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Pride in the Bride
Blackpool's River Bride, a tributary of the Lee, will disappear from view in Blackpool village if the OPW's flood relief plans go ahead. A new environmental group is gearing up for battle.
The winding tale of any river can start wherever water flows.
This is a very Cork story, but let’s start in Dublin, at the Customs House, where 18th century architect James Gandon commissioned Meath sculptor Edward Smyth to produce a charmingly pagan series of carved faces.
Smyth carved 14 “river head” keystones, anthropomorphic personifications of Ireland’s great waterways. Akin to Greek gods, they are stern, they are ancient. The Liffey is there, of course. The Blackwater, the Lagan, the Shannon. They were incorporated, fittingly enough in a tale that is about money as much as it is about rivers, into Ireland’s first legal tender banknotes.
The River Lee is there too, of course.
These are the great, slow-flowing waterways of Ireland: upstart young tributaries were not included.
If, inspired by Smyth’s concept, we were to sculpt personifications of the smaller waterways of Cork, how would we represent Blackpool’s River Bride?
You’ll forgive me for saying that I think it would come out looking something like one of The Young Offenders: a much misunderstood Northsider, subjected to decades of institutional injustices resulting in outbreaks of unpredictable behaviour. And now, running the risk of lifelong incarceration.
On March 11, the minister for public expenditure, Michael McGrath, gave the go-ahead for a €20.5 million flood relief project that would see the Bride culverted for 350 metres through Blackpool village, essentially entombing the river, which has been seen as the cause of severe flooding on several occasions in the traditionally working-class Northside community.
If this were a film, and the Bride were a delinquent up in juvenile court, Chris Moody would be cast as the irrepressible youth worker who believes in the wayward youth against all odds. Even when I jokingly put this scenario to him, he jumps immediately to its defence.
“I wouldn’t even call it a delinquent,” he says. “It’s just been abused, all the way. For years and years.”
By setting up motion-sensor cameras on the city river, Chris proved that they were a habitat to the protected European otter. Chris clears dumped rubbish from the Bride, which flows through the bottom of his garden. As well as otters, he’s observed foxes, badgers, stoats, mink, heron, wagtails, mallards, dippers and even, once, a fleeting glimpse of the elusive kingfisher.
He believes fervently in rehabilitation instead of incarceration for the Bride. And now, he’s heading up a newly formed group, Save Our Bride Otters (SOBO) that’s taking a judicial review of the ministerial decision to grant the OPW (Office of Public Works) permission to proceed with a flood defence plan that they believe is unwieldy, overly costly, and detrimental to a valuable city ecosystem.
Chris, a cartoonist by profession, moved to Blackpool with his wife and family 12 years ago. For many years, the Bride was a background noise in his life, but since 2015, he’s embarked on a one-man research project that has taken him to some curious places, that has become something of an obsession.
Chris tells me that not only will the OPW’s proposed plans damage a “jewel of an ecosystem” in a built-up area of the city, but that they completely overlook the reasons why the Bride has been flooding in the first place: previous development.
Filing Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Cork City Council and the OPW, wading under the culverts, photographing, and documenting, Chris has been acting as a river detective. He’s come up with his own timeline of events when it comes to flooding in Blackpool.
And they date back to the late nineties, when a separate river, The Glen Stream, was culverted under the N20. What ensued was a series of culverting developments, which Chris says sped up the flow of water and increased the risk of flooding, as well as the installation of trash screens to which he directly attributes as least one of the floods.
Here’s Chris’ timeline, and as you might expect it gets into the weeds:
A series of river diversions and culverting of the River Bride and Spring Lane (Glen overflow) stream increases the volume of water entering the Bride and the speed at which it's flowing.
Blackpool village suffers serious flooding, with two floods in the space of one week in November. The flooding was blamed on blockage of the Blackpool Bridge culvert.
The army extracts four truckloads of debris from the Blackpool bridge culvert.
Blackpool retail park planning permission is sought to divert and straighten the Bride. There were objections and flood concerns, but permission was granted and works carried out in August 2003. “People were told by the developers of the retail park that a storage lake was going to be created, like a kind of a wildlife park and wetland, above Blackpool,” Chris says.
“There was a planning condition that there would be a restriction to hold the water back and slow it down and stop Blackpool from flooding. I’ve seen no evidence that this was done.”
The developer at a housing estate in Blackpool, Orchard Court, was instructed to widen, deepen and straighten the Bride, due to an engineer’s concerns about flooding.
