Every chance local officials and representatives had to repair Fermoy Weir, the buck was passed and the can was kicked. Spare us the hand-wringing now, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
I was front page news once, and I didn’t like it one bit.
It was December 2010, and the country was covered in a blanket of snow. It was so cold in Fermoy that the Blackwater froze over. Brave souls walked out on the ice, and down by Nyhan’s Island, tiny fish were trapped, frozen like flies in amber. It was a dramatic time in the town, and I was the lead story in The Avondhu.
I found myself thinking about that occasion last Friday morning, as I stood on O’Neill Crowley Quay looking out at what’s left of Fermoy Weir. I felt sick to my stomach. There’s no pleasure in “I told you so”, when the “I told you” was a warning that something precious would be lost forever unless action was taken, and when that warning was ignored, and when the worst has come to pass.
Emily Aherne had The Avondhu lead story: FERMOY WEIR – ‘THE INEVITABLE HAS HAPPENED’ “Another part of the weir in Fermoy collapsed on Wednesday morning following a small amount of flooding of the river.”
The latest section of the weir to be lost – and it won’t be the last – was glorious, I think one of the most beautiful sights in Ireland. In summer, the water would spill over in a cascade of shining light, down to a shallow apron and then to the river below. If you were lucky of an August evening, you might spot a salmon leap there, and see it sparkle silver in the twilight. And it’s gone now, and anyone with a brain in their head or a heart in their breast knows it’s gone for good.
John Anderson’s weir is a 200-year-old masterpiece of Regency era engineering, the cornerstone of the modern town, and it’s been in trouble since at least the turn of the millennium. Gifted to the town in the 1980s, it has been neglected ever since.
In 2006, Fermoy Town Council, then the owner of the weir, was informed by officials from the Southern Regional Fisheries Board and from the then Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, that the EU had received a complaint that salmon were becoming trapped at the damaged Fermoy Weir, and that the EU was demanding the weir be removed, and be replaced with a rock ramp pass, a tiered, crenelated stone structure similar to that installed in Kilkenny.
A year later, the then Minister for State for Fisheries Sean Power, came to Fermoy Rowing Club and said Ireland would be fined ‘hundreds of thousands of euro a day’ by The Man from Europe if the problem wasn’t solved. Plans for a rock ramp pass were produced, and the line was that this was the only thing would placate The Man from Europe. Rowing Club members noted the proposed structure was 16 inches lower in height than Fermoy Weir. The point was made that 16 inches at the weir would translate as a metre in lower water levels upstream by the Rowing Club. Southern Regional Fisheries officials dismissed such concerns, and spoke of their agenda to remove every single redundant weir (no longer powering a mill) in the country, saying they have the power to recommend such removals under Section 116 of the Fisheries Act.
In July 2009, members of Fermoy Rowing Club and members of Fermoy angling clubs travelled to Brussels, thanks to then MEP Kathy Sinnott, and met with The Man from Europe. Not only did The Man from Europe say he had never demanded a rock ramp pass, but he said the EU would be perfectly happy with a repair of the weir.
When the then Minister of State Conor Lenihan, was told this a week later at a meeting in Government buildings, he gave the strong impression of a man misled by his advisors. Lenihan came to Fermoy that September and actually took a swim in the Blackwater.
On Monday, 21st December 2009, Minister Lenihan told Fermoy Rowing Club that he had signed a Ministerial Order for the repair of Fermoy Weir. He wrote to Fermoy Town Council giving them a year to carry out repairs.
Nine months later, Fermoy Town Council got around to writing back to ask the minister for funding. Lenihan then told Fermoy Town Council that he couldn’t allocate funding, as his advisors said a repair would not be the optimal solution.
I was secretary of Fermoy Rowing Club at the time, and as the year was frittered away, we did everything we could to keep the pressure on the Town Council. I plagued Brian Moore in The Avondhu, and Bill Browne and Joe Leogue over in The Corkman.
The stories are still online on the old Save Fermoy Weir website, and they make for depressing reading.
