River Pollution

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Alphonse Dousseau, Cork, ca. 1830 (Image Credit: The National Library of Wales)
Pollution from Sewage

In most cities water pollution was a major concern. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that health professionals fully understood how water-borne diseases such as typhus and cholera were transmitted. Often this was caused by sewage containing pathogenic organisms entering the the water supply. This was a problem in Cork City.

In 1850 the Southern Reporter and Cork Commerical Courier observed that the River Lee in the neighbourhood of St. Finbarr’s was polluted with sewage from the County Jail, and so was unfit for domestic use. In 1877 the Cork Constitution reported that the River Lee was polluted by sewage with ‘two grains of animal pollution in every gallon’ (29 October 1877).

Sewage also affected smaller towns. In 1865 the commissioners of Bantry town were criticised for the state of the sewers. A writer to the Skibbereen and West Carbery Eagle suggested that ‘decay and death is generally the result of constantly breathing a poisoned atmosphere’ and referred to the smell that emanated from the gratings in the principal street, as well as the North Street cesspool (29 April). While the sewage was causing a bad smell, this example alludes to the miasma theory which proposed that bad smells could cause illnesses; it was only in the latter decades of the nineteenth century that this was replaced by germ theory.

Pollution in Rural Areas

Water in rural areas could be affected as well. Sometimes this arose from natural circumstances such as plants decaying, or wild animals producing faecal matter which entered the water. In other cases, humans were responsible for the contamination of rural water supplies – for instance, through the disposal of waste from farm animals, or the erosion of land as a result of farming activities.

In some parts of Ireland, phosphates were used to fertilise the soil. These would have contained cadmium and uranium (Harrison, 2001). Although land in West Cork was often of poor quality, the population used seaweed and sand to fertilise their soil, and this is referenced in many of the travellers’ accounts, so phosphates were unlikely to have been an issue in this region.

Irish Spurge (Euphorbia hyberna) (Image Credit: Breda Moriarty)

Sometimes poachers added substances such as spurge and lime to rivers in order to capture, and kill, fish more easily and this was also referred to as ‘poisoning’ the water. An 1836 enquiry highlighted this practice as a concern.

In his book, The Fisherman’s Vade Mecum G.W. Maunsell explains how poachers captured the fish. When using lime, he notes that

a carboy of unslaked lime, corked, with a small hole in the cork to let the water in, sunk in the upper end of a pool where fish are, will kill all fish in the pool.

Maunsell went on to explain how the plant spurge (Euphorbia hibernica) was used:

Fill a sack with pulped spurge, place the sack in the stream at the top end of a pool where fish are, stamp well on the sack to press out the milky juice. After two hours all fish in the pool become fuddled or stupefied and can be taken out by hand…In spurge there is a strong alkali and if used in very strong solution it will kill fish.

The 1842 Fisheries Act made the discharge of poisonous materials into rivers where fishing took place a punishable offence.

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