Water and Maynooth: Resources, Networks and Aesthetics

November 16, 2013

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.

My Geography Teacher

October 21, 2013


With Geography Awareness Week coming up, 17-23 November, and with a programme of events planned by Departments and also by the Geographical Society of Ireland (including a photo competition), I thought it might be worth thinking a bit about our own Geography teachers. So, in the hope that it might encourage others to join in with reflections upon, and expressions of gratitude to, their own favourite Geography teacher, let me tell you about Gwyn Bennett, for decades the Head of Geography at Cardinal Newman School, Luton. Mr. Bennett (never Gwyn to us I am afraid) was a man with a passion for geomorphology.

We went on a field trip to Wales with him. Travelling from Luton [just north of London], across lowland England into the mountains of South Wales left me with three really strong impressions. First, under my feet were rocks, and bedding planes, and evidence of a restless and heaving earth. I became fascinated with orogeny and continental drift. Second, Gwyn drew great sketch maps of the towns through which we passed and I became fascinated with town plans as an aspect of history – how did this town start, how is it changing? Finally, Gwyn, with his Bobby Charlton comb-over and his squat rotundity was a great figure in the field. We would get up some hill and his hair would trail away from him like a wind-sock at an airport. He would temporarily attach it behind his ear. He would then wriggle into the waistband of his trousers – Michael Carrol in my class said it was like watching someone try to put an inflated balloon into a sock. Then, he would start pointing at things in the landscape and we would learn to read the landscape through his eyes. In the valleys of South Wales he shared his pride in the mining communities and gave us a hint of what it meant to be a boy from the valleys descending on the Babylon that was Aberystwyth to the university student.

He communicated to me a very powerful sense of place. Of course, when we discovered that his hometown of Tredegar was in Monmouth and that this county had been transferred from Wales to England under some local government reform or other, we were merciless – “Excuse me sir, is Tredegar an English town?” “Don’t be silly boy, can the English sing? Can the English play rugby?” He of course could do both but although he promised that one day he would treat us to his favourite rugby songs, we never seemed to be yet old enough. Now of course we are but alas Gwyn Bennett died a year or two ago and I never heard him in full voice, lubricated with a pint of his favourite.

Wonderful geographer, inspirational teacher, great man. Thank you Gwyn.

Gerry Kearns

Why geographic knowledge is more important than ever

October 4, 2013

ImageGeographic education has been undervalued at American universities, which has left the workforce without contextual knowledge that would assist data visualization efforts, writes Kirk Goldsberry, an assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University. “Recommitting to a geography curriculum in both our high schools and universities will be crucial to effectively developing a generation of great data visualizers who can tackle our challenges,” he writes. Read more in the Havard Business Review online/HBR Blog Network

Pundits and Scholars

May 27, 2013

I have been thinking about the difference between punditry and scholarship. In one of his novels, Richard Jefferies wrote of an argument which was not a true discussion because each protagonist attacked only the weak points of the other’s position while only putting forward the strong points of their own. Read the rest of this entry »

This blog is four years old

March 6, 2013

Four years ago, this blog began with a post about maps, geography, and the economic slump. This is the blog’s 170th post. We’ve had contributions from many of the department’s staff, as well as some of the graduate and undergraduate students. We’ve been visited 54,000 times, even if most visitors seem to pop in only to run back out again. We’ve had some fun.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the blog or interacted with the contributors in one way or another.  Here’s hoping we can last another four years, if not (and why not?) more.



AIDS and its metaphors

February 3, 2013

Kearns ignite
When a new epidemic emerged in 1981. People struggled to make sense both of its novelty and of its implications. One of the ways that people tried to make sense of AIDS was to see it through the lens of standard epidemiological models of contagious disease. In this respect AIDS was seen as something that spread from an infected population into one that was at risk. It was all too easy to understand this geography of spread as something which could be interrupted either by isolating the sick or by preventing the well from associating with the unwell. AIDS was early, and wrongly, associated only with gay men or people of colour, originating or still living in Africa. Homophobic and racist understandings of the threat posed to the so-called mainstream society by gay men and people of colour were reinforced by these contagionist readings of AIDS.

In this brief IGNITE presentation I try to explain how these spatial metaphors work and and also how people tried to develop alternative spatial metaphors that would sustain more inclusive and effective policies for caring for the sick and the vulnerable. I begin with the racism of standard global epidemiologial models before sketching some of the arguments that Susan Sontag levelled at the metaphors of the official AIDS stories. I then look at the work of artists who tried to think differently about AIDS vulnerability describing some of the cultural activism of ACTUP and also of artists such as Tony Kushner, Diamanda Galas, and David Wojnarowicz. I finish with the wonderful metaphor of the AIDS quilt and explain how it manages to convey both the scale of the epidemic and the individual value of each life lost. You can watch the brief presentation below:

Gerry Kearns

Jim Walsh on the achievements of Geography at Maynooth

December 10, 2012

Anniversary Essays – Forty Years of Geography at Maynooth, 2 volumes

Remarks by Professor Jim Walsh, Vice President for Strategy and Quality and former Head of Geography Department (1995-2005) at launch of Anniversary Essays and closure of anniversary celebrations, Friday 7 December 2012.

Several months ago Alistair invited me to nominate some papers that might be included in a collection of 40 essays he was planning to compile as a contribution to the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the Geography department. Later I was delighted to receive an email that I was to be included as a contributor. A few weeks ago Jan asked to say a few words at this launch which I am delighted and honoured to do.

