Dear Dr Byrne,

I write to congratulate Inland Fisheries Ireland on the cancellation of Fermoy Regatta, the first time in 80 years this annual sporting event has not gone ahead. Thanks to IFI, Fermoy’s Blackwater is now a river fit only for fish.

I hope you don’t mind my writing to you like this. I suppose the reason I thought to write to you at all is that you were quick enough yourself to write to correct me when I wrote an article about Fermoy Weir for the Irish Examiner last October.

I’ll get to that in a moment, if I may, but first I really should commend Inland Fisheries Ireland on the single-mindedness with which it has pursued its brief in Fermoy’s Blackwater. Inland Fisheries Ireland’s website describes IFI as “the state agency responsible for the protection, management and conservation of Ireland’s inland fisheries and sea angling resources”.

As someone who has dealt, on and off, with Inland Fisheries Ireland and its predecessor the Southern Regional Fisheries Board for over a decade, I can honestly say that I believe IFI has behaved in Fermoy with an almost fanatical dedication to the migration up-river of salmon, and has never once given a single consideration to any other aspect of the Blackwater river.

That single-mindedness has resulted, collaterally, in the cancellation of an 80-year-old annual sporting event, one which would have brought thousands of people to Fermoy, and which has been worth every year, tens of thousands of Euro to Fermoy’s economy.

The third Great Blackwater Swim has been cancelled too. The future of Fermoy Rowing Club, home to 150 athletes under the age of 18, is now under direct threat. Fermoy’s beloved Wheelyboat, Ireland’s only Mark III wheelchair-accessible fishing boat, will no longer be able to ply its route up to the historic Castlehyde House.

But who cares, right? So long as the salmon can get up-river, let the 200-year-old listed, protected structure that is Fermoy Weir collapse (“I’ll have the bulldozers in there in the morning,” one colleague of yours told a packed River Room in Fermoy’s Grand Hotel in 2008. Another said “It’s barely a lump of concrete”). Let Fermoy’s Blackwater slow to a swampy trickle, let the Rowing Club which gave Ireland Olympians close, and let the Wheelyboat rot, so long as the salmon can get up-river.

The thing is, those of us in Fermoy who campaigned to save Fermoy Weir want salmon to get upstream. We care passionately about our environment. It’s just that we care passionately about our river and our town and our sports clubs, too. We care passionately, and we are capable of seeing beyond a single, zealous obsession.

We were there, in the upstairs lounge of Fermoy Rowing Club, in November 2006, when John Browne TD, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, told us as an absolute fact that ‘The Man From Europe’ was going to charge Ireland hundreds of thousands of Euro a day in fines if Fermoy Weir wasn’t replaced with a spang-new, shiny rock-ramp pass.

He didn’t say that in a malicious or threatening way. He said it in that friendly, common-sense, “Shur lookit lads, couldn’t we be spending that kind of money on better things than giving it to The Man From Europe” way, beloved of junior ministers everywhere.

In other words, I am certain the then minister spoke in good faith and was merely repeating the advice he had received. I cannot say precisely from where that advice emanated, but I can say with absolute certainty that no official from what was then the Southern and Regional Fisheries Board contradicted him that day, even though his statement was completely erroneous.

We were there, in Brussels, when The Man From Europe (the EU Environment DG) turned out to be A Man From Mitchelstown, and when he said in no uncertain terms the EU had never ordered Ireland to replace Fermoy Weir, but rather, he said, the EU would be perfectly happy if Ireland repaired the damaged salmon pass on the western side of Fermoy Weir.

We were there in Government Buildings in 2009 when the then-minister Conor Lenihan gave every appearance of a man shocked to learn the agenda to replace Fermoy Weir with a rock-ramp pass, was predicated on a tissue of lies. Lenihan then ordered Fermoy Town Council to repair the western salmon pass on Fermoy Weir.  

We remember, nearly a year later, Fermoy Town Council begging Lenihan for money to pay for that repair. Lenihan replied that the best advice he had was that a simple repair of Fermoy Weir (as advised by the EU) would not be sufficient.

I wonder who supplied the minister with that dodgy advice?

And then, in time, Inland Fisheries Ireland decided that they no longer wanted the rock-ramp pass so roundly rejected by the people of Fermoy, but wanted instead a bypass channel, a sort of private river for salmon, to be built from the Triangle Field on the north-west bank and up through John Anderson’s old front field.

Figures are hard to come by in all of this, but some estimates suggest this EuroDisney theme-park for salmon might cost up to €5 million. Members of the Rowing Club suggest a simple repair of the original Fermoy Weir could be completed for less than €1 million.

I mentioned earlier, Dr Byrne, that you had corrected an inaccuracy in my Irish Examiner article. You wrote:

“Donal O’Keeffe’s article of the 15th of October highlighting the importance of Fermoy Weir greatly misrepresents Inland Fisheries Ireland’s position in relation to the status of this weir and others around the country. While reviewing a sequence of events which occurred relating to Fermoy Weir during the period 2006 – 2009, Mr O’Keeffe states that Inland Fisheries Ireland’s officials spoke of ‘an agenda to remove every redundant weir in the country’. However, in fact Inland Fisheries Ireland was not in existence during this was only formed as a new organisation in 2010, following the amalgamation of the regional fisheries boards.”

You say I “greatly misrepresent…” IFI’s position in regard to its stated agenda (again, in the River Room of Fermoy’s Grand Hotel in 2008) to remove every redundant weir in the country, but it’s odd that the only way in which you say I misrepresent it is that I sloppily called IFI by the name of one of its previous incarnations.

You may feel I am being unfair in pinning the cancellation of Fermoy Regatta on Inland Fisheries Ireland, and indeed, I should acknowledge that in facilitating the collapse of Fermoy Weir, IFI was aided and ably abetted by the serial spinelessness and incompetence of Fermoy Weir’s owners Cork County Council and, before it, Fermoy Town Council.

You might well say that the regatta has been, in point of fact, cancelled because of low water levels caused by damage to the eastern mill-race wall of the weir, (damage caused – as Paul Kavanagh and Tommy Lawton alleged at last month’s Oireachtas Petitions Committee – by the Office of Public Works and by its agents, Lagan,) and not directly because of the damage to the western salmon pass.

However, Cork County Council officials have repeatedly told members of Fermoy Rowing Club that their every effort to begin repairs on Fermoy Weir has been stymied by Inland Fisheries Ireland. Fermoy Weir has become, thanks to Inland Fisheries Ireland, a no-go area, and has thus been allowed to wash away.

So, congratulations, Dr Byrne. Fermoy Regatta is cancelled, for the first time in 80 years, and it won’t be the last cancellation, in a river now fit only for fish. That’s some achievement.

I hope you’re proud.

Yours sincerely,

Donal O’Keeffe.