Vartry water works
Vartry water works

Vartry Water Supply Scheme – Engineering Envy and a mention in Ulysses


The Vartry Water Supply Scheme provides drinking water for a supply area stretching from Roundwood, through north Wicklow up to south Dublin and serves over 200,000 people. Not only was this an extraordinary feat of engineering, it also caught the imagination of James Joyce. 

It was developed by Dublin Corporation in the 1860s and includes two reservoirs, a water treatment plant, a 4km tunnel under Callowhill and 40km of trunk mains that deliver water to storage reservoirs at Stillorgan in Dublin. The scheme was a significant engineering feat, with much of the ground and building works being carried out and completed by men using only picks, shovels, horses and carts. 

Vartry Water Works
Vartry Water Works

Between 1862 and 1868 the Lower Resevoir was formed by constructing an earthern embankment across the valley of the river Vartry. The resevoir has a capacity of 11,300 million litres and a maxium watter depth of 18.3 metres.

Statue of Sir John Gray
Statue of Sir John Gray

The committee was chaired by Dr. John Gray who actively promoted what would become the “Vartry scheme”. The scheme was formally opened on June 30, 1863

A second embankment, 3.5 km upstream, was completed in 1923 to form the Upper Resevoir which has a capacity of 5,000 million litres and a maximum water depth of 13.4 metres.

At the time, the scheme greatly improved sanitation in Dublin City and helped reduce outbreaks of cholera, typhus and other diseases associated with contaminated water. The original Vartry Water Supply Scheme still provides drinking water to around 15% of the Greater Dublin Area.

Richard Kileen in a Short History of Dublin writes:

For the first time the city was provided with a pure water supply at high pressure which was the envy of other richer cities in Britain and abroad.

Perhaps the project’s greatest feat was the 1.8 m high, 1.5 m wide Callowhill tunnel. The chief engineer Parke Neville said that their task had been complicated by the “hardness of the rock”, “irregularities of the stratification and thinness of the layers”, as well as “the quantity of water”. There were two separate experiments with boring machines over the course of the project, but neither proved effective.

Vartry water callowhill
Vartry water Callowhill – later 1800s – From Lawrence Photograph Collection in National Library

To treat the water, seven filter beds – each featuring a 6ft, 6in layer of stones, gravel and sand – were initially established, largely by excavating into the rock, and a further three were added in 1873.

After the supply scheme was up and running, Waterworks Committee chairman Dr John Gray declared that “this marvel has been achieved by high engineering genius and by the scarcely less necessary cooperation of hardy and honest industry”, while Neville said in 1875 that it had “proved one of the most successful and effective works of the kind ever executed, and has given universal satisfaction to the citizens”. James Joyce even wrote in surprising depth about its workings in his 1922 novel ‘Ulysses’:

The quality of the water is mentioned in Episode 11

Characteristic of him. Power. Particular about his drink. Flaw in the glass, fresh Vartry water. 

And the use of the water when available for washing in Episode 16

His (Stephen’s) mind was not exactly what you would call wandering but a bit unsteady and on his expressed desire for some beverage to drink Mr Bloom, in view of the hour it was and there being no pumps of Vartry water available for their ablutions, let alone drinking purposes, hit upon an expedient by suggesting, off the reel, the propriety of the cabman’s shelter

Veolia is now working in partnership with Irish Water to develop and operate a new 75 million litres per day water treatment plant at Vartry, Co Wicklow. Designed to meet the growing and future needs of the population of Dublin the new plant will secure the existing supply and forms part of Irish Water’s €200 million investment plan in the Vartry Water Supply Scheme.

There is also footage from British Pathe from the early 1920s:     


References major-upgrade-vartry-water-treatment-plant

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