ON HOME GROUND Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured in his old national school, Cornanool NS, in the Islandeady Parish, on February 25, 2011, after voting in the general election. There was no running water in the school when he started there in 1955, and his upbringing impacted heavily on his view of water charges, says Michael Brennnan in his new book. Pic: Liam Sweeney
In an extract from his new book on the water charges controversy, Michael Brennan explores how Enda Kenny’s rural Mayo upbringing formed his thinking on water charges
In 1948, Henry Kenny and his wife bought a farmhouse in the parish of Islandeady in Co Mayo. When their son, Enda, was born in 1951, the house had no electricity and no running water in the house or toilet. The drinking water came from a well on their land. In summer time, the well would often dry up, so Enda Kenny would have to go to a neighbouring well for water instead.
There was no running water either in Cornanool National School when Kenny started there at the age of four-and-a-half in 1955. He and the other pupils used a ‘dry toilet’ in an outhouse, which was emptied out once every year. A classmate at the time, Martin McLoughlin, said the contents of the toilet were usually spread out in the neighbouring fields. Due to the lack of running water, Kenny and the other pupils used to wash their hands and faces in a nearby stream after playing football in the school yard. McLoughlin said running water and flush toilets were considered to be luxuries in the 1950s, when most pupils in the area were emigrating to find work.
“There was no difference between at home and at school. There was no water and no toilets at home, so the expectations for people were pretty low,” he said.
Kenny’s experience of living without running water in his youth certainly made him conscious of the value of it when he got into politics. His father Henry had been a TD for 21 years before he died from cancer in 1975. After Kenny won the subsequent by-election, much of his constituency work involved lobbying for funding for the rollout of group water schemes and getting a proper water supply for Castlebar.
The town had managed to get its first ever foreign direct investment in the form of Travenol Laboratories in 1972. But it was struggling to operate on the town’s poor quality water supply. A new pipeline was built especially for the factory in 1975 to take water from a local lake. But that was not good enough either; other potential businesses were looking elsewhere because of the town’s poor water supply.
‘Castlebar loses out because of poor water supply’ was the headline in the Western People newspaper on October 1, 1977. It complained that a ‘large male-employing industry’ had gone elsewhere due to the shortage of water.
Pigs blood in the Castlebar river
At the time, Castlebar not only had a poor water supply. It also had no wastewater treatment plant. There was a bacon factory in the town that used to employ 700 men in peak season, killing pigs, and cattle as well. All of its waste water went straight into the Castlebar river. Its water used to turn red due to the blood of the pigs. Then there was the stench of raw sewage. It all amounted to a toxic cocktail which was flowing into the River Moy, killing salmon there at the country’s prime fishing spot in Ballina.
According to the Western People report, Kenny believed that it was a ‘disgrace’ that a town the size of Castlebar should be discharging raw sewage into a stream that was incapable of carrying it. It was no joke for the people downstream, particularly in summer time, he said.
At that time, Mayo was almost entirely dependent on group water schemes with only public water supplies in the main towns. McLoughlin said people in rural areas went to the ends of the earth to get water.
“They did everything in the world and they went to enormous expense. They tried to harness rivers, they bought pumps, they harvested waters off sheds and houses and roofs,” he said.
One of the simplest ways of getting water to an area was to install a parish pump. They were installed by councils who had used drilling machines to dig down as far as 300 feet to access underground rivers and springs. A pump would be placed at the bottom to get the water up. McLoughlin spent a lot of his early years repairing the parish pumps as part of his work for Mayo County Council.
“If they were out of action for a day, they’d be onto the council straight away. They used to be queuing up with asses and carts, and buckets at the parish pump,” he said. The parish pumps are now historical artifacts, well maintained in the local parish colours by tidy towns committees. But they were really valuable in a much poorer Ireland.
There was a breakthrough in 1979 when a new water treatment plant was built in Tourmakeady to extract water from the 22,500 acre Lough Mask and pump it to Castlebar. The new public water supply in Castlebar was connected up to the parish of Islandeady three miles away in 1984. Until then, the Kenny family had been relying on a pump they had rigged up to take water from their well.
When the new water supply arrived, the annual water bill for households in Islandeady was IR£70, which increased to €90 with the advent of the euro. But there were no such bills for the ‘townies’ in Castlebar which were also getting the same water supply from the Lough Mask scheme. Mayo County Council agreed to abolish the charges in the early 2000s to end what the locals saw as discrimination.
The threat of domestic water charges in Islandeady rescinded then, at least until Enda Kenny became Taoiseach.
The man with two pints
Irish Water was struggling to get people to even register to pay their bills. One million had not signed up. Then during Leader Questions in the Dáil, Enda Kenny introduced a character who was to become famous. The man with two pints.
“The man who stopped me with the two pints in his hand last week and shouting about the cost of water that he couldn’t pay for,” he said. “And I said to him, what he was holding in his hands would pay for water for him – because I know him – for nearly ten weeks,” he said.
The anti-water protesters were soon gleefully pointing out that Kenny had been talking in the Dáil about meeting another man with two pints two months earlier. He had told that particular man that his two pints would cover his water bill ‘for a couple of weeks’.
Repeated inquiries of Kenny’s inner circle and his contacts in Mayo failed to reveal the name of the man with two pints. The charge against Kenny was that the man was a figment of his imagination. It would not be the first time that a politician had fortuitously bumped into a man who just happened to support the point he was making. Kenny and other ministers kept using the line that water charges would only cost families €3 a week. But Kenny’s supporters insisted that he knew lots of fellows with two pints in Mayo and elsewhere.
“I’ve no doubt it happened. Enda engaged with people in that way,” said a key supporter. Kenny used it as part of his ‘folksy approach’ to particularly thorny issues when discussing them with ministers, according to former government special adviser John Walshe. Kenny would often say: ‘Last week I met a farmer …’ Or it could be a ‘businessman in Crossmolina or a teacher in Ballina’.
Kenny was convinced that by the argument being strongly put by his economic adviser Andrew McDowell that water charges were needed to fix the crumbling water infrastructure.
“We have not measured up for the past 40 or 50 years and it is time to deal with it,” he said in the Dáil.
Throughout all the protests, Kenny’s faith in water charges remained unshaken. Growing up in Islandeady, he had seen how valuable water was and how people were willing to pay for it through group water schemes.
“Enda was irrepressible. He believed water charges were the right thing to do. Because of where he comes from, he couldn’t get why this was ideologically a problem,” said a key supporter.
‘In Deep Water’, published by Mercier Press, was formally launched last week and is on sale now. Michael Brennan is Political Editor of The Sunday Business Post.