Shay Hurley was telling it as it is, when he described the flood defences in Clonmel as “destroying the heart of the medieval town.” (‘The Nationalist’ issue October 27). He was speaking at the recent forum on water issues, chaired by MEPs Phil Prendergast and Sean Kelly.
The Suir, on its meandering journey through the town to the sea, was probably the reason why the first settlers chose Cluain Meala - the Vale of Honey. On its banks they found rich productive soil, well watered. It was certainly the reason why the Anglo Normans saw the river as a navigable transport route and built their fortified town. And it was the commercial lifeline for the prosperous Quaker industrial revolution in the 18/19th centuries. The Suir was the source of power for the milling industry and an access to the sea and export.
But it was also an amenity, a beautiful tranquil waterway, treasured by ordinary people. Its open vista to the town, its closeness to the town centre and busy streets made the riverfront, its old and new quays, a pleasant, relaxing focus for that most simple of pleasures - walking by flowing waters. Generations and generations of Clonmel people have walked to the rhythm of the river.
Now that simple pleasure has been destroyed. From Irishtown to White (Gashouse) Bridge, unless you are above average height, it is impossible to comfortably see above the level of the flood walls. The river - sight and sound - has been reduced to a channel. And the Old Bridge, historically an old fishing village surrounding the ancient Church of St Nicholas of the Sailors, has been cut off from the Suir by ugly walls and high berms. The view of Lady Blessington’s Bath (Pol Traolach) sheltered by the trees of Suir Island and framed in the river arches, is no longer visible from Raheen Road. Many of these arches are being replaced by modern industrial single-span bridges.
Yes, Shay is right. The heart has been torn from the town. He, as secretary of the long-established (over a century) Workmen’s Boat Club, and as a member of a small team of citizens responsible for the restoration of a wonderful riverside walk at Glenbawn, is entitled to say it as it is. He has put his money where his mouth is.
And, equally, Councillor Siobhan Ambrose (a former Mayor of Clonmel) is right in saying, at the same forum, and according to ‘The Nationalist’ report, that “the room could easily be filled with people whose homes and businesses had been affected by flooding in recent years, and who were ‘elated’ with the work” (the flood alleviation work).
Every Clonmel citizen knows of the sufferings of their fellow citizens whose homes have been inundated by the flood waters of the Suir, an experience which is so physically and mentally upsetting that it has been widely accepted as just down-scale of bereavement. The resignation with which ordinary people have accepted the loss of an age-old amenity in the town, testifies to that concern.
But, the acknowledgement of the poor planning decisions implemented by the local planning authority, of which Councillor Ambrose is a member, throughout the decades, has yet to be made. In a town which always had some level of flooding, there was no coherent policy of preserving the natural drainage; of maintaining the alternative channels for overflow: natural facilities which could easily be identified by even the most casual examination of the town’s geography.
The planning authority (former Corporation now Borough Council), has never acknowledged its mistakes; never said “sorry” to the citizens. But the OPW, now responsible for the hugely expensive flood defences, does acknowledge that mistakes were made. At the same forum, a chartered engineer from that state body is quoted as saying: “There were new planning guidelines that promoted sustainable development regarding flood risk and hopefully the mistakes that had been made wouldn’t be repeated, or made to the same extent.”
Hopefully! It would seem prudent that, before the granting of any further planning permission for development on the flood plain, that the defences, the walls and berms, should be tested in actual flood conditions. Yet, within the last year, Clonmel Borough Council approved permission for a very substantial riverside development, which was, in fact, overturned by An Bord Pleanála.
All of which prompts the question: Has anything been learned from past mistakes? Is it still not accepted that what may be engineeringly possible may not be environmentally wise, especially at a time of climate-change?
The sad result of past planning mistakes is the loss of the riverside amenity in Clonmel; “destroying the heart of the town,” as Shay Hurley said. Protection for the victims of flooding, their lives and property, was absolutely imperative. But the scale, bulk, height and character of much of that protection has changed the town’s interconnection with its most important and beautiful physical feature - the river. Shouldn’t some recompense, some compensation, be made to ordinary citizens for that loss?
Many of us, older citizens, have pleasant memories of the traditional riverside walks, which, during recent alleviation works, neglect and abuse, have been almost forgotten. There is the route through Green Lane, into Lower Green, paralleling St. Mary’s Church, Irishtown and the Island on the northern bank. Green Lane is now pot-holed and littered, the former stile has been removed and access to the riverside interrupted by a berm.
A variation of this walk from the stile via a levee on the Auk Stream, exiting at Cascade, has now been obliterated by the contour of the berm, but an extension from Convent Bridge, via Grenane, and Abbey is still possible. All of these riverside walks are through privately-owned farmland, and the landowners, in times past, were very generous and accommodating to the people of the town. It should be possible for the Borough Council to negotiate and come to arrangements which would meet the mutual needs of landowners and citizens.
Some simple pathway connection between the publicly owned Denis Burke Park and the southern bank of Lady Blessington’s Bath, would do something to restore the loss of what was once one of the most photogenic views of Clonmel and its river.
The heart surgery which has been performed on the Suir in Clonmel has been crude. Its lifesaving effectiveness has yet to be proved. But, meanwhile, the people of the town need some re-connection with their river. Are there any takers on the Borough Council?