Floods in Athlone: ‘I’ve had enough. I can’t take any more'

Locals are at the end of their tether after weeks of floods and isolation in Co Westmeath

Conor Pope reports from Golden Island, a small rural community near Athlone which has been isolated by the floods and is struggling to survive in appalling conditions. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

“I can’t let the kids play in the back garden in case they drown,” says Patricia Doyle-Turley without a hint of drama as she straps her four children into the back of the Army truck starting its first school run of 2016.

“We’ve been marooned here for five weeks. We can’t get in or out without the tractor or the Army,” she continues.

Her home in Athlone, Co Westmeath, is surrounded by water which is more than a metre deep.

“The hassle and the isolation are stressful but my biggest worry is the children. The fear is they’ll go into the garden and not come back.”

The truck’s engine roars into life as it begins its slow descent down the Turley drive into the deep floodwaters of Carrick-O’Brien, one of the areas worst affected by the crisis.

“This is my home place,” she says. “I was born here and have lived here my whole life. We’re well used to floods but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Many of the homes around her lie empty. She says more people would like to evacuate but can’t because they’re afraid criminals will take advantage of their absence to steal whatever it is they have left.

“Empty houses around here have been burgled. They’re using boats and coming in up the river around the back,” she says.

‘I rang the guards’

Her children Dervla (9), Evan (7), Finian (6) and Gemma (4) swing their legs from seats designed for bigger bodies. They talk mostly about the comedy film Minions. The boys are delighted to be going back to school in an Army truck, the girls less so.

“I’d prefer to be missing a day,” Dervla says. “Sometimes we get to go into the flood in the garden. We get to splash each other and everything.” Her little sister Gemma nods. “My boots are great. They never let in the water,” she says proudly.

Her mother listens with concern.

Tears start rolling down Gertie Dunning’s face as she stands in her kitchen looking out at the garden she once loved. Today it is under more than a metre of murky brown water. For weeks she has been using a giant hydrangea plant and an almost completely submerged children’s trampoline, bought for grandchildren she didn’t get to see over Christmas, to measure the rate at which the waters have been rising and falling.

Mostly they have been rising. Sandbags completely encircle her home but the hastily thrown up flood defences haven’t been strong enough to stop the Shannon causing more destruction.

Nothing has been damaged as badly as her sense of place. Neither she nor her husband, Mickey, have had more than a couple of consecutive hours sleep since the beginning of December.

Christmas was cancelled and presents destined for children and grandchildren remain unopened in the living room.

Holding back the water

“We went through all this before [in 2009]. It only lasted a couple of weeks back then and we thought it was the end of the world. But my God, my God, now it’s . . . it’s . . . I don’t know how I feel. I really don’t know how I feel.” She starts to cry, before quickly composing herself. Steely resolve is combined with the sadness in her voice.

“I spent a lifetime doing up my garden. Both of us are in our 60s now. How could I have the heart to start again? Everything I had is gone. I don’t have the heart to start again. I feel like saying ‘f**k it’ and getting out. It seems like a hopeless situation now and if there was any way of getting out of it and leaving it all behind that’s what we’d do.”

She’s angry. It’s not hard to see why. Carrick O’Brien, Clonbonny, and Golden Island are three distinct townlands within easy walking distance of Athlone’s town centre. At least the walking distance used to be easy.

The three townlands have been cut off from the rest of the country for weeks and – all the residents agree – very badly let down by the Government and the agencies.

“The Taoiseach comes into my house,” Mickey Dunning says. “He’s standing where you are now and he defends every State body, the ESB, Bord na Móna. All of them. And his tone, it was as if he was saying ‘Shut up Mickey, you don’t know what you’re talking about’.”

Pádraig Keenan is a good neighbour of the Dunnings. He has waded through the floodwater to help them with sandbags and fuel for their small wood- burning stove – the only heat they have in their home now.

His wife evacuated their house earlier in the week but he is afraid it will become the target of thieves and is reluctant to join her.

“It’s like being in prison. The trucks don’t go after dark so once four o’clock comes you’re in until the next morning.”

The road leading to his home is under a metre of water. “This has been going on for four weeks and one day. It has been incredibly stressful. If the water has been five weeks coming up how long is it going to be going down? We think it will be at least another three weeks before we have our lives back.

Flooding of this scale was supposed to be a one-in-100-years event six years ago. If this is going to be constant it would make me ask why are we in there?”

“The isolation is terrible because you can’t get into town,” says Raymond Joyce who lives not far from the Dunnings.

“In 2009 we more or less guessed that this would happen again. But the Government and all the institutions – the ESB, Bord na Móna, the local authority – did nothing. It is all those institutions that are keeping us isolated and not only here but all around the country.”

Cut off from dry land

The couple, in their 70s, are lucky as their house has not been flooded. But the only way they can access what they have started to view as the mainland is with a borrowed rowing boat.

“It is very stressful,” Michael says. “You’re worn out for rest and we’re tired manning the pumps.”

Pattie has had to move out. “She has a hotel room booked now,” Michael says.

She nods. “I’ve had enough. I can’t take any more. I feel like passing out I’m so tired.”

Like all his neighbours, Michael Macken’s anger is never far from the surface. “There was no management whatsoever from the powers that be. They were sitting on their backsides.

“You had the wettest month of November and then the first week in December. Where did they think the water was going to go? Back up in the sky?

“The powers that be, they did nothing.”