Development of Legislation

During the 18th century, the Irish Parliament passed several Acts relating to land drainage. They required the initiative of promoters. The works carried out were largely limited to the construction of canals. The Board of Inland Navigation continued to exist after the Union of 1800.

By 1831, the Board of Works evolved into the Office of Public Works subsumed several Boards and commissions. This included the Commissioners dealing with navigation and drainage of the River Shannon.

Petition to Drain

Under the  Drainage Ireland Act 1842, landowners in the district could petition the Board to have the Act apply to their district. They were obliged to undertake to pay the whole of the preliminary expenses in the event of the project not being approved. If the project proceeded, the cost would be funded and become a charge on the lands.

With the issue of the petition, a preliminary meeting was held of the owners in the area. The consent of two-thirds of land owners was required. This would subsequently bind and charge land concerned.

A commission for drainage was established by the 1842 Act. Initial take up of the legislation was low, with only 50 applications and 15 schemes surveyed by 1845. The position was dramatically affected by the failure of the potato harvest and the famine in the mid-1840s. The works became part of the relief measures by the Board of Works.

Famine Era

In 1846 the Board of Works was consolidated with the commissioners for drainage and the drainage legislation was reformed in 1846. There was a rush of applications, with over 300 new applications being received in over 40 districts.

Employment on drainage schemes reached 5,000 by 1846. This eventually rose to 17,000 the following year. Over a quarter million acres were drained under the provisions. The initial expenses were provided by the Treasury.

After 1846, schemes were carried on under the Summary Proceedings Act 1846 rather than the 1842 Act. The delay between the application and the engineer report was cut significantly and work were commenced within one to two months. Substantial drainage relief works were undertaken as part of famine relief. The costs of the works continued to be charged against the land.

The 1846 Act provided for the direct carrying out of the works under the supervision and control of the Board. The consent of one-half in value (rateable valuation) of the owners in the district was all that was required. There was a cap on the amount of expenditure under the completed scheme. Under this latter legislation, a significant amount of arterial drainage work was undertaken

Over 140 drainage districts were established under the 1842 Act. It affected over a quarter of a million acres with over £2,000,000 advanced, of which £200,000 was provided by local funds.

Later Acts

In 1863, new legislation was passed based on UK legislation. The initiative remained with the landowners. It provided a duty on the Board of Works to examine schemes, advise owners, consider options and prepare provisional orders for approval, advance loans and make awards determining the amount of charge. The scheme operated until 1914.

The schemes under the 1842 Act were maintained by drainage trustees. They were maintained by drainage Boards under the 1863 legislation. Many drainage Boards and drainage trustees failed to maintain the schemes and the Board of Works was empowered to step in under the   Maintenance Act of 1866.

Under the Landed Property Improvements Act, proprietors in the west of Ireland were encouraged to drain their land. Drainage works were introduced under the Poor Employment Act. Over 1,500 baronial drainage presentments took place in 29 counties. Over £25,000 was approved by the Board of Works during the early years of the famine.


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