Expanding lough forces elderly couple from Roscommon home

Ballagh ‘on a knife-edge’ as lake has already swallowed up over 100 hectares of farmland

A couple in their 80s were forced to evacuate their Roscommon home earlier this week fearing it would be imminently flooded.

Edward John Beattie (82) has watched from his window over the past few weeks as the expanding Lough Funshinagh inched closer to his front door. The retired farmer said he was advised by senior Roscommon County Council officials on Monday to leave his house in Ballagh Cross, Rahara, where he has lived since 1951, as an embankment keeping the water at bay was at risk of collapsing.

The bloated lake has already swallowed up more than 100 hectares (247 acres) of farmland and forced another local family to leave the area.

“The last thing I want is to leave our house,” Mr Beattie said, “once you go you might never get back”.

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However, he had no choice but to move with his wife Teresa to private rented accommodation about 2.5km away on Tuesday.

Locals have been sounding the alarm about the threat posed to their property since 2016. Lough Funshinagh is in fact a turlough – a type of disappearing lake – that drains gradually. In recent years it has not been receding as it used to. The council attributes the change in the lake’s behaviour to increased rainfall due to climate change, but the Office of Public Works (OPW) said the high water levels were “within the naturally occurring range”.

Monitoring water levels

Following extreme flooding at Lough Funshinagh in 2016, Geological Survey Ireland began monitoring its water levels. Last week it published an updated assessment, finding Lough Funshinagh to be “unlike other turloughs in Ireland” as it “does not get the opportunity to reset its flood pattern each year”. It is “particularly vulnerable to weather events as their impacts can carry over one year to the next”, it said.

Another Ballagh resident Mary Beattie (70), no relation, was advised to pack up her belongings due to the threat to her home also, but she is determined to “stand her ground”, her daughter Sinead Beattie said.

“She told the council she will take her kettle upstairs and that is where they will find her . . . She feels if she does go they will just let the house flood. There is zero trust there with the Government,” she said.

Her mother had already endured the most difficult year of her life, and the fear her home will be flooded is compounding matters, she said. Within the last year Mary Beattie has buried her husband and her 33-year-old daughter Sheila, who died from cancer.

“My mother now only sleeps in my sister’s bed. How can she be asked to move out? It is not about the house or the money, it is about the memories . . . All of Sheila’s memories are in that house,” she said. If her mother were forced to relocate it would “break her heart”, Ms Beattie said.

“We have seen our mother go through so much and if we can just save our home she could maybe find some peace.”

The council has raised roads and provided pumps to residents whose homes were in danger of being flooded, while the OPW said it deployed an engineer over the weekend to review the situation. But Edward Beattie’s son Matthew Beattie said years of inaction have turned the local area into a “seaside”, with more homes at risk.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that a family in their 80s have had to leave their home and move into private rental accommodation in the middle of a pandemic,” he said, adding that they had been cocooning since March.

Mr Beattie believes the council “took their foot off the pedal completely” and didn’t take seriously enough the warnings from county councillors and Ballagh Cross residents.

‘Driven to despair’

“This should never have happened. There was a solution to this problem,” he said.

A proposal by the council to insert an outflow pipe that would maintain the lake at a set level was rejected by the OPW in August 2020. The OPW said then that the €1.5 million proposal did not represent a “cost benefit” and was not a sustainable solution.

Local independent councillor Laurence Fallon, whose own farmland has been affected by the lake’s expansion, said the village of Ballagh is “on a knife-edge”.

“This issue has driven the entire village to despair . . . This is a massive problem doing massive damage to the environment and the locality,” he said.

Chief executive of Roscommon County Council Eugene Cummins wrote to the Minister of State at the OPW, Patrick O’Donovan, last week urging him to reconsider funding the “already identified solution”. He said the situation had “deteriorated significantly” in recent days.

“There is little Roscommon County Council can do in the context of a permanent significant infrastructural solution to alleviating this flooding without Government intervention,” he wrote.

Even if given the green light, it would take about three years to complete the project, Mr Cummins said, imploring that a “hybrid interim mix of actions” be deployed in the meantime.

In response, Mr O’Donovan said the outflow proposal “may raise environmental concerns” due to the designation of the turlough as a special area of conservation. However, he advised the council, as the lead agency, to initiate a planning process for an engineered solution. He asked Mr Cummins to convene a meeting of all relevant State bodies to identify further actions to address the issues. He gave his assurances that he and the Government are “fully committed to finding an effective and sustainable solution”.

Cllr Fallon is more hopeful now of progress. “The only problem is that by the time we get there our village might not exist.”

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan

Ellen O'Riordan is High Court Reporter with The Irish Times