Local History with Monica McGill – The Camac played a central part from early Celtic Christian times
The River Camac at the County Council offices, Clondalkin village Photo by Monica McGill

Local History with Monica McGill – The Camac played a central part from early Celtic Christian times

According to the Ordnance Survey, the River Camac rises in the Mount Seskin woodlands (north-west of Brittas), and then meanders through the countryside until it enters the River Liffey under Heuston Station. “Camac” is said to derive from the Irish word for “wandering”.

The Camac’s tributaries include the Brittas River as well as the following streams: the Coolmine/Coalmine, Boherboy, Brownsbarn, Fettercairn, Robinhood, Gallanstown, Blackditch, Galblack and Walkinstown. Some of the tributaries share their names with the areas through which they flow, and all form the Camac Catchment Area.

The Brittas river flows into the Camac for a short distance before it becomes the lake of the same name. Meanwhile, the Camac skirts along the east side of the lake. After exiting the lake, the Brittas re-joins the Camac, and together they flow under the Blessington Road (N81).

Our river has experienced both natural and man-made environments down the years, some beneficial, some not – depending on your viewpoint. Approximately 7km of the river is culverted underground through large pipes, but sometimes it runs above ground as it does beside the County Council offices in Clondalkin village.

Usually, the Camac flows innocently along, but seeing it after rain hints at its possible force and effects on Clondalkin.

For instance, in 2021, exceptionally heavy rain engorged the Camac and resulted in serious flooding in the surrounding area. It caused many householders to be concerned. (See Maurice Garvey’s article in The Echo, 22.1.2021 at https://www.echo.ie/concerns-raised-over-flooding-issues-close-to-housing-estates/)

Using Camac waters, man-made ponds have been created in Corkagh Park to help alleviate local flooding. South Dublin County Council in conjunction with other authorities are examining proposals for a River Camac Flood Alleviation Scheme. Information is online at https://www.camacfas.ie/

In early Celtic Christian times, the Camac was central to Clondalkin becoming a settlement and then a village. It’s also the reason for much of our early and modern industrial history.

Long before AD 630 when he died, St Crónán Mochua founded his monastery in Clondalkin village near the Camac. Typically, three concentric, circular, man-made ramparts and deep ditches (fosses) enclosed such a monastery.

The ramparts were made high enough to protect the monastery from unfriendly encroachment and they marked out the central area of the monastic lands.

A modern roadmap shows that some Clondalkin roadways still follow part of the inner circle of our early monastery. Some of the modern houses on Orchard Road are on rising land many metres above the level of the roadway. They were built on the remains of the inner fosse.

“The Ramparts” is an almost-forgotten name for today’s “Biodiversity Garden”, a narrow strip of land between the local County Council offices and the Camac.

The old name suggests that here the fosse was located so that the river flowed along the inward side of the boundary.

As today, an easily-accessible and reliable supply of clean water was essential for human and animal consumption.

Many industries were established at various times and places along the River Camac and some of its natural route was changed from time to time to suit human needs. From about the 1600s, the Camac’s water turned enormous stone mill wheels. In Clondalkin alone, there were 9 mills at one time, each producing its own speciality. Products included gun-powder used by British military forces in the American War of Independence (which lasted from 1775 to 1783), oil and animal feedstuffs were produced from flax seeds, and cooking flour was ground from grain.

The river was also used to remove foul effluent, a bi-product of some industrial enterprises.

These included the 2 paper-mills (at Saggart and Clondalkin village). In more modern times the Nugget Shoe-Polish factory on the Long Mile Road is said to have added its industrial contribution to the river as it proceeded towards Inchicore, finally passing behind Dr Steevens’s Hospital before becoming part of the Liffey and the waters of the Irish Sea. For many years manufacturing effluent continued to flow into the Camac, and regularly the river was not as clean as it is now. Local legend holds that at one time, it was judged to be one of the dirtiest rivers in Europe.

Clondalkin and Saggart paper-mills produced high-quality paper, used for legal documents and letters of all kinds. Many a love note was written on various papers produced by these mills!

Some readers may remember Swiftbrook Bond writing paper. Ownership of Clondalkin’s last paper mill changed over the years, and it finally closed completely in 1987 and The Mill Shopping Centre stands on the site today.

Many local people worked in Clondalkin Paper Mills. Its closure brought much hardship.

Although the manufacturing industries along the Camac ceased with devastating unemployment results, our local river water is now clean. The Camac is home to many wildlife species that live in, on, or near it.

They depend on it. Some species are rare and their locations are closely-guarded secrets. Others are common-place (and equally welcome). They include birds of all kinds – both native and transitory – as well as insects, fish and mammals we have become accustomed to admiring. Clondalkin’s people are keen to protect our wildlife, recognising our inter-dependency with them.

With the support of South Dublin County Council, the Friends of the Camac (FOTC – a local voluntary group) works all year round to maintain and improve the river and its environment.

The Camac has new meaning – as vital wildlife habitats and opportunities for human recreation, health-giving pursuits and education. FOTC conducts excellent tours along a large stretch of the Camac during Heritage Week each August.

FOTC also produces a regular full-colour publication containing photographs and news. Check out their full list of environmental-improvement activities on their website.

The County Council has worked also with Dublin City Council to collect local stories about the Camac and to promote our river as an important part of our socio-economic culture and endeavours.