A year ago, Chris O’Donovan, pilot of Ireland’s only MKIII wheelchair-accessible boat, warned that damage to Fermoy Weir would soon force the Wheelyboat out of business. Nobody in Cork County Council listened, and now it’s too late, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

“This is it,” Chris ‘Kipper’ O’Donovan told me this week. “You might as well put a sign on the Blackwater river saying ‘Closed to people with disabilities’.

“After 12 years on the water, I am heartbroken to see our beautiful boat parked up.

“We have brought literally thousands of people up the Blackwater to Michael Flatley’s Castlehyde House and back again, and now we have to shut up shop because low water levels, caused by the damage to the weir, mean it’s just not safe for us.”

Around this time last year, Kipper brought me on a trip up to Castlehyde House, and told me, in the starkest of terms possible, how serious the threat to the Wheelyboat was.

“One more flood could take out the weir,” he said. “And that’s the end of the Wheelyboat. That’s the end of our river.” 

Just as Chris O’Donovan predicted, a huge section of the badly damaged mill-race wall section of Fermoy Weir – opposite the Garda station – washed away last January. This has resulted in water levels upstream dropping even lower than last year’s record low levels. This is why Fermoy’s Wheelyboat is now unable to navigate the Blackwater, and why Fermoy regatta and the Great Blackwater Swim have been cancelled.

“Fermoy regatta is gone,” Chris told me this week, “and so is the Great Blackwater Swim. And now the Wheelyboat is finished too."

Chris O’Donovan is known in Fermoy as ‘Kipper the Skipper’ because of his association with An Spioraid Saor John Mahon – better known as the Wheelyboat – Ireland’s only Mark III wheelchair-accessible boat. Kipper notes with sadness that he’s not the skipper anymore.

In its dozen years on the water, the Wheelyboat made the Blackwater a welcoming place for thousands of people of differing abilities, and it made Fermoy a nicer place. Kipper’s warning that the Wheelyboat was endangered could not have been clearer.

We carried that warning here in The Avondhu, and I wrote about it in The Echo and The Irish Examiner too. Nobody can say they weren’t aware of an imminent threat to a facility which provided a service to people with disabilities, the only of its kind in the country.

Our local politicians can’t say they weren’t aware. I walked the weir last summer with Minister David Stanton and Pat Buckley TD, and the Wheelyboat was specifically mentioned as one of the amenities in immediate danger. Both men have done much to keep Fermoy Weir on the Oireachtas agenda, as has Seán Sherlock TD, who has been a champion of Fermoy Weir. Kevin O’Keeffe TD knows all about the weir too. He was a county councillor before winning his Dáil seat in 2016, and the county councillors certainly can’t pretend they didn’t know.

Fermoy Weir is a listed, protected structure, and it is the property of Cork County Council.

Frank O’Flynn and Noel McCarthy could at this stage probably win awards for their expressions of concern about Fermoy Weir, or at least for what’s left of it under their stewardship. Deirdre O’Brien walked the weir that day last year, as did June Murphy, a councillor who was not re-elected (something I think that was a loss to local politics).

Kay Dawson gave every impression of being an expert on Fermoy Weir in the Grand Hotel a while back, when Paschal Donohoe was brought to Fermoy to show what a great guy Pa O’Driscoll is. And do you know something? Pa actually is a great guy, and I genuinely like him, even if he did tell me, in that same room in the Grand when he was Mayor of Fermoy back in 2010, that he could do nothing to save Fermoy Weir.

And that’s been the pattern this last decade or more. Everybody wants to help save Fermoy Weir, and everyone will promise to save Fermoy Weir, until it actually comes time to do something, and goodness me is that the time?

One councillor, a recent convert to the Fine Gael party, did a Peig Sayers impression in ochóning to me that any money spent repairing the weir might be better spent on 'the poor homeless people'.

The councillor no doubt has a sincere interest in 'the poor homeless people', but I note that when Fine Gael came to office in 2011, the census figures showed 3,808 Irish people either sleeping rough or living in emergency accommodation. Eight years of Fine Gael government later, and we now have over 10,000 people homeless. So, on the face of it, an odd choice of new party for someone who cares so much about 'the poor homeless people', but what would I know?

Bottom line, though, is that nobody wants to spend money on repairing the weir. I was at Seán Sherlock’s Joint Oireachtas on Public Petitions in Leinster House last week, and I watched public officials from Cork County Council, from the Department of Communications, Climate Change and the Environment, from Inland Fisheries Ireland, and from the Office of Public Works playing pass-the-parcel on the issue as to which of them should pay for the repair of Fermoy Weir.

In between all the times I struggled to keep my mouth shut as I heard officials read blatant, bare-faced, er, inaccuracies, (I’m only allowed say 'inaccuracies') into the Oireachtas record, I came away with the clear impression that if I won the EuroMillions in the morning, and gave Cork County Council a cheque for €5 million to fix Fermoy Weir, they would still do all in their power not to fix it.

Last summer, when Kipper and Harry Kenny took me out on the Wheelyboat, we struggled to get past the point at Glenabo where the river bends toward Castlehyde.

Here, the Wheelyboat passed by ‘The Rock’, an archipelago of half a dozen jagged stone ridges jutting from the water and navigated the shallow water in an ‘s’ shaped manoeuvre, following the natural contours of the river. Chris told me river-users have never seen The Rock so high – two feet above the water – or the river so low.

By The Rock, the river bank shows a brown stripe of earth two feet above water.

“That’s the height the water should be at,” Harry Kenny said. “I’m 60 years on the river and I’ve never seen it this low.”

Piloting the Wheelyboat carefully past The Rock, through waters so shallow the riverbed is visible not two feet below, Chris told me the mile-long straight stretch from there to Castlehyde was always Fermoy Rowing Club’s training ground, but now boats can’t make the turn for fear of damage. According to Chris, the low water levels are caused by holes in Fermoy Weir, and that has badly affected salmon stocks.

“If there’s any further damage to the weir, we won’t be able to get past The Rock either.”   

A year on, and the Rock, which should be underwater at this time of year and was last year two feet above water, is now four and five feet above water. Nobody in Fermoy has ever seen this before.

I spoke with Chris yesterday, and he told me he is heartbroken that the Wheelyboat can no longer ply its trade on Fermoy’s Blackwater.

“We simply can’t get past The Rock now. The river is so much lower than last year.”

With thousands of people of different abilities no longer able to access the river, Chris says he believes this puts Ireland in direct contravention of the United Nations’ Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. He believes that, having previously granted access to the river to people of different abilities, we simply cannot take that right away again.  

“You might as well put a sign on the Blackwater river saying ‘Closed to people with disabilities’, Chris told me, and he asked that we carry a formal statement:

“On behalf of our group and past members, I would like to apologise to everyone, especially the disability sector. Sadly, we are no longer able to deliver our unique river trip in Fermoy.”