The two volumes provide some remarkable insights into the research of the department, even though what we have here is but a tiny faction of the hundreds of publications over the years. Without commenting on individual contributions I would like to make a few general points.

1. One is immediately struck by the breadth of Maynooth geography and the depth and quality of the scholarship of the department staff, current and retired. The papers range across a wide spectrum that includes the role of estates in historical landscape formation, and code in the functioning of modern landscapes, community development, climate change, water management, various dimensions of economic, social, cultural, political, medical geographies, poverty, information society, and geography education. This breadth of research interests contributed to much enriched teaching programmes at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels which have attracted very considerable numbers down the years.

2. The breadth of research is matched by depth as evidenced by the quality of the publication outlets – the top ranked international journals and book publishers. These publications are complemented by equally top class papers published in Irish journals, especially Irish Geography which members of the department have strongly supported down the years. Another lesser known journal in which some seminal papers were published was the Maynooth Review. Local engagement and global connectedness in many formats have been a constant source of enrichment of the research produced by members of the department.

3. The research exemplified by the selection of papers in these two volumes is also notable for the extent of inter-disciplinarily and foresight in regard to what are nowadays described as grand societal themes – these include health; water management; climate change; the knowledge society and economy; culture and heritage – real, imagined and memorised; ideology, peace and conflict; institutions, the citizen and society; place and space in neoliberalism; territorial planning; and spatial information systems. The trans-disciplinarity approach to the research is not always evident in the authorship of papers – rather it is manifested more deeply in the wide range of reference material consulted by the researchers, and the outlets chosen for publishing their research findings.

4. The direct scholarly publications are bolstered by outstanding contributions by many members of the department to the wider academy through editorship of journals, launching of new journals, the joint editorship and contributions to the multi volume encyclopaedia of human geography, and leadership roles at all levels nationally and internationally.

These achievements are the product of a particular context. Over the forty years the department grew from very humble beginnings to its current status as a leading department of international standing. The distinctive journey has been marked by:

• an unencumbered birth devoid of the clericalism that was a feature of most departments in Maynooth in their early years,
• a team culture that consistently places the collective interest of the department ahead of individual interests,
• active international and inter-disciplinary networking by all staff,
• a steadfast commitment to excellent education of students guided by the sustained research endeavour of all staff which was always tolerant and respectful of critical scholarly engagement with a plurality of orthodoxies and heterodoxies.

Journeys can be interesting but not always successful or memorable. I have been reflecting on what has made the Maynooth geography journey such a success. There are three necessary ingredients for success in my view:

• An abundance of talent and commitment among the staff and other researchers in the department. The department and the university have been fortunate in the calibre of the staff recruited at different stages. Over the past month we have had two of the highest confirmations of the talent in the department – the publication of a paper in Nature co-authored by Conor Murphy and John Sweeney with others, and the uniquely prestigious ERC award to Rob Kitchin. It is indeed fitting that the timing of these accolades coincides with the conclusion of this celebratory year.

• A capacity to make the best use of the available resources, and more importantly the ability to compete successfully for resources. Maynooth Geographers have an outstanding record in winning resources. One can think immediately of putting on new programmes to capture skills funding for postgraduates in areas such as GIS and Remote Sensing, and separately in Cultural Tourism, large equipment grants to support the Geophysical Analysis Unit, and research funding from every funding agency in Ireland complemented by large grants for European and other projects. Since 2005 I estimate Maynooth geographers have secured grants worth close on €25m, the second largest amount among the disciplines in the university – in what other university does geography rank no. 2 in success in winning research grants?

• The third ingredient is vision and strategic leadership, especially the capacity to identify opportunities and to put in place appropriate structures. Geography has this in abundance – one thinks of initiatives such as the inter-disciplinary Centre for Local and Regional Development in the early 1990s which led on to NIRSA, and from there to NCG, ICLRD and AIRO – a unique collection of established brand names. In parallel the department has spawned ICARUS, the Centre for Geophysical Analysis and the Centre for Health Geoinformatics. Leadership operates in various contexts. Over the forty years seven individuals have at times been Head of the department. I am delighted all are present this evening: Paddy Duffy, Willie Smyth, Seamus Smyth (first Professor of Geography and later President of the University), Dennis Pringle, Mark Boyle and Jan Rigby. I occupied the middle position between the first and second triumvirates. Each in their own way brought a particular vision and style of leadership. But, to borrow some key words from the title of one of the earliest department publications, there has been much Continuity and Change.

The three ingredients just described are necessary but not sufficient conditions to provide the milieu needed to support such a rich and sustained outpouring of excellent research.

The final essential factor is a collegial culture – it is the glue. It has been there from the beginning. Collegial is not to be misinterpreted as cosy. The collegial culture is built upon and has thrived on mutual respect, openness, the capacity to constructively challenge one another, and the willingness to cooperate, innovate and adapt for the best interests of the department, especially for the thousands of students that have taken geography. Together these attributes, shared among the academics and with the administrative and technical support colleagues, have provided an inspirational milieu for all associated with the department over the forty years.

The department has entered a new phase over recent times. Most of the founding members have retired from teaching but happily not from scholarship. Mark is taking is taking a well earned sabbatical and Jan has just started in her role as Head. There is much to build upon and to look forward to. I congratulate Alistair for compiling the two volumes as a fitting exhibition of the treasure of knowledge created over the past forty years. I look forward to the next ten years and reassembling to mark fifty years. I conclude by congratulating all who have participated in the outstanding scholarly contribution of the last forty years, and I wish Jan and her colleagues every success in the future.


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