SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

Waves smash into promenade in Lahinch. Pic Sean Curtin

County Clare’s position on Ireland’s rugged west coast has proved a boon over the years — but it’s not without its pitfalls, writes Noel Baker.

As storms careered in from the Atlantic at the end of December and into January, many famous points along the west Clare coastline bore the brunt of the damage. The images of huge waves hurtling into Lahinch abounded, as did the aftermath when much of the town’s famous promenade was smashed.

As we see, some of the damage has already been repaired by Clare County Council but much more needs to be done. A report by the local authority put the cost at more than €33m, not including substantial damage caused to private properties, such as Doonbeg Golf course and the Shannon Airport Embankment.

After the deluge Lahinch fights back

OF ALL the images of the storms that visited the Irish coastline in the winter that was, the sight of monster waves crashing unbated into buildings in Lahinch were arguably the most memorable.

The images which came in the days afterwards, of the town’s well-trodden promenade lying wrecked and rubble-strewn, certainly helped to focus minds locally. Maybe it’s because of this that the place looks so very different now.

The promenade is back and on the day of the Irish Examiner’s visit, a five-man council team are working on paving stones in front of the life guard station. True, a few slab stones from the top of the sea wall are still missing and the restructured promenade still has some polish to be applied to it, but the sea front is back in business.

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

Waves smashing the promenade in Lahinch during the recent storms. Pic: George Karbus

It is understood the car park in Lahinch — a very popular destination for surfers and holiday-makers — is the second most lucrative in the county after the car park at the Cliffs of Moher. That could be one reason why Lahinch seems to have recovered so quickly, but there is still some way to go.

The O’Looney’s pub and restaurant building, hit flush by the gigantic waves, is still closed. A sign says that “Due to excessive damage we will remain closed until further notice.”

Just one block back into the town Joe’s coffee shop is doing a roaring trade this mid-term week. Owner Richie Donworth is counting his blessings, and his own background as a surfer, that his business escaped the very worst of the damage.

As a longtime surfer he is used to watching the weather and says the surfing community was well aware of the likely size and impact of the waves at the end of December. The way he describes the 25 second period between waves is positively meteorological.

“It looked like a bomb hit it,” he says of the initial damage to the area. “It looks fine now.

“The council has done a really good job in cleaning up,” he says.

On hearing about the weather coming in from the Atlantic, Richie took affirmative action, boarding up the windows to Joe’s, the cafe he has run for the past seven years. It was a wise move: such was the force and depth of the water that the windows would have been pushed in were the boarding not in place. Some local buildings suffered because water gushed in through the vents. Businesses that might normally be cashing in thanks to mid-term visitors are now still concerned with repairs and cleaning up the damage.

The council put the damage in Lahinch at more than €6m to repair. The response has been prompt but more obviously needs to be done. The local authority report claimed that “there have been concerns for some time regarding coastal erosion at the southern end of Lahinch village where the N67 runs adjacent to a significant drop onto the shore area” and that this was “further compromised during recent events and previous applications for funding in this regard reflect an urgency that is now further exacerbated”. It adds that work is needed on Lahinch’s infrastructure so it can get “to a point where it’s appropriately fit for purpose”.

Several businesses in Lahinch were badly hit, such as a surf shop and a T-shirt shop, and it could be some time before every business is operating at full throttle. In addition, Richie’s surf instinct has spotted another problem.

“You couldn’t swim in it right now,” he says of the coastal area near the town. “There has been a change in the topology of the sea bed but that might even itself out in another few months — it will revert to normal.” But at the moment, he says, “there are giant rips out there”.

Nevertheless, he is optimistic that the town will be ready for the summer season, and refers to the damage caused in less high-profile areas up and down the coast which also require attention, from Liscannor to Quilty.

“They have prioritised that which is used 12 months a year,” he says of the works in Lahinch.

Down the coast from Lahinch is Spanish Point, another area that had its coastline rearranged by the storms. Clare County Council put the cost of repairs at €323,250 and Frank Malone, the manager of the Armada Hotel, is quick to point out where the money could be spent.

Eyeing a piece of the shoreline just across a beach from the rear of the hotel, Frank says: “There was a timber boardwalk before that small lifeguard hut and the second last storm lifted it whole into the car park.”

True enough, there is very little evidence left of what was a popular amenity. “The erosion that has happened is unbelievable,” Franks continues.”

The ruinous remains of the old Atlantic Hotel have had to be sectioned off and Frank admits to a level of concern regarding repairs being carried out ahead of the tourist season, adding that in the peak summer months of June through to August the main occupants in the hotel are beach visitors. Now there are a lot of stones slung along the beach. According to Clare County Council: “Required works include boardwalk, bridge, railings and fencing repairs and removal of marine debris”, while there was “damage also to public toilets, lifeguard hut, car parking facilities, the local sewage treatment plant and a retaining wall now has to be constructed.”

