Byrnes Pictures

John Byrne was born on 19th July 1896 in a two-storey slated house, built in 1847 on a farm of eighty acres, situated in the townland of Baltiboys Lower between Blessington and Valleymount in the County of Wicklow. John was at least the 4th generation of Byrnes to own this farm. His father James, who married a local girl Catherine Pender, daughter of George Pender and Mary Savage, lived here from 1848 until he died in 1922. They had two children, John and his sister Annie.

James Byrne’s father John, who married a local girl Annie Tyrrell lived here from around 1820 until he died in 1891. They had six children, James, Luke, Peter, Philip, John and Kate.

There are no records available on John Byrne’s father Michael. However, we do know that he was the owner of the farm in 1823 and had died before 1854 by which time his son John was the registered owner. 

Ruins of the buildings in the vicinity of the two-storey house at Baltiboys indicated that another house had been there previously. Some of the fields were known as The Grove, The Castle, The Middle, The High, The Pocket, The Craft and John’s Bank.

The road, or more correctly the Boreen, that led down to Byrne’s farm from the main road continued on down and across the King’s river. The crossing, which was at a bend in the river, was passable only when the river was low. It continued through Ballinahown and joined on to the road to Lacken on the left and Valleymount on the right. When the river was in spate the crossing disappeared and a much longer journey was required to cross the river at Humphreystown Bridge. There was often a need for Byrne’s horse to take a straggler across the river and then return to the other bank. Also available for crossing the river was a line of stepping stones, but use of these was dependent on the water level. 

John grew up in this area and saw his parents farm the land, as their ancestors had done before them. The misery, which was prevalent in many parts of Ireland, was comparatively unknown in Wicklow, where the land comfortably supported those by whose labour it was rendered productive.  Having a modern two-storey slated house in an area where the one-storey thatched houses were more the norm indicated that this was a better-off, comfortable family.

Together with his sister Annie, he went to school in Valleymount, walking several miles there and back each day. By all accounts Annie was treated as a lady in the Byrne household.  She was never expected to do any of the hard work and got two new outfits every year, one for Punchestown races in the Spring and another in the Autumn. She married Pat Clarke, the son of a local farmer, and was given a dowry of £300.00.  Her new life would not have been easy, as she had a large family to rear and in the early days, she had to contend with an elderly mother-in-law.

John’s mother Catherine died in 1911 and being the only son and with his father James now in his sixties, he would have assumed responsibility for running the farm.  On the 11th February 1920, he married a local girl Mary Quinn.  The eldest child of a family of three boys and three girls who lived with their parents John and Annie (nee Mackie) in the nearby townland of Ballinahown (town on the river). Mary moved into the house at Baltiboys where James Byrne lived with them until his death of 5th June 1922, aged 74 years.

In both the Quinn’s and Byrne’s homes and for a number of years, these young people were listening to rumours of an impending man-made disaster that would befall the areas where they lived. Some said it could never happen while others said it was inevitable and as time went by the uncertainty became reality and both the families of John Byrne and Mary Quinn, and more importantly they themselves, were victims of what became known as the Drowning of Poulaphouca Valley.


The Drowning of Poulaphouca Valley

 It is not often that a whole community is displaced in the interest of progress. But that is exactly what happened in northwest Wicklow in 1939 when 6,500 acres were literally drowned to provide water and electricity for the rapidly growing population of Dublin. The use of river valleys for water storage was not a new idea; in the 1800's, reservoirs had been built in the Vartry and Dodder valleys to store water from the two rivers. But turning the Poulaphouca Gorge near Blessington into a reservoir was a much more ambitious project.

As early as 1902, Poulaphouca, where the Liffey waters drop steeply into a valley, was identified as a possible dam site for providing both water and hydro-electricity.  But it was only in 1936, with growing demand for both services that the proposal gathered momentum. The go-ahead was given for a reservoir in Poulaphouca to produce twenty million gallons of water a day for the capital, while a dam at Golden Falls would generate thirty million units of electricity.

Local politicians and clergy in villages like Lacken and Valleymount were critical and a Disturbed Owner Association was set up to fight the compulsory acquisition of land.  But the overwhelming justification of the national interest - and enthusiasm for the 1,200 jobs that the project would create - literally drowned their protests. The national consciousness was impressed with the technological magnitude of the scheme and the prospect of electricity and water in every home. The media portrayed the development as the replacement of a remote, uninteresting valley by a beautiful lake.  No one focused on the sacrifice to be extracted from the community concerned.

Most of the dwellings in the Poulaphouca valley were simple one-storey thatched houses with a couple of rooms. Only the odd better-off family had a modern two-storey home with a slate roof. The quality of the land in the valley was mixed. Some of it was commonage in which the small farmers shared grazing rights. 180 acres was bog from which locals cut their turf.

Though life in the valley had by no means been easy, no-one was pleased to leave the place where their ancestors had lived for generations.  One family could be traced in the valley for 600 years. To some, it was reminiscent of Cromwell, or the cruel evictions of the nineteenth century which were still fresh in people’s memory.

Apart from houses and property, religious sites of local importance lay in the path of the reservoir. Tradition held that Lacken Holy Well had healing powers and on Mayday, local people held a customary procession to it. The curative powers were believed to be derived from fish that had been placed in it by a priest. The well was now to be submerged, the fish released and the healing power lost.  The Electricity Supply Board erected a new well on higher ground, but not surprisingly, this did not placate local disquiet. Even the dead were disturbed; the reservoir would cover a graveyard at Burgage and this necessitated the re-burial of the remains of the valley’s deceased in a new cemetery in Burgage. A five hundred-year-old cross in the cemetery was said to have shed blood after it was moved to the new location.