Widening, straightening and deepening of River Bride approx 300m upstream of Blackpool Village.
A large riverbank collapse saw rubble, mud and debris empty into the Bride. There were various accusations of blame, but Cork City Council eventually paid for and repaired the damage in 2012.
Flooding of Blackpool village.
Flooding of Blackpool village.
Flooding of Blackpool village.
Damaged trash screens removed from the Bride.
No flooding events in Blackpool village
“I spent an awful lot of time thinking about that 2012 event, dreaming about it and walking up and down the river looking at it,” Chris says. “I can’t tell you how much time. Where did all the water come from? There was an awful lot of water coming into Blackpool and the culvert system was overwhelmed, and the culvert system was not blocked.
“You might expect a small amount of surface water flooding from the rain that fell on that night, because the rainfall was incredible. But this was a massive amount of water.
“I noticed the state of this trash screen in the retail park after the flood event: it was completely bent out of shape. It’s this massive structure that looks like somebody has grabbed it from the bottom and pushed it back.”
The pictures Chris received from Cork City Council through FOI show the trash screen in the retail park blocked with debris and vegetation. His detective work has led him to draw his own conclusions.
“My theory is that the trash screen got blocked in the early hours of the morning of June 28, 2012, and the water backed up into the park, which was partly designed as a flood lake, and up into Sunbeam, and that it then collapsed and released a massive amount of water all in one go,” he says. “Maybe it happened in minutes or even seconds, but there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s why Blackpool was hit so hard.”
Chris’ incredibly in-depth research has been difficult to communicate, but it’s backed up by plenty of evidence.
As Cork City Council’s own planning documents note, 60 dwellings and 30 businesses were flooded in November 2002 after rainfall totalling 57.9mm and 42.3m was recorded – but much higher rainfall had occurred without flooding in 2001, when rainfall of 70.9mm and 65.5mm were recorded in July.
In total, Blackpool had experienced 60 days with greater rainfall than that of November 2002 in the 50 previous years, leading them to conclude that “the problems of November 2002 were not caused by the volume of rain that fell, but by an unusual capacity restriction in the river.”
It’s time to ask: is Chris an obsessive person by nature? He smiles ruefully, and acknowledges there’s some truth to it. But it’s become an issue of injustice to him, he tells me. Blackpool has been subjected to some insensitive developments in its time, including the N20, which carves its noisy, dusty path right past the back of the village and over the Bride. Its shopping centre, sunk below the level of the N20 bypass, is not a thing of beauty.
Blackpool has also seen its fair share of poverty and social issues down through the years. For Moody, accessing a waterway and seeing the creatures that live there shouldn’t be the preserve of the wealthy.
“I began to feel that this was unjust,” he says, “that the problem was being dumped onto Blackpool village. I feel this is a bigger tale, of the little guy paying the price for mistakes made. Why should we be denied the wildlife and the river here? The river is being sold as a dirty, disgusting dumping ground. But it’s much more than that. I’ve become emotionally involved.”
“I’d like the scheme to stop, and I’d like someone else to look at the problem. It needs a fresh set of eyes, and it needs a full evaluation of what has happened in Blackpool: let’s look at all those factors and base our response on that. Sure. let’s tackle the problem, but let’s leave Blackpool with a river. Not a pipe, not a drain. A river.”
The OPW concedes in their documentation that culverting the remaining 350m of river through Blackpool village will have a negative effect on wildlife, including up to 11 otters that traverse the waterway to access the Lee.
Fisheries Ireland made a submission during the public consultation process for the plans and said it was “the sterilisation of 350 metres of viable salmonid habitat.”
Money, money, money…
It’s a good thing that Chris is emotionally involved, because undertaking a judicial review to put a halt to the OPW plans is an expensive and time-consuming process. Save Our Bride Otters have already raised nearly €7,000 of the €20,000 they need to mount their judicial review, via a GoFundMe page.
But Chris believes, following his years of research, that not only is there a better, more environmentally friendly, evidence-based fix for Blackpool’s flooding problems, but that it could be done at a fraction of the cost of the €20.5 million price-tag currently on the Blackpool Flood Relief Works.
“I believe there’s time, if there’s a will, to look at this again and to do things differently,” he says. “To me, upstream storage to slow the flow is the answer. It’s an option that’s been proposed for Blackpool since 1982. It was discounted for whatever reason. I think that what’s lacking here is the will.”
