Water and Maynooth: Resources, Networks and Aesthetics

For this week of Geographical Awareness, the Geographical Society of Ireland has proposed that we think a little more about Water. It is in fact striking how important the engineering of water has been for the historical development of our own town of Maynooth. In Maynooth there are six significant water features: Ryewater, the river Lyreen, the Mill Race, the Joan Slade, the Royal Canal and the lakes in Carton House. The water is important as a resource, as a source of power, for communications, as a defensive feature, and an aesthetic embellishment but in each respect it requires to be engineered. Our waterlands are human and historical creations. With these points in mind, let’s take an imaginary walk around Maynooth.

Maynooth 1837b

Figure 1. Maynooth, 1837 (adapted from Irish Historic Towns Atlas no. 7. Maynooth) [click on image for larger version]

Water as Resource: Raw Material and Mechanical Power
We will begin at the Castle. The castle sits between the Joan Slade and the Lyreen. This sketch map is adapted from the Irish Historic Towns Atlas for Maynooth shows part of Maynooth in 1837. [1] If you find the Castle you will see that just to its north two streams meet at what is called on this map, William Bridge. The castle sits at the confluence of two streams. The stream approaching the castle from the west is the Lyreen and the stream approaching the castle from the south is the Joan Slade. If you stand by the Castle you can see these two streams still; the Joan Slade across the road and the Lyreen behind the Castle. On this map you will also note at least one important use of water as a resource for between William Bridge and the Castle you can see an Old Brewery. Water is the bulkiest ingredient for beer and thus the one least likely to be transported, instead the hops and barley are brought to the river and hence the brewery. In fact if we followed the Joan Slade south into the grounds of the college of St Patrick, we would find that just beyond the reach of our map, there was another brewery, inside the grounds of the college and presumably for the benefit of the seminarians.

Just to the north of William Bridge you can see another body of water, the Mill Race, and you can see the mills placed across where the Mill Race joins, or rather rejoins the Lyreen. The Mill Race is the body of water that separates the University Library from the rest of the South Campus. Many Irish towns have mill races. Upstream from a town, water is abstracted from a stream and while the reduced stream continues to wander down towards the town, the mill race now rushes its waters towards the point in the town where the mills are placed and here the water turns the wheels that push round the stone that grinds the corn. The Mill Race was presumably constructed to serve the two mills recorded for 1328. The old mills still lend their name to many features in this immediate area including the street, a restaurant and the shopping centre. If you want to trace these bodies of water through the streets of the town of Maynooth today, you can look at the very helpful articles published by the Maynooth Men’s Shed Group. [2] Instead, let’s now take a look at the broader setting of Maynooth’s engineering of its waterscapes.

ryewater valleyFigure 2. Maynooth and the Ryewater valley [click on image for larger version]

Water as Network: Communications and Defence
This map shows some of the rivers and the Royal Canal. Maynooth is just to the right of the centre of the map. We can trace the Joan Slade, down from Maynooth, going to the south of the Pond Bridge. We can also see to the west of Maynooth where the mill race was abstracted from the Lyreen before both proceed onwards to Maynooth. We can also trace the Lyreen westwards until it ducks under the Royal Canal. A more significant river that comes towards Maynooth lies to the north of the Lyreen and this is the Rye Water. The Rye Water begins a little to the north-west of Kilcock, passing to the north of both Kilcock and Maynooth before being joined by the Lyreen to the north-north-east of Maynooth and then journeying down to Leixlip where it joins the Liffey and one of the main routes into Dublin.

For much of human history, water transport has been easier and cheaper than hauling goods overland and thus lying athwart this tangle of rivers, Maynooth was a place at which it would be relatively easy to assemble the food and raw materials needed to sustain a castle community. With streams lying below parts of the curtain wall that ran around the keep, the situation of the castle promised relatively easy defence. This combination of communications and defence drew Maurice fitz Gerald to the location when after 1176, having been granted lands in the area by the English forces in Ireland, he decided upon a castle as a way to defend his lands against the Irish from whom they had been taken. This castle became one of the markers of the extent of English influence in Ireland, laying at the Western extremity of the Pale.