“ROWING CLUB SAYS IT MAY CLOSE IF WEIR IS REPLACED” – Frank McDonald, Irish Times, 31/5/2010
“FERMOY WEIR ISSUES RAISED BY CLLR HANLEY” The Avondhu 8/7/2010
“CHANCES SLIM FOR REPAIR OF FERMOY WEIR AS 50-DAY DEADLINE LOOMS” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 15/7/2010
“TOWN COUNCIL HAS NOT CONTACTED MINISTER ON WEIR ISSUE” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 29/7/2010
“THOUSANDS OF SALMON COULD DIE AS WATER LEVELS DROP AT WEIR” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 2/9/2010
“ROWING CLUB SECRETARY COMES UNDER FIRE” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 24/9/2010
“DONAL O’KEEFFE HITS BACK OVER CLLR HANLEY’S ‘SNIPING’ ARTICLE” – The Avondhu, 30/9/2010
“COUNCILLORS ROW IN BEHIND TOWN CLERK” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 7/10/2010
“ROWING CLUB SEEKS URGENT MEETING WITH TOWN COUNCIL” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 7/10/2010
“FERMOY TOWN COUNCILLORS ARE HAPPY THAT WEIR WILL BE SORTED” – Brian Moore, The Avondhu, 24/10/2010
On and on it ground, going nowhere, with Lenihan’s deadline blown, and each successive flood wearing the weir further away. In 2014, Phil Hogan put the town councils out of our misery, and Fermoy Weir passed to the equally-uncaring ownership of Cork County Council.
During Fermoy’s flood relief scheme, contractors for the Office of Public Works widened O’Neill Crowley Quay, pile-driving into the river bed. Houses as far away as Green Hill reported structural damage. Widening the quay narrowed the river beside it, and — for reasons unknown — the historic sluice gates were removed and the millrace all but closed off. That had the effect of funnelling a continual, concentrated torrent of water at the weir at O’Neill Crowley Quay, the precise section which has now collapsed.
I wrote about this in the Irish Examiner last October. I claim no special prescience. A child in Junior Infants could have predicted what happened last week.
Last Friday morning, I looked at the flood waters rushing through the massive hole where the eastern section of Fermoy Weir used to be, and I looked again to the front page of The Avondhu, and to Emily Aherne’s story.
“Well known Fermoy man John Murphy was extremely concerned when he noticed that another part of the weir was gone,” Emily reported.
“‘It’s seriously time for action now. There’s no more point in looking at it and saying we have to do something. It’s time to get the job done. So many things are going to be affected upriver if it’s not repaired – there’ll be no rowing, no regatta and so much more. Funding has to be sought and contractors need to come in,’ Mr Murphy told The Avondhu.”
I found myself thinking about that time I ended up on the front page of The Avondhu.
“SHOCK RESIGNATION OF ROWING CLUB SECRETARY” read a headline which is no less mortifying now than it was in December 2010.
I wasn’t Brian Moore’s source, but I might as well have been, for all that anyone believed my denials.
“… The Avondhu has learned of the resignation of Donal O’Keeffe as secretary at Fermoy Rowing Club.
“…The Avondhu received a copy of Mr O’Keeffe’s resignation letter from a member of Fermoy Rowing Club in which Mr O’Keeffe states that ‘At the October meeting of Fermoy Town Council, the club president, Cllr John Murphy, disowned publically my criticisms and stated that the rowing club is very happy with the town council. I felt this undermined completely my position, so, at the last committee meeting, I asked the members of the committee to decide which one of us spoke for the club. Not receiving the support of the committee, I was left with no choice but to resign’.”
Every opportunity to save Fermoy Weir was hard-won by volunteers, and at every turn, squandered by officials and representatives. So it’s really hard to take the hand-wringing now.
Water levels upstream will now drop to their lowest point in over 800 years. The future looks bleak for Fermoy Rowing Club, for the Wheelyboat, the anglers, the triathletes and for all the others who depend on a Blackwater shaped by John Anderson’s weir. Anyone expecting a speedy repair would be advised not to hold their breath.
Reacting to the weir’s collapse, Joe Leogue, now with the Irish Examiner, tweeted: “This was an issue when I was working in local media in Fermoy some 12 years ago, and even then it was an ongoing story. It’s out and out negligence that has led to this point.”
His colleague Eoin English replied: “Start the clock: the weir in the Regional Park #Ballincollig collapsed in 2014. It led to the draining of the lovely canals which run right through the park. Still waiting for repairs.”