The Wier Saga

The Weir Saga

Donal O’Keeffe

“The weir?” asked our Junior 16, “Is that still going on?”

Her question last week sums up the problem with the story the Avondhu newspaper calls “The Weir Saga”. The rules of narrative demand that every tale needs a beginning, middle and end. The problem is, we’ve been stuck in the middle of this thing for so long now that the start seems as far away as the finish.

Our young oarsperson remembers marching on the Town Hall last Autumn and she may even know that we frightened the living bejesus out of some of the sitting councillors. One of them became almost violent with me in the company of two reporters. As Paul Kavanagh quoted ‘Dad’s Army’ that day, “They don’t like it up ‘em, Cap’n Mainwaring”.

The same young lady was there too when we marched from the council chambers that Saturday afternoon behind Ken Barry’s stunt coffin. That was good for a few photos in the local papers.

Oh, and don’t forget the cold, dark evening we ambushed Minister John Gormley with a silent protest at the Courthouse and then we hit him with a line of small kids holding up letters spelling out an appeal that he meet with us. Our Treasurer, Marianne Harris, organized the munchkins in the correct order. One of the letters was upside-down, if I remember right, which added the perfect “aww” touch.

“Minister, please listen to us” the signs said.

He did, as it happened.

He seemed tired and initially, I thought, slightly cranky. Little kids with placards will do that to you, I suppose.

But he listened and he appeared genuinely taken aback when I told him that, thanks to Kathy Sinnott MEP, we could prove that the EU was not, in fact, threatening any explicit sanctions against Ireland over the weir. This had been long claimed by the Department officials and used as a justification for their agenda to demolish Fermoy’s historic weir and replace it with their preferred Rock Ramp Pass. 

Minister Gormley promised to look into our problem and to come back to us. I didn’t for a minute think he would, no matter what local Green candidate and Rowing Club friend Adam Douglas promised.

And then he did. The week before the European and Local Elections the man showed up in Fermoy and he took a walk along the quay and he met with us in the Clubhouse. It was, of course, largely an optical exercise, but that cut both ways.

Our younger members must be forgiven for getting bored with this ongoing cycle of protest and then silence and later, just when you thought it was all over, protest again.

But that’s the way these drawn-out fights are fought. At the time of writing, and again thanks to Kathy Sinnott, a few of us are just back from a meeting in Brussels with the European Commission Environment DG (Law Enforcement Section) and a meeting in Leinster House with Minister Conor Lenihan and we feel that we might finally be making head-way in our three year long battle with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to ensure the survival of our 125 year old club.

The claim coming from the DCENR has always been that, following a complaint to Europe that salmon were unable to traverse Fermoy Weir during the fifty-year drought of Summer 2003, (thousands died in France during that heat-wave,) the EU had decided to impose colossal fines upon Ireland for breaching the Habitats Directive. We were told that if all else failed Article 117 of the 1959 Fisheries Act is an all-powerful act which could be invoked to demolish any redundant (i.e. no longer used for its original purpose) weir.

Our local Labour TD, Sean Sherlock, had suggested on the Dail record that the Irish Government was hiding, not for the first time, behind Europe to push through dodgy plans. He went on to suggest that the real force behind this was the Southern and Regional Fisheries Board who were attempting to justify and their own position.

Our meetings in November 2006 with Minister John Browne and with his successor, Minister Sean Power in December 2008 both resulted in kicks to touch, and in the second instance the minister instructed the owners of the weir, Fermoy Town Council, to commission an independent report into the options available. Fermoy Town Council then took the shilling by accepting a few grand in partial funding from the Department (seven or eight thousand, if I remember). This gave the Department officials the power of veto over the the preparation of the now only semi-independent report.

The consultants White Young Green attempted to commission the highly respected Marine Biologist Dr Martin O'Farrell and found his nomination blocked by DCENR officials, presumably on the grounds that Dr O'Farrell has an association with Fermoy Rowing Club and suffers from an unhelpful record of beating the Government every time he is drawn into a fight with them.

The resulting WYG report was deeply flawed and did not take into account the unique ecology of the Munster Blackwater.

Frustrated with this, we took outgoing Munster MEP Kathy Sinnott up on her suggestion that we should go to Brussels and meet with the European Commission Environment DG (Law Enforcement Section). Essentially, this is Europe's top cop. If the EU has an environmental problem with Ireland then this is the office which would be issuing the parking tickets.

