By Rose Barrett
For Jean Hobbs, a fascination with water began with her late father, Jim Fenwick, who was Dublin City Council Engineer during the 1990s. Jean is now Irish Water’s project manager on the upgrade of the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant.
“Dad died 10 years ago,” Jean told Dublin Gazette. “But he ignited a consciousness within his children regarding the environment. He created ponds in our garden in the ‘70s so, along with my brother Joe and sister Margaret, I developed a great love and respect for wildlife.
“We’ve always had an affinity for water and the sea. I remember Dad had a little boat and we went out regularly around Dublin Bay. We had trips to Sandycove, and loved walking down the pier at Dun Laoghaire.
“Even when I moved to Aughrim with my husband Myles, we were only 15 minutes from the sea. Myles always knew we’d move back to Dun Laoghaire, so after Dad died, we bought the family home, which we share with Mum, Elizabeth.”
The love of water has passed down the generations and for Jean it’s a comfort that her children have the same sense of place she did growing up.
“My daughters Chloe (13) and Katie (8) play in the same garden and look into the ponds that Dad created. Katie and Myles made a hedgehog shelter recently, from our chopped-up Christmas tree, which was re-designed to provide a functional commodity for hedgehogs and frogs.”
A former student of St Joseph of Cluny School, Killiney, Jean went on to graduate with a Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering degree from Trinity College Dublin.
“St Joseph’s was an all-girls convent school, so choosing engineering in 1987 following my Leaving Certificate was a tad unusual,” she admitted.
When she first walked into the lecture hall at Trinity College, only 10 of the 150 first year engineering students were women.
“I branched into civil engineering in my third year, as my interest lay in water drainage and waste water management. And I graduated with first class honours,” she said proudly.
“As Dad was a civil engineer, I can remember him pointing out different sewage outfall locations – now eradicated – in Dublin Bay when I was only nine.”
In the ‘70s, as Jean played around Dublin Bay, there were two outfalls, one in Dun Laoghaire and one off the nose of Howth. In the 1990s, submarine piping was laid down via two pipelines under the bay to collect the waste water and carry it to Ringsend for treatment.
Jean’s first job as a graduate engineer was to survey foul manholes in Dublin. In two years, she climbed down up to 3,000 manholes to check sewage levels and to ensure there were no blockages.
Not the most glamorous job for a woman, and she recalls being “ribbed unmercifully by friends at my local, McDonagh’s of Dalkey!”
After that Jean worked as an engineer with a consultancy firm, MC O’Sullivan for 25 years. She worked with Jerry Grant, former MD of Irish Water who proved to be an “amazing mentor”.
Her CV includes other significant motorway projects including the M1 and the M50, drainage projects such as the Greater Dublin Strategic Drainage Study and flooding studies on both the River Tolka and River Dodder.
Now Jean is facing a mammoth challenge as project manager for the multi-million euro upgrade of the Ringsend sewerage plant for Irish Water. It was built in 2005 and has long since reached capacity.
“As Dublin Bay is bowl shaped, the first sewage pipes were all downhill and flowed straight into the sea,” explained Jean. “As technology evolved, the engineers started treating the sewage in the ‘70s before it went into the ocean.
“I have an amazing crew of nine engineers working with me. There are only two females among the team; however, my line manager and fellow manager is Maura Joy, programme manager with Irish Water.”
Jean encourages young women who enjoy maths and science in secondary school to consider engineering as a career.
“If you are interested in big infrastructural projects, you would enjoy this work. Engineering also provides an excellent basis for careers in business, management and industry, so it’s a very flexible qualification.”
Ringsend wastewater treatment plant is the largest treatment plant in Ireland, treating 40% of Ireland’s wastewater load. Every month, Irish Water remove approximately 60 tonnes of wipes, sanitary products and other items from the screens at the inlet to the WW treatment plant.
A simple solution to preventing such blockages is to only flush the 3 P’s – Pee, Poo and Paper – down the toilet and throw wipes and other sanitary products in the bin.