The Blessington Basin was developed as a result of the creation of the Royal Canal. Like its sibling, the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal was built to transfer freight and passenger boats from the Liffey at Dublin to the Shannon River, this was a hugely innovative plan and, prior to the building of the railways in the later half of the nineteenth century, the greatest infrastructural undertaking to date. The Royal Canal’s terminus was at Richmond Harbour at Cloondara in County Longford. Work on the main canal route began in 1790 and finished at the Shannon in 1817. The canal mouth in Dublin reaches the Liffey through a wide sequence of dock and locks at Spencer Dock, with a final sea lock to manage access to the river and sea. In 1789 Dublin Corporation commissioned the Royal Canal Company to build a harbour on Constitution Hill, connected to the main canal at Phibsborough by a spur. The branch line was completed by 1796, the harbour’s location was chosen for its proximity to the City markets and the law courts.
Cities were dangerous places to live until the 20th century. City populations constantly had to be bolstered by an influx of workers from the countryside. Death rates were high for working people, mostly due to the dreadful lack of sanitation and clean water. Outbreaks of cholera and dysentry were frequent and infant mortality was shockingly high. Providing a clean water supply to the city was proving a difficulty to the City Corporation in the latter half of the eighteenth century, especially to the north side of this city which had been recently developed by the Gardiner family. The Royal Canal Company saw an opportunity both to make an extra profit and
to remedy this with the completion of the canals. Between 1807 and 1809 a spur was built to Broadstone and the City Basin at Blessington Street was constructed. Excavated soil from the basin works was sold to the Grand Canal Company for 5d per cubic yard in order to build up the banks of the Broadstone harbour, and Lord Palmerston purchased a substantial quantity of the spoil to raise the surface of upper Dominick Street. This money off set some of the costs of building the basin. The basin, which has a capacity of 5 million litres of water, was also used to supply water to the two large distilleries of Powers in Thomas Street and Jameson’s at Bow Lane.
In 1810 the basin was completed and a William Ferguson was appointed as basin-keeper at a salary of £1 per week. The basin was used for recreational purposes from its inception (as were the other two basins at James’s street and Portobello – built 1812). The Blessington basin was less smart than the other two and appears to have had a rowdier clientele. The keeper Ferguson found an ingenious way to supplement his rather meagre salary by opening a sheebeen on the site. The city assembly shut this down in 1815 stating that ‘in future, none of the … basin keepers [are] allowed to sell porter, ale, or spirits at any of the city basins or to permit any person to do so on pain of dismissal’.
It seems that despite this, intrusion by the public was still a problem as in 1828 the walls were raised and finished with round topped coping and shards of glass. Guide books and gazetteers from the 19th century describe James’s street as having a gravel walk and being used for promenading, whereas Blessington basin was ‘encompassed by a terrace and enclosed by a strong close hedge.
There were problems with the cleanliness of the water in the royal canal, in 1835 the corporation complained to the canal company about ‘the practices of painting the bottoms of canal boats with gas tar, and suffering manure from boats to fall into the water., the problem was solved by John Semple, the corporation architects and engineer to the pipe water works. Semple designed a sewer which would bring water directly from the canal to a screw chamber from whence it would be issued into the mains. The sewer was built to Semple’s specifications by James Hickey to provide an adequate temporary supply of water while the reservoir was thoroughly cleaned out.
The basin continued to in use as a reservoir, but with the advent of the Vartry water supply in 1868 it was no longer used for domestic purposes and its primary function was to supply the distilleries.
In 1887 it was decided to convert the basin into a public park under the open spaces act, as it ‘would be of great benefit to the inhabitants of the surrounding district, which comprise a large number of the artisan classes’. The conversion included construction of a public promenade around the water’s edge, surrounded by a hedge for safety, and a small play-area was provided for children near the main entrance. A caretaker was appointed to take charge of the grounds, and a gate-lodge was built to the designer of the city engineer, spencer Harty.
The Blessington street Park opened in 1891. In 1900 it was proposed to bid a band stand at the basin ‘for the performance of music for the education and benefit of the people’, however this plan was abandoned as there was found to be no room for one without filling in part of the basin. A Tudor cottage-style lodge was designed and built by Spencer Harty.
The aqueduct and canal that once linked the site to the Royal canal are gone almost without a trace and what the Neo-Egyptian railway station is now a bus depot and garage. The canal was filled in at around 1927 and Phibsborough Library was built on top of it.
In 1993, after decades of stagnation and neglect, Dublin Corporation’s Parks Department began restoring it as a recreational facility, removing 6000 tons of silt and debris, adding a fountain, enlarging the central island for wildlife and undertaking extensive replanting. The Blessington Basin still obtains its water from the canal above the 8th lock, two miles away, but is now a picturesque walled park of one and a quarter acres, with a paved and landscaped walk around the basin fenced off by wrought-iron railings, and scattered with sculptures and places to sit.