It’s interesting how things change as the wheel of time goes around. The very idea of land reclamation is now seen by the green world as a no-go area and a terrible crime. Government and the environmental lobby now favour the polar opposite which is re-wilding.

The very word itself – reclamation – is interesting. It suggests, as it was, reclaiming land from nature with the removal of scrub, the improvement of drainage and liming, all to increase food production. It still goes on in the wider world, it’s principally Europe with its 450 million full-bellied people which is dead set against it.

But Irish land reclamation was the war cry for the past 250 years, and I think we should mark its passing with a brief history.

There was little in the way of land improvement until the eighteenth century. Until then, ridge and furrow (or lazy beds) was the method of growing crops.

There’s a good example of lazy beds at Loughcrew Cairn in north Meath. They’ve remained because it’s too steep to plough, but a SAME Buffalo in the 1970s would have been up to the challenge. And nobody would have said boo.

In the 1770s Arthur Young, the great agriculturist, inspected a scheme where 5,000ac were brought into cultivation and “a sheep walk of furze and fern had been transformed into a sheet of corn”.

Now we’re talking. This was done by hollow drains requiring “several million loads of stones”. We have similar stone shores on the farm still working today.


The Great Famine brought a new round of land drainage schemes with rivers being dredged or sunk, enabling land drainage that wasn’t possible before. Clay drainage pipes were common by 1870 and Government provided loans to landowners to carry out improvements.

Thousands of miles of clay pipe drains were laid by hand, over the next hundred years. This drainage was revolutionary in flat, heavy land like in Co Meath and north Kildare. By the 1940s, Bord na Móna was draining the bogs like billy-o, much of which benefitted farmland.

Enter the late 1960s and the Boyne Arterial Drainage Scheme. This was a scheme where flood-prone towns and farmland were alleviated by a massive Board of Works investment in sinking the Boyne and its bridges and tributaries.

As a child I remember huge Ruston Bucyrus 54RB draglines, with a bucket the size of a VW Beetle, trawling the river. The Boyne drainage spawned land reclamation schemes with lengths of slit-wall, plastic drainage pipe.

Dessie Keegan

This land reclamation suited men like Dessie Keegan and his brothers well. They were the stuff of legends. Dessie was at the forefront of modern land drainage, with Hymacs taking the place of the solitary pipe layer, knee-deep with his spade digging in the mucky drain.

But as they watch by satellite today, the Department were watching then, as drainage work was grant-aided and the arrival on-site of their man, Danny Mangan, was treated with reverence.

I recall the hat and tie-wearing Dessie out with his men piping the rushy Bottoms for my father.

His smile and cheery humour meant that Mr Mangan was kept on side. Alas, Dessie Keegan was laid to rest, close to the Boyne, shortly before Christmas. And if God in his heaven ever needs a dig out, Dessie will do it.

Now the wheel has turned full circle. Like the re-wetted BNM bogs, nature has retaken the rushy Bottoms by my planting with ash some years ago. But I’m not alone in this.

Dessie, the enterprising tillage farmer, planted trees as well. And a copy of the Irish Farmers Journal was presented at his funeral mass. I liked that – you could do the same for me. But only if I’m in it.