Regatta Sunday is Fermoy’s busiest day, and if the sun is shining along the riverbank, probably the best day to enjoy a walk down Barnane.
Fermoy Regatta begins at dawn as boats and crews arrive in town. Ashe Quay is alive with people, as over 2,000 competitors and their supporters prepare to compete in the regatta’s 212 races. It’s a major event on the town’s sporting, social and economic calendar.
Stroll down toward the Rowing Club and navigate your way between the boat trailers and the kids mess-acting and enjoying their day out, and the young parents pushing buggies. You’ll hear familiar voices on the tannoy as veteran announcers deliver almost entirely impartial race commentary, and the sound of the finishing horn will regularly break the air.
If you’re a local, you’ll meet old friends at the regatta, friends you may not have seen since the last one. If you’re not a local, that’s okay too. Walk up to the clubhouse, between kids washing down boats, and head upstairs for a bite to eat. You’ll be among friends. The Munster hurling final will be on in the lounge. Or head out to the balcony and watch the boats race past along Fermoy’s glorious Blackwater. The Fermoy Concert Band will be playing on the riverbank, and later in the evening, DJ Dave will spin some discs.
It’s hard to say how long Fermoy has had a regatta. It’s actually hard too to even say how long Fermoy has had a rowing club. Officially, Fermoy Rowing Club dates back to 1884, but I’ve heard stories of locals taking to the water in defiance of the British Army, perhaps half a century earlier. Fermoy Rowing Club president Jim Hackett, says there were regattas in Fermoy in the 1930s, and he has press clippings dating back to the 1963 regatta.
It’s hard to say how much longer Fermoy will have a regatta.
“We’ve been warning people for years,” says club treasurer Paul Kavanagh, “and now you can see we weren’t exaggerating. Last August, we were panicking when water levels were 18 inches below normal. We were appealing then to the OPW (Office of Public Works). Now it’s at least twice that. This year, we’re at a historic low of three feet below where we should be.”
I can confirm that. Last August, I wrote a column here about walking the weir at the height of summer. This week, I retraced my steps from the Triangle Field. Where last year the weir was, at its highest point on the north-west, a foot above water level, now it’s twice that. Last year the surface of the weir was bone-dry but water was running freely down the salmon pass. Now there’s barely a trickle. A cloud of dust springs up when you step on the moss-covered stone tiers.
This isn’t about low summer water levels. This is about the twenty foot breach in the weir across from the Garda Station.
The OPW has a lot to answer for here. During Fermoy’s flood relief scheme, it widened O’Neill Crowley Quay, building an in-river roadway to facilitate that extension. Pile-driving into the river bed damaged buildings along the quay. Houses as far away as Green Hill suffered cracked walls. The weir was ground zero, and the capstones along the eastern section were loosened.
Widening the quay narrowed the river, and the millrace was all-but closed off. That forced a continual, concentrated torrent of water over the weir at O’Neill Crowley Quay, across from the Garda Station. That creates a huge turbulence in the water and causes a build-up of gravel islands in the river, which clog up the path of migrating salmon. The turbulence confuses the salmon, causing them to become trapped at the south-eastern base of the weir, where they attempt vainly to leap a six-foot wall.
That force of water has broken the weir wall, and two huge chunks have fallen away. A third will follow soon. Water is gushing out, and that’s why upstream levels are historically low.
Fermoy Weir is a listed, protected structure, the property of Cork County Council, but there seems to be next to no political will to fix it. Last week, Fianna Fáil councillor Deirdre O’Brien, expressed her annoyance that other councillors didn’t back her proposal that Ministers Seán Kyne and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran be asked to meet a delegation to discuss Fermoy Weir.
One Fine Gael councillor told me the Council can’t afford to fix the weir and asked me, rather oddly, “What about the poor homeless people?”
(Actually, that’s not a bad question. Fine Gael came to power in 2011. On Census Night 2011, 3,808 people were either sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation. Seven years on, no matter how Eoghan Murphy tries to cook the books, we have over 10,000 people homeless.)
Seán Sherlock TD is now chair of the Oireachtas Petitions Committee. I understand he is exploring a mechanism by which the issue of the weir could be highlighted through a Dáil committee. Sadly, that’s months away.
Autumn will see thousands of salmon dash themselves against Fermoy Weir. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion Inland Fisheries Ireland which, it seems, wants every weir in Ireland ripped out, and Cork County Council which owns Fermoy Weir, would be entirely happy to see the cornerstone of Fermoy washed away.
If Fermoy Regatta brings 2,000 competitors to town of a Summer Sunday, that’s on top of the spectators who’ll drop down to say hello. Over the course of the day, that’s at least another 2,000 people.
That’s a lot of ice cream, soft drinks, sandwiches, lunches, petrol, pints, and a lot of other produce too, that might not otherwise have been bought here. Fermoy Regatta is a big deal to the town, whether some might realise that or not.
“Could this be Fermoy’s final regatta?” asks Paul Kavanagh. “Unless Cork County Council gets serious, I’m afraid it might be. If the council doesn’t repair the weir, it’s only a matter of time 'til a fallen tree blows out what’s left of it.
“And it’s not just the regatta. Take out the weir, and you’re left with a shallow stream. That’s the end of the wheelchair boat, the swimmers, the kayakers, the triathletes, the anglers and everybody else. That’s the end of our river.
“I will say this, though, the people of Fermoy won’t give up without a fight. And woe betide the politician who doesn’t stand with us.”
Fermoy Regatta, Sunday 1 July 2018.