Diarmaid Ferriter: Time running out to ‘drain the Shannon’

Challenge for those who can do something is to respond more robustly

Aerial footage released by the Irish Air Corps shows the widespread damage caused by flooding in the midlands as a result of Storm Desmond. Video: Irish Air Corps

 

A few days before Christmas in 1932, Peter Moran from Drumsna, Co Leitrim, nearly drowned because of the flooding caused by the River Shannon bursting its banks. He was returning from Carrick on Shannon with his Christmas shopping. The road he travelled was submerged in what was described as “several feet of water”. What happened next was reported by The Irish Times on Christmas Eve:

“At this point, Moran was leading his horse when it took flight and dashed headlong into the flood, carrying Moran by the reins into the very deep portion. John Malone, a county council worker, went to Moran’s rescue, and diving under the water, rescued Moran, who was in an exhausted condition, with the reins still held tightly in his hand and entangled in the harness. He was taken to hospital for treatment and detained for the night.”

Nearly 22 years later, in October 1954, there was widespread coverage of extensive flooding “particularly along the River Shannon in the West”. Numerous roads were submerged and impassable and “in some cases cottages along the Shannon have had to be evacuated and livestock moved to high ground”. The Athlone correspondent of The Irish Times reported that “the river had risen to a height never experienced before”.

Almost 30 years later, there was another River Shannon crisis, but this time the problem was snow. After the big freeze of January 1982 came the thaw, and as a result, “the Shannon River has swept over its banks to drown thousands of acres of land and inflict hardship on a great many”.

Those in the affected areas were “again asking the eternal question: when are they going to drain the Shannon? It is a question that has brought a ceaseless flow of promises from politicians since the foundation of the State . . . but the floods continue. Last year, they struck not only in winter, but again in summer, following torrential rains.”

It is not necessary to refer to the more recent archived reports of flooding. You get the picture. This has been happening for a long time; not just in this century, but also in the one before that, and the one before that.

Bungling manner

In 1874, under the heading “The Shannon Floods”, this newspaper carried a piece from a correspondent that noted: “All the writers on the present condition of Ireland, however much they disagree on other points, unite in insisting that drainage on a large scale is one of the most immediate benefits the country requires . . . here we have a condition of things that would not be tolerated in any other country, more especially as from the allegations of the persons possessing a knowledge of the river, they have been produced by the incompleteness of the government works and the bungling and unauthorised manner in which they were carried out.”

Historic and very recent floods have highlighted both the best and the worst of us; an extraordinary sense of community, solidarity and selflessness, people risking their lives to save others, alongside the persistence of denial, broken promises and inadequate commitment to addressing the fundamental causes of flooding.

Incompetence

It would be deceptively easy to centre an analysis of the problem on the incompetence of various governors at various stages. That incompetence is relevant and made all the more painful by the distressing experiences of those who witness their homes – their own little republics – and their livelihoods destroyed and, to add insult to injury, cannot get insurance and still have to pay mortgages. But extreme weather has the capacity to defeat the best of plans, the strongest of commitments and the most lavish of spending.

More can and must be done to limit damage, however. The challenge for those who can do something is to respond more robustly than previously by listening to those who know what they are talking about and act on their knowledge, especially when, at a time of frightening climate change, that knowledge is extensive and backed not only by the heartache of direct experience of the deluges, but by relevant research.

During the week, Conor Murphy of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit, at NUI Maynooth, spoke on RTÉ of the importance of a research project reconstructing the Irish storm climate all the way back to 1871 in relation to frequency and intensity. Storm frequency has not changed but, crucially, storm intensity has; what has amounted to, in the past few years, “a cluster of extreme stormy seasons”.

This is consistent with climate change. Murphy was asked whether we could plan for such extreme events, which will inevitably lead to increases in flooding. His answer was clear, and one we should welcome: “We can of course.”

There is, however, a sting in the tail; such plans will be adequate if they only allow for projected changes in climate. There is no room for denial on that front.

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