Fermoy and the Blackwater River

(I wrote this for President McAleese prior to her visit to Fermoy in 2010.)

The River Blackwater has always been the heart of Fermoy. The town grew over the centuries around this natural fording point and its great beauty is an essential part of the town.

Around 1170 a Cistercian Abbey was founded on what is now Ashe Quay. There the monks built a small weir and harnessed the river to their needs. The first settlement grew around the Abbey, Sancta Maria de Castro Dei or Our Lady of the Camp of God. From then the area was known as Mainistir Fhearmui (the Monastery of the Men of the Free Plain). History records that the Cistercians operated a ferry service across the river.

Thomas Cromwell noted the Abbey in his inventory for Henry VIII and, at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, the Abbey and the surrounding lands passed into the hands of various English landlords. In 1626 the 1st Earl of Cork ordered the building of a timber bridge across the Blackwater at the cost of £500. Two years later the bridge was washed away in what was described as “an extraordinary flood”. A thirteen arch stone bridge was eventually built in its place in 1687. That bridge was in turn replaced by the present seven arch limestone bridge in 1865.

John Anderson

In 1791 the Scottish entrepreneur John Anderson purchased the Abbey property. He used the then hamlet as a staging point for the Bianconi coach system. He had been instrumental in bringing the first delivery of the Royal Mail from Dublin to Cork within 24 hours, on the 8th of July 1789. (It’s worth noting that highwaymen were a recurring problem for the mail coaches, not least among them Kilworth’s Willy Brennan…)

Anderson planned the layout of the modern town around the river and built the current weir, using the river to power the new town’s industrial base, a purpose-built mill to the east of the bridge. A man of extraordinary courage and foresight, he gave free sites to both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

As the Eighteenth Century came to a close, history conspired in Anderson’s favour and he had the wit to recognize his opportunity. The failed French invasion of Ireland in 1796 caused great concern to the British Government and they sought land on which military bases could be established. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site for their barracks.

In 1807 the Rev J. Hall described the town as “a place rising fast into importance and containing about two thousand inhabitants, besides barracks for as many soldiers. A few years ago, Fermoy consisted of only a few miserable huts.” At the height of Fermoy’s time as a garrison town, 3,300 troops were stationed here.

Sadly, Anderson lost everything in a banking collapse and died, penniless, in 1820. He was buried in a pauper’s grave in London.

Modern Times

The Blackwater has always been entwined in our town’s history. Only last month, members of Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club recovered from the riverbed by O’Neill Crowley Quay a quantity of very old pocket watches.

That mystery can probably be explained by an incident from the War of Independence. In September 1919, Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. ambushed a group of fourteen British soldiers on their way to Church in Fermoy. One soldier, a Private William Jones, was killed. British forces sacked the town in retaliation for the killing and in reaction to the coroner’s inquest, which recorded a verdict of ‘Accidental death, unpremeditated’.

Lieutenant Colonel Hughes Hallett, who was posted in Fermoy at the time, gives a hardly impartial version of the story in William Sheehan’s fascinating book “British Voices: From the Irish War of Independence 1918-1921” (Collins Press, 2005). Hughes Hallett recounts “The sound of breaking glass was heard, from the town, a few hundred yards away across the river… (The troops had) sent a screen ahead of the main body to clear the streets- ordering everybody… into their houses and to stay there. Then the demolition party proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… “I can’t recall all the details,” he claims, “but the Jeweller, the Boot Shop and the Wine Shop and particularly the foreman of the Jury, etc, were all faithfully dealt with. Trays of rings and watches were soon being flung into the river. A chain of men supervised by a captain, who was later to become Chief Constable of Devon, smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”

In recent weeks the local press covered a fascinating story which has its origins in the tragedy of the Civil War. Anti-Treaty forces under the command of General Liam Lynch apparently drilled holes in the underside of the bridge with the intention of dynamiting the structure to destroy a vital part of the Free State infrastructure by blowing up the main Cork to Dublin road.

The plan was abandoned but today those holes are nested in by sand martins, something which is considered unusual as this species of bird normally avoids man-made structures.

The River Blackwater is the iconic picture postcard image of Fermoy and we are blessed to live in a town of such natural beauty. The river is home to the Rowing Club, anglers, swimmers, kayakers, and many more. Barnane Walk on a sunny day is a little piece of heaven and as a town we need to appreciate the resource that is our river. Perhaps we should look to the Blackwater for ways in which it can help us in these difficult times.

(I am indebted to the works of the late Michael Barry, the late Niall Brunacardi and the late Dick Stritch, a past president of Fermoy Rowing Club.)

– Donal O’Keeffe

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