We went to Europe, our Chairman Pa Granville, Marianne Harris, Paul Kavanagh, Ken Barry, Dr O’Farrell and I, accompanied by two representatives of three of the local angling clubs armed with and educated by the deeply impressive research of Barry Connolly’s associate, Brendan Glass.

We had a most successful meeting.

In essence, we went out there with a three-pronged strategy.

(i) The Irish Government has claimed from the beginning that their plans are necessary because Europe is planning on fining Ireland tens of millions, apparently per day, if salmon could not traverse the weir. As noted above, we already knew from Kathy Sinnott that the European Commision Environment DG denies this suggestion and we wanted to hear this directly from the office.

(ii) The Standing Scientific Committee is the nationally and internationally accepted barometer of Irish salmon figures and they prove that salmon upstream of the weir are recorded as being vastly in surplus of quota. In fact the Munster Blackwater is considered the second best river in the country for salmon conservation. Officials from the DCENR and the Southern Regional Fisheries Board rejected the S.S.C. report at a public meeting in Fermoy last Autumn and we wanted to establish that the EU goes by the S.S.C. figures.

(iii) We have discovered, in the last few weeks, that the section of riverbed which the Department plans to dredge in order to facilitate their proposed rock ramp pass is in fact the habitat of Freshwater Pearl Mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) which is an Annex II protected species under the EU Habitats Directive (9222/43/EEC). Any heavy construction work in the river would inevitably stir up significant levels of silt in the river and this would prove lethal to the mussels.  

In relation to the first point, our meeting opened with the re-iteration that Europe has not threatened any sanctions upon Ireland in relation to this matter.

Regarding the S.S.C. figures, it was confirmed to us that that the EU does indeed work from these figures and, upon examination, the European Commision Environment DG accepted that, with recorded levels of salmon upstream of Fermoy vastly in surplus of quota, the weir in Fermoy does not in fact present a real obstacle to migratory salmon.

On the matter of the Munster Blackwater being the home of 46% of all of Ireland's Freshwater Pearl Mussels, the European Commision Environment DG expressed strong concern that due consideration would need to be given to this habitat. It was further stated that, seeing as the Rowing Club and the local anglers are in accord with their desire to see the weir very carefully restored to its original, 1799, condition then the EU would be happy with this outcome.

Our trip to Europe gave us a lot of answers and it also cleared up a pair of mysteries which had perplexed us for a long time. We had been told by Department officials that they did not require an Environmental Impact Assessment prior to their proposed work and we could not understand how this could be the case in an EU designated Special Area of Conservation.

We had also questioned why the hatchet job on our weir was being bundled in with the Flood Relief Scheme and the nice man from the Office of Public Works told us at a meeting in the Grand last Autumn that it was "an act of administrative convenience" as they would be in town anyway and sure they might as well do the weir work while they're in the water. He became very uncomfortable when we quizzed him about transparency and costings. When our president, John Murphy, called this arrangement "a foxer" the man from the O.P.W. suddenly remembered a prior engagement and, in the vernacular, legged it.

Thanks to Europe, we now know that any work carried out under the cover of flood relief is actually exempt from Environmental Impact Assessment. 

Well, perhaps not now that Europe knows what's really going on...

Also, Article 117 of the 1959 Fisheries is actually superceded by the EU Habitats Directive. 

And so, a week later, three days ago the time of writing, we met with Conor Lenihan, the new line minister and our third in as many years. In a fortuitous coincidence, our latest visit to Leinster House took place on the same day as the publication of the McCarthy Report, popularly or unpopularly known as An Bord Snip Nua. At a time of national financial crisis, we found the minister very receptive to ideas which might save money.

A journalist by trade, the minister asked some very shrewd and awkward questions of his civil servants and he seemed unimpressed with the answers they gave him.

This was the first time we have dealt with a minister who departed from the script written for him by Department officials and that in itself is cause for hope. He seemed displeased when reasons of “commercial sensitivity” were given for not giving him a straight answer as to how much the rock ramp pass would actually cost and he appeared very interested in our statement that we believe we could fix the weir ourselves if we had fifty grand.

