Fermoy Weir is the cornerstone of the town. It’s a listed, protected structure, and its owners, Cork County Council, seem happy to see it wash away, writes Donal O’Keeffe.
300 people marched on Fermoy’s Kent Bridge last Saturday. Among them were members of ten Blackwater-based clubs, all gathered in glorious sunshine to mark World Fish Migration Day, and to protest at what they see as Cork County Council’s ongoing neglect of Fermoy Weir.
It was a very good-natured affair, on a beautiful day, with smiling Gardai directing traffic, and kids from Fermoy Rowing Club shouting to obliging motorists “Beep for salmon!”
There were speeches afterward and a sense of camaraderie was apparent between the protesters, as new faces were welcomed by those campaigning on the issue for years. Two county councillors gave standard-issue “Lads we’re with ye all the way” speeches that were distinctly lacking in the specifics of when the weir will be repaired, or how that job will be paid for, or indeed by whom.
As the protest broke up, one Rowing Club veteran muttered to me “We’ll all be above in Kilcrumper before that weir is fixed.” He’s a man I respect a lot, and it was clear he thinks our eventual relocation to the local cemetery is a lot more of a certainty, and likely a lot sooner, than the repair of Fermoy Weir. I’ve been on the same road as him, on and off, this last decade, and I share his frustration.
Fermoy Weir is the picture postcard of Fermoy and it’s crumbling away. A 200-year-old masterpiece of Regency Era engineering, and a listed, protected structure, it is the historical cornerstone of the modern town. Every year, hundreds of migrating salmon are injured and killed in Fermoy. Unless Cork County Council, which owns the weir, accepts its responsibilities and fixes the weir, an annual environmental calamity will continue unchecked, and a vital amenity – Fermoy’s beautiful Blackwater – will be eventually ruined.
Fermoy’s Blackwater has had a weir for over 800 years, ever since the Cistercian monks built their abbey Sancta Maria de Castro Dei (Our Lady of the Camp of God) somewhere on what is now Ashe Quay. In 1791, centuries after the abbey was lost to history, the Scottish businessman John Anderson bought the old abbey lands and founded the modern town.
Anderson gave a free site to the British Army for barracks on the north side of the river, knowing Fermoy would flourish as a garrison town. He also gave free sites to the Church of Ireland, for Christchurch, and to the Catholic Church, for St Patrick’s. To power the industrial base of his fledgling town, Anderson built the modern weir, shaping the Blackwater, sculpting its flow and channelling its power down through the sluice gates (by what is now O’Neill Crowley Quay) and down to Mill Island.
Anderson understood that salmon have travelled upstream along the Blackwater to spawn since time began. The centrepiece of Anderson’s weir is a tiered fish pass to the west of the bridge, a series of rectangular limestone pools designed to create at its base a turmoil in the water, to attract salmon and to draw them up the steps and further along their journey home to spawn.
It’s now almost seventy years since the last serious repair of the weir, when the Burke brothers, local craftsmen, held back the river using sandbags. Much of the salmon pass is badly damaged now, with a long section of cap-stones washed away, and water flowing freely to one side. A few years ago, a temporary patch-job was carried out. That has now fallen apart.
Fermoy Weir is neglected and undermined, eroded and broken. All along the western section, water pours through holes of varying size, eroding ever away at its foundation. Each new flood brings fresh damage as fallen trees and debris slam into the weir, weakening it further.
Downstream and east, an eighteen-foot section of the weir has been ruptured, and water is gushing through the hole. This is a contributory factor to record low summertime water levels upstream.
Flood relief work took place in Fermoy in recent years and – for reasons unknown – the historic sluice gates were removed and the mill race was all-but closed off. That had the effect of forcing a continual, concentrated torrent of water over the weir at O’Neill Crowley Quay, across from the Garda Station. This cascade creates a huge turbulence in the water and causes a build-up of gravel islands in the river, which clog up the path of migrating salmon. The turbulence confuses the salmon, causing them to become trapped at the south-eastern base of the weir, where they attempt vainly to leap a six-foot wall. This has been allowed to continue for over a decade.
Last week, RTÉ’s Paschal Sheehy received a statement from Cork County Council. It begins “Cork County Council is currently liaising with a number of Government Departments in an effort to establish the correct Department to engage with regarding a request for capital funding for the works at Fermoy Weir.”
That claim seems to be contradicted by a statement issued at the same time to Sheehy by the office of Communications Minister Denis Naughten. “There has been ongoing liaison between the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Inland Fisheries Ireland and Cork County Council to advise how any proposed works can be consistent with fisheries and environment obligations, particularly the EU Habitats Directive.”
Cork County Council’s statement goes on to say of the breaches in the weir: “breaches will be addressed and incorporated in the over-all project”. The “over-all project” is rumoured to be a band-new fish pass, which has been – reportedly – planned by Inland Fisheries Ireland. Oireachtas members say this will cost €3 million – and Cork County Council clearly doesn’t have that type of money – but nobody in Fermoy is certain, because nobody has ever succeeded in actually getting to see Inland Fisheries Ireland’s mysterious plans.
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment’s statement continues: “The Council advised that it is engaged in land acquisition to facilitate the permanent works. This is a matter for Cork County Council and, in the meantime, the Department has agreed to the Council’s proposals for the permanent and temporary works.”
What is at issue is that Cork County Council clearly has no plans for ‘temporary works’. It lacks both the funding and the will to do anything. Come the autumn, salmon will again become trapped as they approach Fermoy Weir. All of the clubs which belong to Fermoy’s Blackwater are repeating their annual offer to supply boats and manpower to assist in helping fish to get over the weir. Perhaps this year their sincerity will be taken seriously.
Across the centuries, an entire ecology has grown up around the weir. Without Fermoy Weir, the river upstream shrinks, not just downward, but inward too, and we would lose the very heart of our town. If you’ve ever walked the fields by the Blackwater on a summer’s day, try to imagine that glorious river a sluggish, swampy stream trickling through weeds and rushes. Because that’s what you’re left with if you take out the weir. That kills the 134-year old Fermoy Rowing Club. It also ruins the river for Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club, for anglers, canoeists, swimmers, kayakers, triathletes and for the wonderful Wheelchair Boat.
Cork County Council owns the weir, and it is a listed, protected structure. It’s hard to avoid the impression that politicians and bureaucrats alike have decided the easiest thing to do is nothing, and quietly let the weir wash away.
It is time the people of Fermoy send a clear message to Cork County Council. This is our town, and we are the custodians of our town’s future. We cannot and will not allow our river to be destroyed by your neglect.