Could flood relief works on O’Neill Crowley Quay have caused the recent collapse of the southern mill-race wall of Fermoy Weir? Surely the weir’s owners, Cork County Council, must investigate whether the Office of Public Works and its contractor Lagan, contributed in any way to damage of the protected structure, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Last Friday saw an impressive operation in the mill-race beside Fermoy’s O’Neill Crowley Quay, as local anglers assisted officials from Inland Fisheries Ireland in rescuing over 300 fish trapped in record low water levels. The fish, mainly dace and eels, found themselves trapped as a result of the damaged southern mill-race wall falling away in recent weeks. Some fish remain trapped, and will need rescue too. (Eels are a protected species.)

If you’re familiar with Fermoy, the mill-race is the section of the river across from O’Mahony’s furniture shop, leading down to the bridge at Mill Island car-park. The mill-race then continues behind Atkins Fermoy and the houses on the Mill Road.

When John Anderson built Fermoy Weir 200 years ago, the mill-race carried water down to Mill Island to power the new town’s industrial base. Flood relief work on the river over the past decade saw the historic sluice gates (opposite the bottom of Kent Street) removed, and the flow of water to the mill-race reduced to a trickle. As a result, the main force of the water was redirected over the southern mill-race wall (across from the Garda Station).

Flood relief work carried out by the contractors on behalf of the Office of Public Works (OPW) widened O’Neill Crowley Quay, and necessitated pile-driving into the river bed. During the works, a temporary roadway was built in the river beside O’Neill Crowley Quay, depositing tons upon tons of rock in the river. Day in, day out, 30-ton trucks roared up and down this temporary road. This unprecedented level of violent vibration would certainly not have bolstered the capstones on the southern mill-race wall.

Widening the quay narrowed the river beside it. This, and all-but closing off the mill-race, had the effect of funnelling a continual, concentrated torrent of water at the southern mill-race wall of the weir at O’Neill Crowley Quay, the precise section which recently collapsed.

Last July, Cork East Deputy Kevin O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, “if his attention has been drawn to the fact that when the OPW (Office of Public Works) was undertaking the flood relief works for Fermoy town in doing the ground work in the River Blackwater, it undermined the structure of Fermoy weir; if the OPW takes shared responsibility in the costs associated with the reinstatement of the weir in whole.”

The written answer from Minister Donohoe begins: “I can confirm that the works which (the OPW) carried out in constructing the Fermoy flood relief scheme did not interfere with the weir in Fermoy in any way and did not undermine the structure of the weir.”

There’s an old truism in Irish politics – and this is no knock on Kevin – that when asking parliamentary questions, you have to ask the right question. Deputy O’Keeffe’s main point – “when the OPW was undertaking the flood relief works for Fermoy town in doing the ground work in the River Blackwater, it undermined the structure of Fermoy weir” – is absolutely correct, if perhaps not specific enough.

Here’s where Minister Donohoe’s written answer gets slippery: “The Fermoy North and South flood relief schemes involved very little interference with the Blackwater River as the embankments and walls are largely set back from the river…”

That’s maybe true, but only if your definition of 'very little interference with the Blackwater River' covers interference up to, and including, intensifying significantly the flow of water, carrying out high levels of pile-driving into the river bed, and building an actual road in the river.

The Minister’s reply continues: “The deterioration of the weir in recent years has had nothing to do with the flood relief schemes.” That depends on which part of the weir you mean, and whether 'recent years' covers the period since the pile-driving, river-narrowing and in-river road-building took place.

The deterioration of the salmon pass west of the bridge certainly had nothing to do with Lagan or the OPW, and was due to decades of neglect by Fermoy Weir’s owners Fermoy Town Council, and later Cork County Council. The disintegration of the southern mill-race wall, however, only occurred after the in-river work. Might the collapse have occurred anyway? Arguably, but the scale of the disintegration and the speed at which it occurred would at least seem to point toward the in-river work as having at least a contributory effect.

“The in-river works as part of the flood relief scheme maintained a clearance between the works area and the weir, thus avoiding scheme works impacting on the weir,” says the Minister. This is nonsense. A look at Save Fermoy Weir’s Facebook page will remind that the in-river road abutted the southern mill-race wall of the weir.

“I understand that it was previously confirmed that damage to the weir in 2016 at O’Neill Crowley Quay arose from trees being washed downstream,” Minister Donohoe continues. Again, this is correct, in itself, but the damage caused to the southern mill-race wall of Fermoy Weir by fallen trees was arguably so severe because the trees hit the southern mill-race wall which seems to have been weakened by pile-driving, in-river road-building and use, and by an increased pressure of water.

Cork County Council, like Fermoy Weir’s previous owners, Fermoy Town Council, is guilty of gross negligence of a listed, protected structure which is its responsibility, and which is a vital part of the town’s historical, cultural and ecological infrastructure.

Miraculously, however, the recent collapse of Fermoy Weir, at the southern mill-race wall, may not be Cork County Council’s fault. After years of dereliction of its responsibility, Cork County Council might redeem itself somewhat by investigating whether the flood relief works contributed to the damage which led to the collapse of John Anderson’s 200-year-old Fermoy Weir.

However, like the fish trapped in Fermoy’s mill-race, don’t hold your breath!