The Inniscarra Dam
The flood waters that raised the economy of a whole valley
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In 1948 farmers in Mid Cork, as well as farmers in other districts, became alarmed at an announcement from the then Minister for Agriculture, Mr James Dillon, which amounted to a break in the traditional farm labourer market.
In hindsight, it is now understood that he was a person of vision. At that time the farm labourers in the more prosperous areas of Mid Cork were paid £2 per week. Mr Dillon stated that the farm labourer should be paid £4 per week, and forecast that the farm labourer of the future would be equally skilled with his counterpart in industry, and paid wages equal to factory workers.
In Mid Cork particularly, there was a more ominous threat to farmers in 1948. Work had begun on the River Lee at Inniscarra as a forerunner to a well conceived policy by the ESB to step up rural electrification in Ireland. The employees taken on at the works of soundings were mainly local farm labourers who spoke fortuitously of the big construction work that was to come. Work that would absorb every farm worker in the district.
Harnessing water power in the River Lee was in the plans of the ESB since the completion of the Shannon Scheme in 1927.
River soundings and a general survey showed the River Lee, with its deep valley gradient, was capable of producing 76 million units of electricity. But the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 forced a deferment of the programme.
Work started on the Lee Hydro Electric Scheme in 1952 when contracts were placed with three main contractors – Le Societé de Construction de Batignolle, Paris, known as SCB, who were to excavate the ground and lay concrete in the two dams, Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid, as well as erecting the two powerhouses; Semens-Schuchert of Germany whose contract was to install the turbine and generator in the western dam at Carrigadrohid, another German firm J M Voith of Mannheim was contracted to erect the turbines and pump at Inniscarra; Brown-Vovert of Switzerland had the contract of fitting the generators at Inniscarra; while the English-Dublin based firm, John Paul Cementation Ltd were to build three bridges and construct new stretches of roads.
The entire project was a giant undertaking involving 306 square miles, extending from Inniscarra to the district south of Macroom. Apart from the two dams, Inniscarra and Carrigadrohid, other relevant constructions envisaged 11 miles of new roadways, three major bridges and several culverts. Completion of the scheme gave large scale employment, not only for every heretofore farm labourer to the Mid Cork, West Cork and North Cork baronies but also for carpenters, masons and blacksmiths. In consequence, public houses in the surrounding districts, guesthouses and lesser forms of accommodation did a roaring trade. In fact, within a year it was virtually impossible to find a bed in a two mile radius of Inniscarra.
The foundation of the dam wall at Inniscarra was laid 70 feet below the flow surface of the river bed and embedded in excavated rock on both banks of the river. This assuaged residents of Cork City who feared for a collapse of the dam at Inniscarra at some future time that would drown the city. These fears arose from media reports at the time of dams in Africa and Asia collapsing and causing untold destruction.
Though technical explanations removed the fears of city residents and of those living in the eight miles stretch from Inniscarra dam to the city, landowners on both sides of the Lee, who would be losing land in the 306 square miles of the catchment area, were unhappy about the compensation they were to receive for their flooded lands.
Historians and archaeologists were also unhappy about the fate of, at least, the two most historic edifices nearest to the dam which would inevitably be the deepest submerged on completion of the ESB scheme. Those two were Castle Inch on the southern bank of the river and the more ancient Innislinga Abbey, an extension of St Senan’s Inniscarra foundation in 520 or 525.
The significance of Castle Inch arises out of the last enactment of divorce in Ireland under the Brehon laws. This castle, formerly owned by the McCarthys, (the last McCarthy there having been Domhnall MacDomhnall) was usurped by descendants of the Norman Barretts in the 15th Century. A girl in the Barrett family of Castle Inch, almost two centuries later married Cormac Mac Teige McCarthy of Carrignamuck, Dripsey who, on having been raised to the Lordship at Blarney Castle, revived a tenet of the old Brehon Law to divorce his wife, Ellen Barrett, to marry Joan Butler from County Tipperary.
Landowners in the catchment area were advised in 1955 not to till the portions of their lands which were to be flooded on completion of the scheme. a 70 acres holding of Patrick Buckley of Fergus, Coachford was to be lost in the flooding. However, the Buckleys having raised a corn crop in this designated portion in 1955, felt it would be uneconomic in good farming logic not to follow with a crop of potatoes in the hope that the crop might be lifted before the expected flood water would rise to this field level. The chance of securing the potato crop turned out to be touch and go. It was scarcely cleared off the field in the face of the encroaching rising water levels. This crop, the last potato crop in the catchment area, was a media topic. The Examiner sent a photographer in the late Autumn to photograph the operation.
Most of the surrounding neighbours helped to lift the crop in one day. There were tears and laughter from those engaged, all agreed that a potato would never again grow in the field.
The floodgates of the dam were closed in mid-Summer 1956 but the trapped water did not rise to the required level on the dam wall face until the second week of November 1957.