Monday, November 23, 2009

Cork's maritime past comes back with a bang

The City and County of Cork got a sharp reminder of its maritime heritage over the past week with the worst floods in living memory.

The people of Cork are no strangers to flooding, but the floods which began on Thursday 19th November were something different. Cork was not the only place affected. The floods extended over a large area of Ireland and our neighbouring island, but Cork was one of the most badly affected areas in Ireland.

Cork city is built on a marsh, known in Irish as Corcach mór na Mumhan, the Great Marsh of Munster. The city centre is a series of about six islands and lots of smaller ones which have been drained and channelled. The main street of the city, St. Patrick's Street, was once a channel of the River Lee and much of the city centre is barely above high tide mark. Other streets that were previously waterways include the South Mall, Emmet Place and Drawbridge Street. When a combination of heavy rain of the type we had last week conspires with high tides and high winds the city gets flooded. What we got last Thursday could be called "the Perfect Flood". Except for those affected by it, who would call it something different.

Over 400 years ago the English poet Edmund Spenser wrote about the nature of Cork city in his epic poem The Faerie Queen, "The spreading Lee, that like an island fayre, Encloseth Corke with its divided flood".

The picture above shows Washington Street (then known as George's Street) at the height of the great flood of 1853. The same flood partially washed away St. Patrick's Bridge, not long after its predecessor had been washed away completely by another flood. Thankfully that didn't happen in the 2009 floods, although two people perished in Britain, one of them a police officer swept away when a bridge collapsed.

It all goes to show that we cannot take the planet upon which we live and its environment for granted. There is an interrelationship between the environment and those things we build on it. If you divert water from one place it must re-emerge somewhere else. Global warming is a reality and it is a fact that some of the wettest (as well as some of the warmest) years this century have taken place within the last two decades.

There is no doubt that more and more money is going to have to be spent on flood protection over the next few years. In some countries it is far more severe with places such as Bangladesh in dire trouble and large scale moving of people and cities may have to take place (except the developing world is turning a blind eye).
In places like Cork we are likely to see even more floods and other unusual weather phenomena. We seriously need to get prepared for them.

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