Locals here will be hoping that help comes quickly, as it did in Lahinch. A local woman strolling the promenade said: “It’s not as good as it was, but fair play to them — they’ve worked very hard.”

Doolin: ‘I have never seen any sea like it in my lifetime. It was very bad, scary’

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

Pappy Lynch, who was born in Doolin but now lives in Dublin, regularly returns to his native place and always feels good there.

IT might still feel like winter, but Doolin in west Clare is already facing a deadline.

According to the Clare County Council Preliminary Storm Damage Report, the damage to Doolin, a traditional ferry point to the Aran Islands, must be cleaned up sooner rather than later. Outlining the scale of the damage, it states: “The challenge is to restore all of the foregoing in time for the forthcoming tourist season which gets underway on April 1.”

The foregoing comes in at an estimated cost of €1.025m. According to the report, in January there was “extensive damage to the infrastructure in the vicinity of and facilitating Doolin Pier — parking areas completely inundated and damaged by rocks and other debris thrown in from the sea, vast areas of pavement ripped from foundations, rock armour dislodged, and damage of varying degrees to most other infrastructure including public lighting, public toilet, protective railings etc.”

Come February, there was “further significant remediation works (both interim and permanent) required as well as a repeat of the large scale clean-up already completed”.

“A heavy duty concrete apron is required in the circulation area at the head of the pier and considerable reinstatement and enhancement of the rock armour protection is also necessary.”

One man who knows all about what it was like during the fierce storm at the end of December is Michael Guerin. He says he has lived in a mobile home on the coast, right next to the car park by the pier, for the past 30 years. In all that time he says he has lived there with no electricity, but such was the ferocity of the weather than December night, he’s simply happy his home is still in situ.

A former fisherman born locally, he sounds poetic as he describes “the mountain of sea” that barreled into his mobile home and shifted it 8ft from its riggings.

Of the waves, he says: “You will not see it again in my lifetime.”

The first storm was the one that caused most damage. He remembers the water bailing in between 4am and 4.30am that morning. “I was inside but I ran out of it,” he says.

Remarkably, the mobile home sustained little damage inside, with Michael explaining how “it wasn’t bad because the salt water never got into it. It didn’t do any damage to me”.

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

Damage to the Aran Island Ferry terminal at Doolin, Co Clare

However, it did sweep away his bushes and his small wall and a few truckloads of gravel, 16 bags of coal, and a number of bags of turf. One thing it did not harm, however, was his lovely black currach, tipped upside down near his mobile home and which he restored last year.

“I have never seen any sea like it in my time,” he says. “It was very bad — it was scary.”

Someone who knows Michael well is Pappy Lynch, one of the more sprightly 89-year-olds you’re likely to see. Born in Doolin he lives in Dublin but regularly visits his birthplace. “I feel good when I come down,” he says. “You always feel better when you come back to where you’re from.”

His car was just one of a handful parked on the pier on the day of the Irish Examiner’s visit. The sign for the public toilets has been levelled, as has the sign holding the life buoy. The prefabricated buildings housing the ticket offices for the Doolin-Aran islands ferries certainly took a hammering and are still boarded up. In short, it looks fairly bleak.

“To me it’s 25 years since we got any big storm around here,” Pappy says. “It was rough all around the coast.”

In the weeks following the storms at the end of December and the start of January, the car park near Doolin Pier was home to massive boulders, some dragged up from the sea floor, as well as stones and debris.

“You couldn’t get the rescue boat down with all the stones,” Pappy remarks, “but they are after cleaning up the car park today.”

The car park has been cleared, but some resurfacing work will need to be conducted. Similarly, the 150-year-old building used by the Doolin unit of the Coast Guard was badly damaged.

The ferry season is expected to start again in Easter and the development of a new pier is also likely to begin work. Construction is already under way on a new Coast Guard station and in some ways, the relatively basic nature of much of the infrastructure around the pier area may well be Doolin’s saving grace — there wasn’t too much in the line of fire. As one local person who did not wish to be named out it: “From a tourism point of view, there’s no issue — it’s business as usual”.

Kilkee: ‘The road is like a Steven Spielberg film’

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

Council workers begin works in Kilkee

KILKEE has seen a few forces of nature in the past, not least hell-raising acting great Richard Harris, a long-time visitor, and his protege Russell Crowe, who visited in 2006 to help unveil a statue to Limerick’s favourite son.

Yet neither of them had anything on the storms of December and January last.

Richard Harris sported and played on Kilkee’s famous beachfront, but the man who played the Bull McCabe and Frank Machin wasn’t the only icon to visit the town.

Some buildings in the town still display prints of the iconic image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who stayed overnight in the Strand Hotel in September 1961, resulting in a chance meeting with artist Jim Fitzpatrick, the man who began producing the globally famous posters of the Argentine.

