As Fermoy’s Flood Alleviation Scheme inches toward completion, it should be recalled that the Blackwater has always been the town’s heart. Fermoy grew around it, and the river’s great beauty is an essential part of its charm, shaping the town and shaped by it too.
1170 saw a Cistercian Abbey founded on what is now Ashe Quay and there the monks built a small weir, harnessing the river to their needs and running a ferry service across. A settlement grew around the Abbey, Sancta Maria de Castro Dei (Our Lady of the Camp of God) and the area became known as Mainistir Fhearmui (Monastery of the Men of the Free Plain).
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 huge 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 and that, in turn, was replaced by the present seven arch limestone bridge in 1865.
In 1791 the Scottish entrepreneur John Anderson purchased the Abbey property. He used the then-hamlet as a staging point for the Marconi coach system. Two years earlier, Anderson had been instrumental in bringing the first delivery of the Royal Mail from Dublin to Cork within 24 hours, the 18th century equivalent of broadband.
Anderson planned the modern town’s layout 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.
At the close of the Eighteenth Century, history conspired in Anderson’s favour and he had the wit to recognize his opportunity. 1796’s failed French invasion of Ireland caused the British government great concern and they sought land on which military bases could be established. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site. 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.
The Blackwater is entwined in our town’s history. A few years ago, 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 IRA ambushed a group of fourteen British soldiers on their way to the Wesleyan Church (now Avondhu Motor Factors). One soldier, Private 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, posted in Fermoy at the time, gives a hardly impartial version of the story in William Sheehan’s “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… The demolition party proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… (Barber’s) Jeweller, the Boot Shop and the Wine Shop (Lombard’s) 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… smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”
During the Civil War, anti-Treaty forces reportedly drilled holes in the underside of Fermoy’s bridge with the intention of dynamiting a vital part of the Free State infrastructure and with it the main Cork to Dublin road. The plan was abandoned but today those holes are nested in by sand martins, unusually for a species of bird which normally avoids man-made structures.
The River Blackwater is the iconic picture-postcard image of Fermoy, home to the Rowing Club, to 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. As the flood relief scheme is finally completed, perhaps we should look to the Blackwater for ways in which it can help us in these difficult times.