Drinking in the Landscape

The Fergus river rises in the hills between Kilfenora and Kilnaboy, towards the northern part of Co.
Clare. Interestingly (if you’re interested in such things) the Fergus catchment lies directly south of
the vast karst landscape of the Burren. On a river map of Ireland, this area of North Clare and East
Galway looks remarkably bare and barren, not at all unlike the bare rock that swallows all the rain
that falls on it, hiding it in its deep cavernous belly.
South of this bare area, the river gathers together each small stream; meandering east then south
through a string of lakes. It flows on towards the town of Ennis and then makes a lazier way
through low lying grazing land and flood protection bunds to meet the River Shannon. Along the
way from source to sea, many tributaries twist and turn their way to meet the Fergus, adding to its
flow and providing corridors for wildlife to navigate around the riparian network of the county.
As the kingfisher flies, I live within a 2km of the Shallee River, one of these many tributaries. Rain
that falls on our garden seeps down through the thin soil layer and enters the aquifer beneath. It is
this groundwater reserve that rises as a spring at Drumcliff to feed the Ennis town water supply.
Rain isn’t the only water that falls onto the soil however. Runoff from roads, farm yards, fields,
roads and septic tanks all carry contamination of one sort or another into the ground. We turn our
tap and drink that same water, albeit a little less tasty for the chlorine added during treatment.
In Denmark the different regional water companies have an annual competition to see who can
produce the best tasting water; a function of the management of the landscape within their care.
Imagine if we had such a competition here in Ireland. With Co. Clare limestone for flavour, we
could win hands down if we didn’t need chlorine.
It wouldn’t take much. Many of the septic tanks in the area are already routed to the main Ennis
sewage system, removing them from the Drumcliff Springs catchment. Wooded buffer zones along
drains and streams would go a long way towards filtering field runoff. With a good farming-for-
nature programme, local farmers could draw extra income from practicing measures that enhance
wildlife, soil health and protect waterways. If the bacteria numbers were to fall, so too would the
requirement for water treatment and chemical dosing. I can see the headlines already: “It’s official!
Ennis water supply wins Ireland’s Tastiest Water competition”.
I confess that this daydream isn’t without ulterior motive. Cleaner drinking water is something that I
long for. To say that I feel connected to the water here would be to understate the clear physical
interconnection that exists. The water molecules that flow through the river catchment are the same
molecules that flow in my blood. Every drink I take from our tap is a drink from that upwelling
spring at Drumcliff. It is a drink from the land itself, from the broad spread of the Drumcliff Springs
catchment, a triangle of land between Ennis, Corofin and Inagh. With each glassful my body gathers
into itself the minerals from the rock beneath our feet and the taste of the soil and fields and hazel
woods. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful landscape to distil into a clear liquid as this one.