Land and water are intrinsically linked and nowhere more than in Skibbereen through which the River Ilen meanders its way to the sea. Skibbereen, County Cork, is the most southerly town in Ireland, once part of the Gaelic lordship of the McCarthy Chieftains and ‘Capital of the Carberies’, it has a long history of flooding associated with the River Ilen and its tributaries.
Its Irish name, An Sciobairín, means ‘little boat harbour’ and in the sixteenth century it remained a small trading post along the river, until in 1631 its seaport twin, Baltimore, was raided by Algerian pirates. Following this tragedy many survivors moved up the river for safety to Skibbereen, establishing the town’s charter in 1657. In the ninteenth century its existence was threatened not by pirates but by occupation and famine and for many today Skibbereen is perhaps best known for the famine song ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’. The town was one of the areas worst affected throughout Ireland with a mass grave alongside the river containing the remains of between 8,000 and 10,000 people. Today, however, the threat to the town and its people comes neither from pirates nor famine but from flooding.
This is not a new issue to the people of Skibbereen. When the great Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell came to the town on the 22 June 1834, between 75,000 and 100,000 people attended at Curragh Hill, making it the largest public meeting ever to be held in West Cork. Following this mass meeting, O’Connell raised the matter in the British House of Commons of the outstanding and long-held grievance of the people of Skibbereen regarding flooding in the town. Incredibly, the community of Skibbereen are still waiting for flood relief measures to be implemented in the town some 167 years later.
The community are therefore delighted that progress is finally being made on this matter as Cork County Council recently signed a contract with RPS Consulting Engineers Ltd to complete a hydrological feasibility study including the preparation of a flood risk management plan for the River Ilen.
The Environmental Climate Change Park proposal outlines a strategic plan for Skibbereen and its hinterland in facing the challenges of the 21st century. As well as facing the River Ilen, the town is bordered by a large marsh area which comprises unused semi-derelict lands offering a unique amenity and resource management opportunities. Skibbereen has connectivity to natural water retention areas that, if designed correctly, could provide new amenity uses for the community, while supporting tourism development and urban regeneration in a sustainable manner.
The development of a multi-purpose eco- amenity park in the marsh area offers a flagship project for West Cork and a first for Ireland. The creation of this park could provide a shining example of how green spaces can be enhanced to provide new amenities to residents and visitors while assisting the community in coping with the challenges of climate change.
The development could provide an array of natural environments from constructed wetlands to woodland, meadows, marshland and shallow and deep ponds with varying aquatic margins. Riverside walks, seating, community gardens, public works of art, outdoor spaces with a sense of place and natural amphitheatres that integrate the town with nature could be included. The creation of such an eco-park could create a sense of place and community that may be transformational in its outcome.
In the current economic climate communities must build up the viability of their urban areas to support social and economic sustainability. This proposal aims to support the development of a vibrant town centre, including existing employment, urban renewal and future development in a manner that will support the residential and business community, eco-tourism, sports and leisure activities as well as tackling rural decline. The ability of this proposal to meet the urgent needs of the town while aspiring to be something of wider importance is a key starting point to the Environmental Climate Change Park vision, one that has widespread support.
Town Mayor Councillor Frank Fahy, a keen supporter of the proposal, is concerned with the problems of flooding in Skibbereen and the urgent implementation of flood relief mitigation solutions to prevent further flooding to the town. “The interim report on the hydrological study is due in August and it is critically important that mitigation works are completed as soon as possible thereafter to prevent a repeat of the recent devastating flooding in the town,” he said. As Chairman of the River Ilen Planning Project Liaison Executive (RIPPLE) Councillor Fahy has worked tirelessly to promote the restoration of the river for waterway amenities and to develop the marsh area as an amenity for the town and West Cork. “The Environmental Climate Change Park proposal supports the vision and aims of RIPPLE, the Town Council, business and community by integrating long-term planning with sustainable social, amenity and environmental considerations creating a shared space that will ultimately protect and transform the urban landscape of Skibbereen town while promoting waterway amenities and tourism development,” he said.
Skibbereen Lions Club is proud to be lead organisation in an umbrella group of local voluntary and community associations, including Partnership for Change, which are all highly supportive of the environmental park proposal for Skibbereen. The association recently submitted a proposal to West Cork Development Partnership for funding under the flagship community capital project for development of the park in Skibbereen. According to Dan Cleary, President of the Skibbereen Lions Club, the proposal is seen “as vital to the town’s future”.
Expressing similar views, newly-elected TD Noel Harrington, who recently opened his constituency office in Skibbereen’s Townshend Street, one of the most flood prone areas of the town, says the proposal offers tremendous opportunities for revitalising the town and creating vibrant green spaces and amenity areas within a flood park that is adjacent to the River Ilen on public lands owned by Cork County Council. He added that “it is a bonus that this will support both tourism and urban renewal while contributing to solutions to flood mitigation.”
It remains, however, a concept, and in order to get it right the Environmental Climate Change Park must integrate with whatever engineering solutions the Office of Public Works and Cork County Council pursue for the mitigation of flooding in Skibbereen. For many, the park presents a new future for Skibbereen and the opportunity of a unique shared community space that everyone can be proud of.
Declan Waugh is Director of EnviroManagement Services and Founder of Partnership for Change.