The Fitzgeralds became the earls of Kildare in 1316 and established their castle community as a centre of economy, polity and culture with, from 1515, a College of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Maynooth. This all changed when the tenth earl rose in rebellion against the English king, Henry VIII. The castle at Maynooth was taken, its inhabitants put to the sword, the lands of the Fitzgeralds were taken by the English crown and the earl was himself executed. His son eventually (1552) got the family lands restored but during the wars of 1641-53, the castle was taken and re-taken by Old English, Irish, and New English and it is probably a testimony to the defensive significance of the castle that upon taking it in 1647, Owen Roe O’Neill’s forces destroyed its defensive capacity and left the place as the ruin it remains. The Fitzgeralds settled instead at another of their possessions, Kilkea Castle, but they were not yet finished with Maynooth. [3]

Carton estateFigure 3. Part of Carton Demesne (adapted from c. 1910 25-inch Ordnance Survey) [click on image for larger version]

Waterscapes: Communications and Aesthetics
Many of the lands of the Fitzgeralds were made forfeit to the Crown in 1691 and this included an extensive estate just to the east of the town of Maynooth, this is the Carton demesne. In 1739 the 19th Earl of Kildare bought the lease and began developing the estate. To transform the estate into an adornment for this rich and powerful aristocrat, he made aesthetic use of water. If you walk from the Castle along Main Street towards and then into the Carton Estate and along the straight tree-lined avenue that takes up through Maynooth Gate, you can see for yourself the work of Earls of Kildare and much of it concerned water. The Ryewater as it ran through the estate was transformed. It was widened into a lake, given islands, boathouses, bridges, and a weir. Some of these features are shown in the sketch map above, derived from the 25” to the mile Ordnance Survey map of 1910-11. [4] This management of the river serves an aesthetic purpose. It creates a parkland around the country house of Carton and its appearance is supposed to suggest a relaxed state of nature, detached from the commercial world of manufactures and agriculture. This is a landscape of privileged leisure.

In 1766, the 20th Earl of Kildare was given the title Duke of Leinster and under this name he was a primary sponsor of the Royal Canal, a new waterway constructed between the Liffey and the Shannon over the years 1790-1817. The Duke of Leinster faced the prospect that the Royal Canal would pass through his estate since it was proposed to use valley of Ryewater for the route of the canal. In Figure 2 you can see the Grand Canal joining the Ryewater to the west of Maynooth and sharing a route up to Kilcock. The Grand Canal also met up with the Ryewater in Leixlip but at the insistence of the Duke of Leinster the Canal did not take the valley of the Ryewater between Leixlip and Kilcock, certainly the cheapest route. Instead via an acqueduct the Canal travelled one hundred feet above the Ryewater at Leixlip and then ran parallel to the Ryewater but at some distance to the south, passing south of the Carton demesne but having a port at Maynooth so that goods could come and go without the country estate being disturbed by their movement.

This long loop, then, was necessitated by the Duke of Leinster’s wish that his park not be sullied with the commercial canal. As a result, he and his guests could enjoy a natural world from which capitalism was excluded. And yet, to produce that effect, the Duke of Leinster had been forced to commission extensive engineering of the waterscape of his demesne but also of the regional network of rivers and canals. A lot of effort went into the effortless leisure of this country park, and much of that effort was required so that water could be used to adorn the park, but also to serve the Irish space economy linking the drainage basin of the Liffey which looks eastwards towards Dublin and the drainage basin of the Shannon which looks westwards towards Limerick, linking the west and east coasts of the country.

Gerry Kearns

[1] Arnold Horner, Maynooth. Irish Historic Towns Atlas, No. 7, eds., Anngret Simms, H. B. Clark, and Raymond Gillespie (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1997).
[2] ‘Rivers Run Through It. Part One,’ Maynooth Newsletter (May 2013) 18; http://www.maynoothcc.com/Archives/Newsletters/2013/May.pdf; ‘Rivers Run Through It. Part Two,’ Maynooth Newsletter (June 2013) 18; http://www.maynoothcc.com/Archives/Newsletters/2013/June.pdf.
[3] There is a useful history of Maynooth Castle in this blog: http://maynootharchaeology.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/maynooth-castle-the-history/.
[4] The 25-inch map can be accessed at the website of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland; http://maps.osi.ie/publicviewer/#V1,697907,737662,7,9.


One comment

  1. […] [v] Kearns, G. Water and Maynooth: Resources, Networks and Aesthetics. Maynooth Geography Blog. 16 November 2013. Available from: https://maynoothgeography.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/water-and-maynooth-resources-networks-and-aesthet… […]


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