In the biggest street protest in decades, up to 100,000 demonstrators brought Dublin city center to a standstill last weekend during a mass march and rally against the new water charges which have now come into effect here.

Meanwhile up to twenty backbenchers in Fine Gael, the governing party stood up and attacked their own leadership at a tense party meeting over water charges

No one had expected more than a few thousand people to turn up at the march, the usual number seen on the streets for protests in the capital. The size of this demonstration has left the government in shock. Nothing on this scale has been seen since the anti-tax marches of the late 1970s.

As a result the government is badly shaken, and like a drowning man clutching at straws it made some minor changes in this week's budget which will lower water charges not just for low income families but for everyone. That's how worried they are. But it's unlikely to save them from the widespread anger on the issue.

Charging for water is the straw that finally has broken the back of taxpayers here who have also been hit with the new property tax and other charges which have seen their after-tax incomes cut to the bone to pay for Ireland's bailout.

The striking thing about Saturday's mass demonstration in Dublin was that it was not just people from the capital who took part. The issue is so emotive that busloads of people came from all over the country to take part.

The big problem now for the government, just a year and a half out from the next general election, is that they are too far down the road to reverse policy on charging for water services. The two government parties, Fine Gael and Labour, each got a pathetic eight percent of the vote in two by-elections last week, severely denting their hopes of getting re-elected in the general election in 2016.

And it's hard to have any sympathy for them. Paying for metered water services through a separate charge is normal in other European countries and in the U.S. It should be normal here too, but the whole thing has been so badly handled by the government that Irish people are strongly opposed to it.

Why don't we have water charges? That goes back to the abolition of rates (local taxation which paid for water and other services) by Fianna Fail as an election gimmick back in 1977. Since then local councils have been funded by central government, including the cost of the water services they provide.

It's not true to say that people here have not been paying for water services since then – the cost has simply been switched into increased sales taxes and general taxation. Which explains why people are now saying that they are being asked to pay twice for their water.

Central control of funding has also meant that the local councils have continued with the serious under-investment in water services that has gone on for many decades, in fact since the foundation of the state.

Blessed as Ireland is with plentiful rainfall, we don't have a shortage of water. But we do have a shortage of treated water, a shortage that has become acute in recent years as water consumption has increased rapidly with development.

Up to now, water services have been provided by some 50 local councils, which has meant that planning and any spending on improving water services has been poorly coordinated and implemented. This applies both to the provision of treated water and the handling of waste water, including sewage.

Water, of course, is a big issue in all countries these days, and our failure to invest properly in water services is out of line with European policy. Our overloaded sewage plants in many towns and cities means regular overspills and pollution of rivers and beaches. It also means that there are ongoing problems with drinking water in some areas, with "boil before use" notices common.

This situation is part of the reason why the terms of our recent bailout from the EU and the IMF included a demand that the Irish government must start charging for water services. Fianna Fail, still in power when the bailout happened, accepted this and the present government had no option but to fall in line.

In spite of the opposition to water charges, there is a general understanding here that huge investment in our water services is now necessary. People know that a sewage system that means beaches around our cities have Do Not Swim signs up after heavy rain causes sewage overflows needs to be fixed. They also know that a massive 40 percent of treated water is lost through the antiquated pipes under our roads before it can get to the taps in our houses.

Much of the water system in Ireland – the reservoirs, treatment plants, pipe networks, sewage works – was built by the British and was state of the art in its day. That was a century or two ago and many of the original pipes and sewers are still operating, but leaking badly. It is one of the scandals of the boom era here that we did not then spend the massive amounts of money required to fix this.

Now that the present government has finally acted, it has made a complete mess of it. It set up a new agency called Irish Water at the start of last year with authority to put meters outside every house and business and the power to start charging for water.

What was the first thing this new agency did? It got itself a swanky new office block in Dublin and hundreds of office staff. It spent over €80 million on consultants. It hired outside contractors to start putting meters in everywhere. It also began a massive publicity campaign to convince us all that it had our very best interests at heart.

This included expensive, slick TV commercials and newspaper ads and a 24-page application brochure delivered to every home in the country. In this they say that they're a new company that has a "new funding model" for our water services and that we are all "at the start of a journey together."

The application form also asks for my name and address, the names of everyone else in my house, my home number, my mobile number, my email address, my bank account details and my PPS number (this is my personal identification number for all state business used when I pay tax, apply for welfare, etc. etc). And it also wants the PPS numbers for my wife and children.

The only thing the caring, sharing Irish Water does not want to know in the application form is what I had for my breakfast. I don't have to supply all this private information to pay for my gas or electricity, so why is it necessary to pay for water?

Irish Water says we have to register with them by returning our application forms before the end of this month. To force us to comply, they say failure to do so means we will not be given the annual "free allowance" of water each home will be getting, and we will be charged for everything we have used when the bills start arriving next year.

The "free allowance" has been set at 30,000 liters per household per year, plus an additional 21,000 liters for each child under 18. This is reckoned to be about half what an average family of two adults and two children would use in a year, although these estimates have been greeted with derision by many families here.

So Irish Water had put a lot of effort and a huge amount of money into setting itself up and installing meters and devising a way of forcing the population to join up so they can be charged.

But what has Irish Water not done? It has not done anything to start repairing or replacing the leaking pipes and the overloaded sewage plants.

In fact it has now emerged that any actual work to improve our water system over the next 12 years will be done by the council staff who have always done the work. This is part of "service agreements" Irish Water has entered into with the councils, basically guaranteeing that no one will lose their job in that time. So much for increased efficiency!

What has also emerged is that the early indications given by the government that the annual water charge for the average house would by €278 is misleading.

In my house where there are five adults (three grown-up children) the cost will be well over €600 – and much more if they keep having power showers as often as they do.

So the truth about all this is that the government has set up another massive quango, a big organization that does nothing to improve water services and instead concentrates on screwing as much money as they can out of us. It's a tough job which is why all the layers of top management in Irish Water will be getting big salaries and bonuses and expenses.

It's also complex, because of the "free" water allowances being supplied to all houses and the extra "free" water allowances for kids under 18. That's why they need all the PPS numbers, they say – in case we lie about the number of kids and their ages.

All this is wrapped up in caring, sharing blarney about how we're all entering into a new environmentally pure and shining future in which we and Irish Water will be partners.

It's not fooling anyone. Which is why up to 100,000 people were protesting on the streets of Dublin last weekend.

A protestor takes to the streets in Dublin on Saturday.Photocall / Sam Boal