Minister Lenihan went from an initial impression that the matter was closed and the rock ramp pass could be installed to the stated opinion that his advisors had an awful lot of homework to do before anything could be done.

This could be described as yet another kick to touch but let it be. We found Minister Lenihan to be a very personable and receptive man and I hesitate to say it, but hopefully we are finally starting to get somewhere.

We have made huge progress in the past two weeks and that has been thanks to tireless work from our members and friends. Our public representatives, on all levels, have done everything we asked of them and in some cases much more. We have got our story to the national press and onto Radio One. Our website, has been a vibrant bulletin board for our campaign and a way for friends across the globe to offer their support.

Most importantly, the support of the people of the town has been hugely empowering to us and also very humbling. Our friends in the angling clubs, the swimmers, kayakers, the boxers and all the others have stood with us and we won’t forget that.

Our parting shot to Minister Lenihan was to present to him a petition that the weir be saved. This was signed by over 3000 people.

As a Rowing Club we have never claimed to own the river. As townspeople we most certainly do.

Hopefully, the perspective of the future will show our struggles to have been successful. If the weir is still standing for our 150th Anniversary in the unimaginable year of 2034 then it won’t have happened for no reason. We didn’t ask for this fight, but in a perverse way it could be said that this threat to our Club’s future might well be the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time. We are united and organized in a way that can be only explained by Dr Johnson’s suggestion that nothing focuses the mind so much as the prospect of a hanging.

The following is the text of a briefing document prepared for Fermoy Rowing Club’s visit to European Commission.

History of Fermoy Weir

There has been a weir on Fermoy’s Blackwater since 1170.

This fact is recorded in Thomas Cromwell’s 1530’s inventory of monasteries for Henry VIII. The weir also served to form an essential part of the industrial infrastructure of the modern town at its foundation in 1799. The Scottish entrepreneur John Anderson built Fermoy around the weir and its adjoining millrace. In a sense, it is the town’s foundation stone.

The weir is a Proposed Protected Structure in the Fermoy Draft Development Plan 2010-2016, which in law has the same status as a protected structure. Any proposed alterations would be subject to planning permission.

With a weir on the Blackwater for over eight hundred years, it has become, over such a vast time, an essential and integral component of the river’s ecology.

Fermoy Rowing Club

Fermoy Rowing Club this year celebrates its 125th anniversary. In that time we have inspired and nurtured thousands of young athletes, international and national champions and produced two Olympic oarsmen.

Our Clubhouse is located on the southern bank of the river, approximately 300 metres to the west of the bridge, at the top of the tranquil Barnane Walk, which in turn looks out on the 500 metres of our Regatta course.

Oarspeople are not unlike cyclists, in that we need mileage to build up our performance. Upstream of the start of the Regatta course, we have trained for over a century along the glorious 3,750 metre long stretch of river which leads to the stately Castlehyde House, the home of Ireland’s first president. Dropping the height of the water would cause the river to drop not just in height but also in width. This would destroy our training ground and ultimately kill our club.

History of complaint to European Commission

Three years ago, the committee of our club heard (through a member who serves on the Town Council) that, according to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, on foot of an anonymous complaint to Europe, Ireland had been found to be in breach of the EU Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC). This finding was alleged to state that the safe passage up-river of salmon, shad and lamprey was being impeded by the weir at Careysville in Clondulane (5 kilometers downstream of Fermoy) and by the Fermoy weir.

We were told, repeatedly, by Department officials and by two successive Ministers of State that it was “Europe” which has decided to remove the weir in Fermoy. Fermoy Rowing Club has copies of Departmental memos and Minutes in which this claim is repeated. We were told that “Europe” is prepared to fine Ireland, initially hundreds of thousands of Euro. That figure later became tens of millions.

The Department proposes to raise the western section of the weir and remove most of the eastern part and replace it with a lower rock ramp pass. Figures for heights and measurements have been vague and often contradictory.

Their plan requires extensive dredging of the riverbed east of the bridge. That there has been no Environmental Impact Study carried out on these proposals is surely a cause of some concern.

