ANEW book by Chris Corlett gives a fascinating insight into the 1939 Poulaphuca survey of lands flooded by the Liffey Reservoir Scheme. In West Wicklow the Poulaphuca Reservoir has taken on a reputation of almost mythical proportions, with many tales of what lies beneath the reservoir continuously told and retold.
Now archaeologist Chris Corlett has decided to get the the bottom of things by meticulously researching the flooding of the King’s River Valley which was part of a massive hydroelectric and water supply scheme.
The construction of the dam at Poulaphuca created a large reservoir and flooded some 5,000 acres, displacing 70 families from their homes and farms.
‘This was a complete and total impact on a scale that has never since been seen in this country,’ says Chris.
Construction work on the 100 foot high dam began in November of 1937.
‘What was once a beauty spot famed for its waterfall favoured by tourists for over a century, the gorge became a massive construction site. Apart from the dam, there was also the construction of the nearby power station, a large water filtration plant and three new bridges,’ adds Chris.
On March 3 1940 the sluice gate diverting the River Liffey around the completed dam was closed. Soon water gradually built up and by September of the same year the water levels had already risen and covered one-third of the reservoir.
Many visitors to the area these days could be forgiven for believing that this man made lake was always present, not realising the historic landscape and scenery now completely covered by water for nearly 70 years.
However, a group of locals led by Liam Price were determined that their way of life wouldn’t be forgotten about. In 1939, months before the area was to be flooded, teams of people from different backgrounds agreed to record as much information as possible to pass on to future generations.
As Chris explains, ‘The lives of these people might only have been recalled in dreams and a handful of family snaps, had it not been for the foresight of a small group of individuals.’
Most of the fieldwork was carried out during the months of May, June and July. The main themes were placenames, vernacular architecture and folklore. Most of the sketches and photographs relating to the survey were of house exteriors and interiors, as well as domestic and agricultural furnishings.
However, until Chris decided to document the survey, the results had never been fully published. The vast majority of the research material was in the possession of Professor Fred Aalen, presented to him by Liam Price shortly before he died.
Chris tracked Professor Allen down but found there was other survey results resting elsewhere.
‘In order to finally publish all the material collected during the Poulaphuca Survey it was necessary to find and reunite some material that had been scattered over the years. For example, photographs taken by Liam Price’s sister, Kathleen Price, were held in the Placenames Branch of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Price’s annotated maps of the survey areas were held in the Department of Geography, UCD. Unfortunately, some aerial photographs of the area taken by the Air Corps have not been relocated.’
The Royal Irish Academy had undertaken a comprehensive and scientific survey of the Clare Island Survey 30 years earlier, but is equally important for different reasons.
For a start the Poulaphuca Survey was carried out by volunteers and research time was limited by the actual schedule of works.
Chris feels, ‘the Poulaphuca Survey could never hope to achieve the same scientific objectives of earlier surveys. But it was the first attempt to give detailed attention to folklore, placenames and vernacular architecture. While placenames were recorded as part of the Clare Island Survey, the Poulaphuca Survey went one step further and, arguably for the first time, also recorded the names of individual fields.’
Chris doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that such attention was paid to folklore and vernacular architecture at a time when the recently established Irish Folklore Commission was actively collecting material countrywide, and the National Museum of Ireland was continuing to gather artifacts related to Irish folk life.
‘The Irish State was still in its youth and frequently looked to its cultural tradition as a means of establishing a sense of nationhood. Another means of establishing nationhood and independence was the development of national infrastruc- ture.
‘In this way the Poulaphuca Survey and the Liffey Reservoir Scheme achieved these ambitions in parallel, though one was sacrificed for the other.’
The Poulaphuca Survey was also one of the first times the cultural recording of an area affected by large-scale development was recorded, and the volunteers deserved a great deal of credit in the eyes of Chris.
He concludes, ‘the level of recording placenames, folklore and vernacular architecture has only recently and gradually been adopted as a standard form of mitigation in advance of large-scale infrastructural developments. This is a testimony to the foresight of all those involved in the Poulaphuca Survey.’
A farmhouse and outbuildings before the waters flooded the valley. ABOVE: The lake at Poulaphuca today. INSET: A fire burns in the hearth in one of the now-submerged cottages.