Vinny plays heroic role in a new Battle for Clontarf
Burly busman’s local knowledge proves key in saving homes from imminent flooding
High tide at Clontarf, Dublin last Friday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
As the canoe turned into Causeway Avenue on Monday afternoon, a torch tethered to its pointy bow, a voice called out from the far end of the dimly-lit street. “Down here lads, quickly.”
The two paddlers, both experienced firemen, approached with caution, for this was no proper watercourse, but a paved road in Dublin 3 foundering under the effects of an unforgettable storm.
On the 150th anniversary of The Night of the Big Wind, a quiet corner of the northside was in danger of sinking on the day of the big tide.
As they splish-sploshed their way towards the furthest recess of the cul-de-sac, the firemen spied clusters of sand bags stacked against the front doors and ground floor windows of every one of the terraced houses. “Someone had been busy,” they mused.
On closer inspection, one of the sand bags outside the last house on the right seemed to move, which was impossible. Perhaps it was a trick of the light.
The lead fireman, known to his mates in Kilbarrack Station, and the regulars in Foley’s pub, as Big Dave, didn’t scare easily. But he turned to his co-canoeist, a shorter man, and whispered. “What do you make of that, Lar?”
As the paddles were rested inside the canoe, the two men stopped outside number 3 where several sand bags seemed to be wobbling about in the gathering gloom. They stared in silence.
One bag was the shape of a man’s head, the other a bent back, while a third was akin to a broad backside of considerable girth.
In unison, the bags wobbled and turned. “About time you got here,” snapped Vinny Fitzpatrick. “My old man’s gaffe is at risk of going under, along with the other houses on my old street, and I need help. Now, get the lead out.”
Big Dave and Little Lar were used to taking control of emergency situations but coping with flood waters threatening to sweep Clontarf into the mouth of Dublin Bay wasn’t something they’d studied in the fire brigade manual.
“Ah Vinny, glad to see you’re ok,” said Big Dave. “Listen, we’ve orders to clear all houses in Causeway Avenue and everyone seems to have taken flight but you. You’re right in the way of the flooding and there’s another hour before high tide.”
Vinny stood upright, water sluicing into his wellington boots at knee height, and slanted his eyes. “I am well familiar with the times of the tides, thank you,” he said sharply.
“And,” he added in an escalating tone, “I know what has to be done to save these houses from Davy Jones’s Locker which, I think you’d agree, would be well received by those decent folk who live here.
“Now, are you with me? Or are you going to head off to some other s*** creek, with or without a paddle?”
Both Big Dave and Little Lar shrugged, and carefully slipped out of the canoe, which left them standing knee-deep, or in Dave’s case, shin-deep, in water now a swirl with plastic bottles, bits of cardboard, and other seaside detritus.
“Alright, Vinny we’re on board. What’s the plan?” said Big Dave.
Vinny grinned. “Right lads, I’ve got as many sand bags in place as possible, all along the street. It will buy us a little time, but not much.
“We’ve got to clear the drains to give this water somewhere to go before the high water mark. They are clogged up with leaves and getting worse with all the stuff coming in on the storm surge.
“There’s no point in blaming the Council now; we’re the only ones who can do anything about it. Well, what do you say?”
Big Dave and Little Lar looked back up the street, which measured about 100 yards in length, towards the seafront.
“Vinny,” said Big Dave plaintively, “even Jacques Cousteau would be a 100 to one to find a drain up there.”
Vinny winked. “You’re right, he would, but I know this street, and her drains, backwards. I lost me best steely in the one outside Dillon’s halfway up on the right, a half-crown on Holy Communion Day by O’Tooles further up the left. As for the other one, it’s right underneath us.”
With that, Vinny sank to his knees, took a deep breath and plunged his potato-shaped head into the briny. After about 30 seconds, he surfaced, spluttering.
“Jaypurs, it’s cold,” he said, thrusting two fistfuls of leaves into Big Dave’s hands.
“Put these in that bloody canoe of yours, and get down here with me. I’ll guide you in. With three pairs of hands, we’ll have it cleared in jig time.”
What followed was an improbable rescue act. Drain by drain, dunk by dunk, the three men criss-crossed their way towards the mouth of Causeway Avenue.
It was a case of turning over old leaves, hundreds of them, and twisty bits of twigs that were blocking the culverts. They were playing into the wind and against the chill current but were driven on by the old man of the seaside, a week past his 56th birthday.
By the time, they reached the third drain, Vinny sensed the tide, in every sense, was turning.
Just as the waters lapping into Causeway Avenue found gurgling channels to plunge into and disappear, so the back-up waves were reined in by the moon’s tidal pull.
After an hour, the three men finally came up for air, wrapped arms around each other, sweating, soaking wet, and all smiles.
As Vinny looked back down the street where he had lived for most of his life, the street which was still high and almost dry, he let out a guttural roar and punched a meaty fist skywards in celebration.
“Lads,” he shouted aloud, “the first Battle of Clontarf in 2014 has been won.”