(A conversation I have several times a week, by Donal O’Keeffe)
So what’s happening with the weir in Fermoy? Did ye make any progress? Are they going to fix it at all?
Sigh. You obviously only read the bit of this column that appears in the paper. You know it’s really easy to click on avondhupress.ie/opinion/, right?
Sorry. Don’t mind me. Okay, well, as you probably saw, a big, 20-metre chunk of the mill-race wall down by the Garda Station washed away in January.
I saw that. So what’s going to happen now?
Well, it can only get worse. You can see how exposed the remaining sections are, and how loose the stonework is. The earthen bank down by Mill Island is being eaten away all the time, too.
Is the whole thing just going to be left to wash away, or what?
A straight answer would be 'probably'. Certainly, there has been no sense of urgency in fixing it. Also, we’re seriously overdue a proper flood, so once that comes we’ll probably lose whatever’s left east of the chunk adjoining the base of the bridge. A decent-sized tree trunk could take the whole lot away.
That’s shocking. Who’s to blame?
That’s the €1.57 million question. Long story short, Fermoy Weir was gifted to Fermoy Town Council (then the Urban District Council) in the 1980s, and it passed to Cork County Council at the dissolution of the town councils in 2014. No serious repair work has been carried out on the weir since it became public property, and the whole thing has been crumbling ever since.
Why don’t Cork County Council just fix it?
A better question might be “Why has Cork County Council allowed Fermoy Weir get to this state?” But to answer your question, the last we heard, at the start of February, Deputy Seán Sherlock had got his hands on documentation proposing a five-year project to fix weir, budgeted at €786,000.
I thought you said €1.57 million.
I did. That’s the sum Cllr Frank O’Flynn said last year he was quoted by council officials.
That’s some difference.
It sure is. But in a way, what’s more immediately pressing isn’t money, so much as time. As I said, a serious flood is overdue, and half of the weir east of the bridge is gone already now. Time really isn’t on our side.
I’ve heard rumours that the latest damage to Fermoy Weir was caused by flood relief work. Any truth to that?
I’ve heard those rumours too. All I have is the facts. The Office of Public Works contracted their agents, Lagan, with the flood relief works. Lagan built a road in the river, abutting the mill-race wall, down by the former sluice gates, by the Garda Station, depositing tons upon tons of rocks on the riverbed.
As 30-ton trucks roared along this road for months, Lagan spent weeks pile-driving into the riverbed, and they expanded O’Neill Crowley Quay by narrowing the river approaching the sluice gates. They then replaced the sluice gates with a wall, stopping almost all of the flow of water down to the mill-race.
These actions had the effect of funneling the flow of the river at the mill-race wall opposite the Garda Station. I’m no engineer, but I can’t imagine the capstones of the mill-race wall section of Fermoy Weir were strengthened by constant pile-driving and vastly-increased water pressure. Coincidentally or not, that’s the very section of the weir which has now crumbled away.
Okay, but doesn’t the weir stop salmon from getting upstream to spawn?
Straight answer: the damaged salmon ladder west of the bridge has impeded salmon passage upstream for almost 20 years now. The gravel islands and the torrent of water hitting the riverbed at the base of the mill-race wall by the Garda Station have also caused problems. These were the responsibility of Fermoy Town Council and, since 2014, Cork County Council. Time and again they were begged to fix the weir, and time and again they ignored their responsibility.
I heard the Government was going to replace the weir, only the Rowing Club stopped it.
That’s an interesting spin. What actually happened was officials from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, alongside officials from the Southern Regional Fisheries Board, told Fermoy Town Council “The Man From Europe” was going to fine Ireland “hundreds of thousands of Euro per day” if Fermoy Weir wasn’t replaced with a rock-ramp pass.
Fermoy Rowing Club – and other river-users – objected that this lower structure would cause water levels upstream to drop and the river to shrink inward.
A delegation of local anglers and members of Fermoy Rowing Club travelled to Brussels in July 2009 and met “The Man From Europe” – who turned out by coincidence to be originally from Mitchelstown – and were told no such demands had been made. All agreed that a simple repair of the salmon ladder on John Anderson’s 200-year-old weir would be satisfactory to local river-users and to the EU.
Back in Government Buildings, then Minister of State Conor Linehan made a big song and dance of asking his squirming officials if he had been misled. This was clearly a bit of panto put on for the culchies up from what Dubs call “The Country”, but it was rather delicious.
Linehan then travelled to Fermoy that September and went for an almost fatal swim in the Blackwater. I’m not making that up. He had to be fished out of the river. Linehan then ordered Fermoy Town Council to repair the salmon ladder. That was December 2009. Nine months later, the Town Council got around to replying to Linehan with a begging letter, asking for funds.
Linehan replied that he couldn’t fund a repair of the weir, as his advisors were saying a rock ramp pass was the optimal solution. The same rock ramp pass they had claimed the 'Man From Europe' was demanding.
And here we are now, almost 10 years gone, and half of the weir gone too.
If the weir goes, what happens to the Rowing Club?
As members have been saying for over a decade, take out the weir and it’s game over for Fermoy Rowing Club. The river upstream shrinks down and in, and that’s the end of the Rowing Club. Right now, they can’t get boats past the bend in the river up by what’s known as The Rock. And that’s awful, but Fermoy’s Blackwater isn’t the exclusive property of Fermoy Rowing Club.
Swimmers, kayakers, anglers and triathletes also use the Blackwater. Those of us who like to go for a stroll up Barnane will be in for a shock if we get a dry summer this year. Sections of the river will dry up to a swampy trickle.
And if rowing boats can’t get up to Castlehyde, the same applies to the Wheelyboat. If you don’t know it, An Spiorad Saor John Mahon – Ireland’s only MKIII wheelchair-accessible boat – has made the Blackwater, and the gorgeous waterway down to Castlehyde House, accessible to differently-abled people for over a decade. Without the weir, the Wheelyboat is banjaxed.
The Wheelyboat? The Wheelyboat is brilliant!
You’re right. The Wheelyboat is something unique to Fermoy, something really special, and that’s all down to Kipper and crew. And if the weir is gone, so is the Wheelyboat.
That’s awful. Obviously, the weir is a huge part of the town of Fermoy.
Not for much longer, I fear. But you’re right. There’s been a weir on Fermoy’s Blackwater for 800 years. 800 years of heritage and ecology, and it’s being washed away right now, on our watch.
Is there anything we can do?
I suppose that depends how much you actually care. The local and European elections are on Friday, May 24. You’re about to all-of-a-sudden find yourself very popular with some people you probably haven’t seen in ages.
Fermoy Weir has been the neglected property of Cork County Council since 2014. County Councillors seeking re-election should be asked why they allowed such an important and historic piece of infrastructure to fall apart, and what they intend to do to fix it, and when.
So we need to start pinning this on local politicians?
Good luck with that.
I know, but it’s the only slim chance we have to save the weir.
I wish I could be more optimistic.