The Bride is a small river, but the issue of flood relief schemes is a vast one, with unfathomably large sums of money involved, not only directly in terms of the money spent by the OPW on flood relief schemes, which have cost the state €430 million over a decade, with a further €1 billion of public money to come, but also when it comes to land prices, developments, and insurability.
Money flows as fast as water, and leaks as prolifically, in flood defence, it seems.
Staggering overspends are common. The OPW recently acknowledged that the cost of Ennis flood relief works have now doubled to almost €20 million. Bandon and Skibbereen flood relief works, combined, overspent by €12 million.
The OPW spent €37 million on Skibbereen’s flood defences….and Skibbereen obstinately flooded as soon they were completed, during Storm Ellen last year. In a scene reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan, who obviously drew the short straw for that particular political assignment, visited the town in the aftermath to reassure soggy locals that the “main flood scheme is working effectively.” The problem was something else, naturally.
Also common are environmental concerns: in Bandon, there was fury when earth-moving vehicles working on their flood scheme were observed to be using the riverbed, once a precious gravel spawning-ground, as a road.
Blackpool is not by any means a community united behind Chris Moody’s view of the Bride. Homes and businesses have suffered repeated devastation. Local business owners can’t get flood insurance.
“As far as I’m concerned, insurance is the big driver, but I see that point of view,” Chris says. “It’s occurred to me many times that someone like me coming along and sticking my head up and saying, ‘hey, wait a minute’, when people in Blackpool have fought so hard for this scheme for years….I have complete sympathy for people that have been flooded.”
When I contacted Independent Cork North Central councillor Kenneth O’Flynn for my news article linked in the opening paragraphs here, he spoke at length about the difficulties in getting investment for Blackpool due to the lack of flood insurance.
I also asked him about Chris’ theories about the man-made origins of the flooding problems, and about how he believed the problem could be solved for a fraction of the cost.
“Listen, as a councillor, all I can do is look at the fortune that’s been spent on consulting for this,” he said. “We’ve had very expensive advice and we have to act on it.”
International engineering firm Arup have been commissioned by the OPW to develop the Blackpool Flood Relief Scheme. Arup did not respond to requests for comment.
A community divided
Chris and his otters and his upstream water storage are not met with open arms by several, but not all, local business-owners. Mick Moriarty is the owner of The Baldy Barbers in Blackpool village. He’s also the chairman of a local flood action group who are strongly in favour of the OPW’s plans, and who want to see them go ahead, preferably without the delays of a judicial review process.
“We’ve no flood insurance for the barber shop for the past 15 years,” Mick says. “Any time we’ve been flooded we’ve just had to wash out the shop and pay the bills out of our own pocket.”
Mick is skeptical about otters as a reason to halt what he sees as sensible development, progress for an area that has suffered too much.
“They believe there’s about eight to 11 otters that go down to the Lee and out by Patrick’s bridge, that’s what I’m told,” Mick says. “I’ve yet to see them. Do we have to wait until a child is swept away in a flood, because we’re looking after otters?”
“It’s a funny thing because these guys called a meeting the other night. But they never came and knocked on my door and asked me how I feel about the otters. I moved from Ballincollig as a young fella in 1958, and I swam in the River Bride. I can categorically state that I never saw otters. I saw trout and eels, but I never saw an otter in my life.”
Trout and eels are both prey species for otters, and otters are mostly nocturnal by habit, so this isn’t particularly surprising. In fact, the very first image of an otter captured by Chris on the Bride was at night, in 2016.
Mick points out that Blackpool has a long history of flooding. Even a cursory look at the placenames of the area - Watercourse Road, Spring Lane - would tell you that a network of Lee tributaries has always flowed there. But when it comes to particulars as to whether developments like the culverting of the Glen Stream or the building of the retail park have changed the nature of the problem, Mick is just not overly concerned. As far as he’s concerned, it’s a question of moving quickly and eliminating a problem that has repressed Blackpool for too long.
Culverting the remaining stretch of the River Bride is no loss to the village, Mick and the rest of Blackpool Flood Action group, who are mostly comprised of local business owners, believe.
“It won’t make any difference to us,” he says. “I’ve travelled a fair bit now to see the other flood works by the OPW - Clonmel, Skibbereen and Fermoy - and they’ve done tremendous work. Also, if they’re going to cover it in, what I saw in the presentation from the OPW and Arup is that they can dress up the whole 350 metres of the bunker or whatever you want to call it. They’ve already covered in the part in front of the church that they call the plaza. And they should have covered the rest of it in while they were there.”