The Electricity Supply Board was given charge of the scheme and the Land Commission assigned the job of finding alternative farms for those who were to lose their homes. By late 1938, the evacuation of the reservoir site had begun.  Thatch was burned, bridges blown up, buildings demolished and trees and bushes were cut down.

The 6,500 acres flooded by the reservoir covered all or part of forty-five town lands. Over 300 farms lost some or all of their land, and seventy-six houses had to be abandoned. Ten of these were in the little hamlet of Ballinahown, which was condemned to lie under water for ever more. The compensation offered to the farmers worked out at £9 an acre, depending on land quality. They were also paid for their houses and given a disturbance payment of £100 pounds. The water levels rose steadily over two years and resistance was ultimately pointless. But, unhappy at having to move at all, and dissatisfied at the compensation for their trouble, many waited until the last minute. One man stubbornly stayed in his house as the encroaching water seeped under the door.  Afraid he would drown, his neighbours eventually took him out. It was said that his furniture could be seen floating in the lake for months afterwards, as if to remind everyone that his departure was involuntary.

Ballinahown (home of the Quinns) was obliterated from the map. Baltyboys Upper and Lower (home of the Byrnes), Burgage More and Burgage Moyle, Hayland, Horsepasstown, Lacken, Russeltown, Tulfarris and Valleymount all lost more than 40% of their acreage.

Most of those displaced to make way for the Poulaphouca reservoir were re-settled nearby.  As far as possible, the Land Commission found them land in the general locality to replace the farms or portions of farms they had lost.  People in local authority houses also got new homes locally.  Not everyone could be looked after in the district, however, and some moved further afield - including to Dublin and Donadea, Co. Kildare.

Though most people were able to continue living in the valley, the community was radically altered.  A large lake now separated families that had lived adjacent to one another, while distances of several miles separated villages like Ballyknockan, Lacken and Valleymount.

So it had come to pass and the Byrne family, who now had ten children, six of whom had been born in the house at Baltyboys, had to seek an alternative farm. They found a farm at Burgage, near Blessington, that had been on the road from Valleymount but because of the lake, it was now in a cul-de-sac and accessible only in a roundabout way off the main road. 

This farm had also suffered in size because of the lake, which reduced it from 55 acres to around 35 acres. It had been owned by the Moore family, John a bachelor and his spinster sister Elizabeth. The house was single storey and generally much smaller than Baltyboys.

It was now good-bye to that substantial 80 acre farm and fine house and it was no small task to move house and home, including ten children, together with farm animals and equipment into a completely new environment.

Compensation for all that loss was the subject of much deliberation.  A claim was submitted for a total of £3,361- 4-0, but the valuers for the E.S.B. originally offered a sum of £1,170-00, later increased to £1,500-00 and the eventual overall payment came to £1,806-9-2.

Several other farmers, including Mary’s family in Ballinahown, did not reach agreement and it was then decided by arbitration but this brought no great improvement to the sums paid.

As it turned out here as in many other cases the E.S.B. would not require all of the land taken and small portions were offered for sale. In the case of Byrne’s land, there was a surplus of 13 acres.  This was of particular interest to at least three local farmers whose land bordered on to it.  In the scheme of things it was to have no right of way off the road and for that reason it was only suitable to those around it.

Because John Byrne wanted to buy back this land, for whatever reason, sentimental or otherwise, the locals agreed not to bid for it.  He made the recommended offer of £210-00 for the 13 acres, but this was rejected by the E.S.B.

However, by an act of opportunism one of his farmer neighbours bought the land. He was Pat Byrne, no relation, and not too long in the area as he had bought the farm he owned in more recent times. Upset as John Byrne was at having to leave the ancestral home of his family, this latest turn of events caused him much grief.

His offer of £210-00 was in line with the compensation price he got for the land originally and should have been accepted by the E.S.B., who had advertised it with a right of way established.

The bureaucrats, now well established in this powerful organisation, had no regard for sentiment or the feelings of individuals and were quick to use the threat of the law now invested in them, to subdue any resistance or delay to their objectives. The bond between people and land that transcends economic reasoning meant nothing to these people.

Another very upsetting thing for the Byrne family was the order to demolish their fine house. It was deemed to be too near the proposed reservoir for use as a residence and down it had to come. The family was actually charged £25-00 by the E.S.B. for salvaged materials such as slates, roof timbers etc. and given a date by which they had to be removed.

John Byrne also made an effort to increase his new holding at Burgage by offering £260-00 for 20 acres surplus from the adjacent Darker farm, but this too was unsuccessful. Pat Byrne came originally from Ballintubber and by a strange coincidence, his mother was a Quinn from Ballinahown, one of the Cocoa Quinns family.

As none of Pat Byrne’s family had any descendants to continue farming the land he owned, including Byrne’s surplus of 13 acres, it was bought many years later by the Pender family, relatives of John Byrne’s mother.

In his young days, John was an accomplished musician and played with the Ballyknockan brass and reed band. We don’t know of any outstanding sports achievements other than he played handball and would cycle from Blessington to Dublin for a football match and be back in time for milking. He also had a great interest in horse racing, never failing to get to a race meeting. This interest sustained him in his latter life with a daily bet.

He was what could be described as a “tidy” farmer. He kept his kitchen garden spick and span and provided the house with vegetables all year round, he did not neglect the flowers either. Like most farmers, he could turn his hand to many crafts with no professional training.

For more information on the drowning of the valley, see Beneath the Poulaphuca Reservoir