Looking at the damage caused by the recent storms, it is easy to see why locals now are less concerned with Hollywood and communism and more on bricks and mortar.

The county council puts the cost of repairs here at €875,360, and according to its report: “Works required here include the provision of protection at the west end car park in the form of a retaining wall and repairs to steps and associated infrastructure at the east end car park.

“[In February] the extent of storm damage was much greater than previously — further wall and railing damage at west end car park, several sections of sea wall removed along Strand Line, vast sections of retaining wall adjacent to beach totally compromised and need to be replaced and almost all hard paving throughout the main amenity space has been completely undermined and turned into rubble and needs to be replaced by a much more heavy duty pavement.

“There’s road surface and footpath damage, repairs required to steps to swimming area and clean-up requirements are extensive.”

Noel Kelly is from nearby Kilrush but his relationship with Kilkee goes back decades. For 25 years, he used to deliver ice-cream to businesses in Kilkee “in a different life”.

“I came here all year round,” he says, standing in front of the bulging wall at the sea front, undermined by the sea water which gushed in from underneath and also caused subsidence of the road above it.

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 3: How the floods changed Ireland

A man walks his dog along the damaged seafront in Kilkee

He recalls Hurricane Debbie in 1961 and also remembers Richard Harris playing racquets off the wall on the sea front, “a crowd of over 200 children looking at him — he was like the Pied Piper. He went up to the Hydra [Hotel] and they all followed him and he got them ice cream”. Noel doesn’t say whether it was his ice cream, however.

An ebullient character, he says of the town now: “I reckon if we get another repeat [weather-wise], the wall could come down. The road is like a Steven Spielberg film.

“They haven’t got the funds,” he says of the council. “Central government do not have it either.”

Noel is not two months into his retirement from working on the Tarbert to Killimer ferry, and he went out with a bang.

“I was working the first storm on December 26. The following day we couldn’t sail because of it.”

Kilkee is an entry point to the Loop Head drive, and homes and businesses further along that route felt the full force of the winds and the sea. There was serious flooding in Kilbaha village, and the famed Keating’s pub and restaurant was effectively ‘cut off’ for a time as a result of the rising water levels. Tourism is a vital lifeline in this part of the world, so the need to fix everything that was damaged and protect against further dangers in the future is seen as essential.

Local woman Patricia Hough, who lives overlooking Kilkee beach, says the town actually escaped the worst of the damage when compared with some of what went on further along the Loop Head coast.

Kilkee town and its sinking road? “It survives,” she says.

Ailish Connolly works with Loop Head Tourism, a voluntary organisation made up of representatives from the three parishes in Loop Head to brand and promote the area. Little did she know that the area she calls home would become cut-off from the mainland.

“We are effectively an island if heavy rains or high tides come, because the Ross road is gone and the Kilbaha main road, the regional road as we call it, that is what the council have been working on since last Monday.”

It is a bizarre situation. People living on the seaward side of the regional road, undergoing repairs, now have just one choice if they want to drive out towards Kilkee and the rest of the county — motor 16km out to the Loop Head Lighthouse and then back in another 16km via Fodra, all to get to the other side of the village.

The alternative is one many families are now pursuing — leave one car in the village and another on the ironically dubbed ‘mainland’ side of the closed road, meaning a trek out on foot to the vehicle before going about your business.

“The Kilbaha road was really badly damaged,” Ailish says. “There were four big storms but it was hit seven times and the road was impassable.”

It was initially closed ‘indefinitely’ but the council, to its credit, has begun work on restoring this vital artery to a place that in recent times has been hailed as one of the country’s best locations in which to live.

“As a first instance, all we wanted was local access to let the emergency services in,” Ailish says, referring to a recent case in which an elderly woman in the area took a fall and the ambulance had to take the additional 32km (20 mile) loop drive to get to her.

She and others in the area have been told not to worry, as the work begins on repairing the roads, but it’s not easy to quell the concerns.

“What I am worried about is we really fought to get on the Wild Atlantic Way out here and we have five points here (including Kilkee) on the route. We have the highest densities of areas to sea in the whole 2,500km drive, so when you can’t get from one part to the other easily, that’s when you get worried.

“There are two areas of employment here, farming and tourism, and both were being jeopardised by road closures.” Indeed, many businesses still have the hoarding up, with people waiting for March and the last of the high tides to pass.

Aside from this, being disconnected from the main roadways is a serious business. Take the case of Kilbaha woman Yvonne McNamara, who was due to deliver her third child this month. She was forced to keep a constant watch on the weather forecast so she and her husband could plan their route around the Loop Head drive and back to the ‘mainland’ before heading to the maternity hospital. At least here, there was a happy ending, as the couple had a baby girl last week.

Now locals from Kilkee out to the lighthouse are hoping for a similar conclusion to their own struggles, but it might not be easy. Referring to the “sinking road” in Kilkee, Ailish says: “It’s scary.”

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