In Fermoy, An Spiorad Saor John Mahon – Ireland’s only MKIII wheelchair-accessible boat – is better known as ‘The Wheelyboat’. Damage to Fermoy Weir means it may soon go out of business.
The Wheelyboat has plied its route along the Blackwater from Fermoy Rowing Club down to Michael Flatley’s Castlehyde House and back for 11 years now. I recently took a spin on the boat, and I was saddened but not surprised to see the river upstream so low.
The boat’s skipper Chris ‘Kipper’ O’Donovan, says the idea for the Wheelyboat came from a desire to make the river more inclusive, to make it accessible to people with disabilities.
“We researched the idea of a wheelchair-accessible boat, and we found the Wheelyboat Trust of the UK. To be honest, we got the prices and we were shocked. The cost of the boat was €31,500 in total. The boat itself cost €21,000, and the engine cost over €4,000. The rest ran up pretty quickly in training and safety courses.”
I went out with Kipper and Harry Kenny on a fresh afternoon recently. Harry and Chris, along with Eddie Hegarty Snr., first came up with the notion of buying a wheelchair-accessible boat. As we set off by the rowing club, a young woman with a small boy and girl waved to us, and they kept pace with us for a while down the river. About halfway down Barnane, they stopped and sat by the whitewashed wall of Saint Bernard’s Well. They waved as we passed, as we headed down toward Nyhan’s Island. Along the bank, people were jogging, walking their dogs, and sitting at tables and just enjoying the river.
At Nyhan’s Island, the river turns slightly to the right. The channel to the left of the island is mostly dried up, and sometimes swans nest on Nyhan’s Island. Every summer it serves as the starting point for Fermoy Regatta. A wire hangs across the river, and from that wire hangs signs reading 1, 2 and 3. Generations of kids have burst from these starting stations and rowed for all their worth up toward the regatta’s finishing line.
As we made our way upriver, Chris told me about the early days of fundraising for the Wheelyboat. The Fermoy and District Angling Club held a fundraising festival, and Chris ran a bungee jump challenge along the riverbank. He said the entire enterprise was met initially with scepticism. “They all laughed,” he told me.
Regardless, Chris’ bungee jump challenge was a huge success and it raised €8,500. Overall, the festival raised a little over €24,000. Chris says this remains the record for the most money raised in Fermoy in one day. The National Lottery gave a top-up grant of €8,000, and the Wheelyboat was ordered from the UK.
“That was when disaster struck. We were told we were liable for a €3,500 VAT bill and we had no money left.”
According to Chris and Harry, the day was saved when a mystery benefactor stepped in and paid the VAT. When asked, Chris and Harry danced around their saviour’s identity. They would only tell me it’s a well-known, Fermoy-linked person with a deep love of the river. When I asked for a name, they refused flatly.
The Wheelyboat was paid for, and delivered in time for Fermoy’s 2017 St Patrick’s Day Parade.
A mile and a half from setting off, we came toward the bend in the river by Glenabo, right for Castlehyde. Two grey wagtails waltzed though the air, dipping low so the tips of their wings skimmed the water. We glided through still, dark waters reflecting greens and browns, as we passed under tall trees on the north bank. Up the slope are the big houses along the Castlehyde road, originally home to British Army officers. James Joyce’s parents lived up there too.
Under overhanging branches of horse chestnut trees, wild flowers bloomed pink and white among the reeds. A rough stone barrier lines the riverbank to the right. This is known locally as ‘The Whispering Wall’, and it marks the beginning of Castlehyde, 26½ acres of historical woodland, an area teeming with wildlife.
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.
“We’re a community-based organisation, and we’re open to everyone. We need the community to come in and help us.” The boat has an annual running cost of between €1,200 and €1,400, and its annual flag day raises between €600 and €700.”
Chris and Harry single out Charles McCarthy of McCarthy Insurance Group as someone who is always a very generous supporter.
“Charlie is a man who loves the Blackwater. He’s a former member of the rowing club, and he often comes out with us. Cha always looks after us.
“We’d love a corporate sponsor. We’re a registered non-profit organisation, and (contributions) are tax-deductible.”
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. We nicknamed this stretch Salmon Alley, because we could almost guarantee our disabled anglers a salmon along here. The last few years, that’s dried up.”
The river opens out here, and foxgloves and reeds reflect purple and green in the sparkling water. Above, as we passed, a buzzard broke left to right across the river. Two pairs of nesting buzzards make this stretch home.
On the right, in a break between the trees, stands an incongruous, Narnian lamp-post. Behind it is a natural well, Peggy’s Well. It’s rumoured there was a gallows here, in British times. Harry told me this place is haunted, and I asked if he ever saw a ghost here. He said he never stuck around long enough.
More lamp-posts mark the riverbank walkway to Castlehyde House. The hedgerows and lawns are immaculate. Bird-boxes adorn the tall oaks here. Chris says they protect blue tits and wren from mink. Across the river is a natural sandbank. Holes decorate the top, and Chris says it was, until recent weeks, home to nesting sand martens. Scratch-marks in the sand mark the trail of the mink which killed the martens.
On the bank on the right is an ornamental cannon and balls, and a flag-pole. Castlehyde House comes into view, a magnificent sight. The ancestral home of Douglas Hyde, Ireland’s first president, and dating back to 1760, this place was a ruin when Michael Flatley bought it for around €4 million in 2003. The Chicago performer sank millions into restoring the mansion, and lived there for several years, before putting the property on the market for €20 million in 2015. When it failed to reach its asking price, it was withdrawn for sale, but the mansion and its 100-acre estate is now back on the market with an asking price of €12.5 million.
Castlehyde looks glorious, its windows glinting in the afternoon sunlight. The Irish flag was flying here a couple of weeks ago, a sign that Flatley was in town. On either side of the river are faint, matching signs of rubble. Chris says these are all that remain of the ruins of a cast iron bridge which crossed the Blackwater river at Castlehyde.
Cork East TD Kevin O’Keeffe has called recently for the Government to buy the mansion, and its estate, for the State. Harry and Frances say this would be a great idea, and Chris agrees, saying the opportunities for tourism would be limitless. At the western end of the Castlehyde lawn is a slipway down to the river. Chris points out this would be a perfect dock for the Wheelyboat. Today it’s home to over a dozen ducks.
Up past Castlehyde, as we turned the boat for home, is an ancient fording point at Cregg. Perhaps 20 Friesian cattle stood on gravel islands in the middle of the river. Chris joked that if we couldn’t catch a salmon, maybe we could catch a steak.
Later, as we prepared to dock back at the Rowing Club, we took a detour under the first southern eye of the Kent Bridge. Across from the Garda Station on O’Neill Crowley Quay, the worst damage to the weir is very obvious. Water is gushing out through two massive holes, causing record low levels of water upstream.
“This is Cork County Council’s property,” said Chris O’Donovan. “They have neglected Fermoy Weir for years and now look at it. It’s heartbreaking to see what they’ve allowed happen our beautiful river.
“One more flood could take out the weir. And that’s the end of the Wheelyboat. That’s the end of our river.”
An Spiorad Saor John Mahon is available for Blackwater tours. Look for Kipper the Skipper on Facebook. Chris ‘Kipper’ O’Donovan: 089-4135120