Habitat of Fermoy’s Blackwater

The Blackwater catchment is designated a Special Area of Conservation as defined by the European Commission Habitats Directive (9222/43/EEC). The river is home to many Habitats Directive Annex II species, including Salmon, (Salmo salvar,) Freshwater Pearl Mussel, (Margaritifera margaritifera,) White-clawed Crayfish, (Austropotamobius pallipes,) Otter, (Lutra lutra,) Sea Lamprey, (Petromyzon marinus,) River Lamprey, (Lampetra fluviatilis,) and Brook Lamprey (Lampetra planeri)

According to the Central Fisheries Board, 46% of Freshwater Pearl Mussel in Ireland is to be found along the Munster Blackwater. Duchas has said that gravel may not be removed from the Blackwater riverbed as it is a breeding ground for Freshwater mussels. There is a significant bed of Freshwater mussels to the east of the bridge, along the north bank, toward the area known locally as The Promenade.

The same area is also a breeding ground for lampreys. White-clawed Crayfish have also been found in the area below the weir.

Many other species, some of them protected in law, live along the river and the type of development proposed by the DCENR would cause considerable upheaval to the ecology of the river.

Passage of Salmon through Fermoy’s Blackwater

Local anglers suggest that a majority of migrating salmon actually take the path of least resistance and avoid the obstacle of the weir altogether by using the millrace to get upstream. The sluice gates are currently closed but the timber used is half-rotten and badly holed below the water and presents little challenge to any salmon worth its metaphorical salt.

Following decades of neglect, the salmon pass on the weir has been allowed to become badly damaged with sections of the lower southern wall washed away. As a result of this, local fishermen observe that the main attractive flow is now outside the southern wall of the salmon pass and the majority of salmon moving from below the weir use this to get upstream. Some of debris from the pass is causing an obstruction but could easily be removed.

Local knowledge suggests that the normal route taken by salmon east of the bridge is along the deep pools on the southern side of the river by the base of the weir. Anecdotal evidence suggests that salmon will not pass under the shadow of the bridge in daylight hours but rather will wait for nightfall before running up the strong discharge beside the salmon pass to the west of the bridge.

Habitat Implications of replacement of weir

The plan by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to replace the weir with a rock ramp pass includes the raising of the height of the weir at the sluice gates. This would stop the cascade effect which attracts migrating salmon to the base of the weir on their journey upstream.

This plan has at its core the intention to remodel the shape of the river, dropping the upstream height and shifting the attractive flow toward the northern bank. This would necessitate, according to the DCENR, the dredging of a channel through the river bed, from the bridge along the northern side of the river to lay a straight run for salmon toward the base of the rock ramp pass.

This section of the Munster Blackwater is itself the habitat of Freshwater Pearl Mussel. White-clawed Crayfish have also been found below the weir. Even without the proposed dredging, the sort of construction work needed to build the rock ramp pass would cause the release of significant amounts of silt which would in turn endanger the mussel beds. As noted earlier, there has been no Environmental Impact Study carried out on these proposals despite the fact that they represent the most significant alterations to the river in eight centuries.

Alternative Proposals

The 2003 situation was a fifty-year phenomenon and, we suspect, is being seized upon by the Southern Fisheries Board as a means of self-perpetuation. Our river is a complex, living environment and for that reason the option of least upheaval is the most desirable. The Hippocratic approach of first doing no harm must surely apply. Thus, we have proposed from the beginning that the existing weir be repaired and improved, if necessary, with the addition of new fish passes. Modification of the existing passes would be adequate for the moment with a long term view to place new pool or/and Denil passes on the weir.

Book Launch Club Social

On Saturday comming November 28th Fermoy Rowing Club and Dr Barry Connolly former coach and trustee will be launching the book of memories put together with short stories and experiences of former coaches, oarspeople and friends of the club going back over 125 years. The book is 120 pages of how it was, and who the club and its members strived to get where we are now and shows where former oars people have ended up in all cornors of the world.  This book will be a great Christmas filler for family and friend that are abroad or away from there Home of Fermoy.  Should anybody wish to purchase a copy of "Fermoy Rowing Club 1884 -2009 125 Years Memories"  please give Kenneth Barry a ring on 086 1018424.

As part of the Clubs 125 year celebrations there is a social and some presentations following the book launch.  The Club will also be honouring current and past members in recgnition of their commitment to the club and its members over the last 25 years, and for their contrabution in elevating Fermoy Rowing Club to the highly respected position it now enjoys in Rowing Ireland.  A good night to be had following a very successfull year.  Many thanks to all who submitted articles and stories.

Book Cover