.


22nd Dáil – Minister for State at the Department of Finance
24th Dáil – Minister for State at the Department of Finance (16 December 1982 13 February 1986)
Did not contest the 1987 Election.

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