FOR nearly 20 years St Mary’s Park in Limerick — known locally as the Island Field — has been synonymous with the bloody feud which ravaged the city, claiming many lives.
Armed gardaí patrolled the estate 24/7. One of the major drug gangs involved in the feud has its base in St Mary’s Park.
But a disastrous flood two weeks ago showed a very different St Mary’s Park to the Irish public.
Up to 200 houses in the estate were damaged by flood water, causing huge distress to residents.
While the emergency services came in huge numbers, it was the manner in which the community rallied around to help one another which has won widespread admiration — an admiration eloquently expressed by President Michael D Higgins when he visited the estate last Monday.
The King’s Island Community Centre, managed and run by the publicly funded St Mary’s Aid organisation, has been the hub of operations during these very difficult times.
Not only is it the meeting point for emergency personnel, but also a refuge and comfort point for stricken local people.
The nearby Star Rovers soccer clubhouse has been converted into a storage depot for the huge volume of household goods donated to help residents rebuild their lives.
The work continued over the weekend — and will do so for the months ahead. But the people of St Mary’s Park have shown they are up to the daunting task facing them.
The real decency of this community has surfaced through the murky flood waters of two weeks ago and people are looking forward to better times ahead.
If an army marches on its belly, Christy O’Brien has been an admirable general during the crisis. As hundreds of homes were inundated with flood water and teams of rescue services personnel went to the aid of the stricken community, Christy led the catering team at the King’s Island Community Centre.
Christy, 53, has been working in the community cafe for a number of years serving up more than 140 lunches and about 50 breakfasts Monday to Friday.
However, since the floods, Christy’s kitchen has been turning out more than 470 meals a day to rescue service personnel and local people who cannot cook due to flood damage.
He said: “St Munchin’s Community kitchen personnel came over to lend us a hand as we would not be able to cope. Thankfully the regeneration agency put in a state-of-the-art kitchen here before Christmas and without this we would have had no hope of serving up the number of meals needed since the flooding.
“St Munchin’s did all the catering over the first two days of the flood, as we couldn’t get in here, because of the flooding. At present we are doing more than 100 takeaway lunches which are going to people who can’t leave their own homes. Vouchers are being given out to 186 houses where the residents can’t cook because of flood damage. They come up here for breakfast and lunch, free of charge. I have got a full-time chef to give me a hand.”
On Thursday Christy had a choice of six main courses for lunch: turkey and ham; roast pork; bacon and cabbage; shepherd’s pie; breaded fillet chicken with pepper sauce; and home-made beef burgers. Breakfast costs €3.50 and a full lunch €4.
Christy said: “Looking after such big numbers can be a big logistical task, but when you are doing it as long as I am it’s like water off a duck’s back. It is a challenge, but I am up for a challenge. One would prefer if it did not happen in these circumstances, but it has and I just get on with it. Everybody in the community can avail of this service, which is fantastic. As well as the residents we have been feeding the army, Red Cross, Gardaí, Civil Defence, Marine Rescue — all the services here helping the community. We certainly have been getting the full worth of our new kitchen.”
A native of Ballynanty, Christy has worked over the years in top restaurants in Limerick, such as the Silver Plate and the old Jury’s Hotel as well as at Bulgaden Castle.
Residents in the beleaguered St Mary’s Park are hoping that with time and money, their lives will return to some normality, back in their own homes. However, most have lost items which can never be recovered.
Raymond O’Carroll, 39, whose house at Island View Terrace was also swamped took great pride in his collection of soccer programmes he gathered over the years. Many were destroyed by the flood waters He is trying to put his life back together with his wife Susan and their daughter Sarah, 22.
For now they have moved out to live with their son, Alan in Monaleen.
He said: “The best ones I had were destroyed. We lost a lot of clothes, but the loss of my football memorabilia is something I cannot replace. There was one in particular and a soccer fan in Bristol who found out I had this programme wanted to buy it, but I never sell them on. I collect them. It was a programme from the early 1950s for a Leeds United Vs Man City game.
“The ones I lost in the flood were the ones I treasured most. My collection also included an old Lawson Cup medal which I had. I kept them down stairs. We are now living with our son for a few days to try and get our lives back together. I have a hell of a lot of work to do in my house to get it back to the way it was. It was an old British Army house when there was a garrison down in St Mary’s Park back in the 1880s.There are 23 houses in the terrace, and they were all damaged.”
Local man Ger Hogan helped residents of Island View Terrace, bringing in sandbags on a trap drawn by his mare, Peg. His missions of mercy were singled out for praise by President Higgins when he paid a visit to the community.
Raymond said Wednesday’s storm had brought a new fear to the entire community.
He said: “My wife finds it hard to even look at the damage to the house and is very upset over it. It will take months before we can get it back. We managed to save a lot of her mother’s photographs. We are thankful for that as she died recently and these were the memories we have of her.”
The spirit of St Mary’s Park, which has lifted the community through these dark and dismal times, is well illustrated by Lorraine Joyce and her partner John Pearse. A native of St Mary’s Park, Lorraine and John travel in from their home in Killonin, Ballysimon Rd, for several hours each day to help with the huge voluntary effort.
Lorraine, 36, who suffers from arthritis, helps put together aid parcels from the huge quantities of goods donated and gathered at the Star Rovers soccer club pavilion. John uses his van to bring the aid parcels to homes.
She said: “Basically I help sort out the stuff that is donated and bag up the stuff which is then given out to the people who are badly affected. We are giving out anything from baby food, cleaning products, furniture. Because of my arthritis, the most I can do at a time is an hour or two. My mum and my sister live in our family home in St Ita’s St and I have aunts and uncles also living in St Mary’s Park. Two of my cousins live on St Oliver Plunkett St and both of their houses have been wiped out by the floods. One has moved to her parents’ house with her two kids.
“People have been brilliant down here, absolutely brilliant. All I can do is help as much as I can. There are elderly people having to live upstairs in their homes because of the damaged downstairs. They have no cooking facilities. All we can do is do the best we can to help them.”
Sean Quinlivan’s worst fears were that the floods of two weeks ago would cause more damage to his house at St Ita’s St, St Mary’s Park than first anticipated.
He said that as a result of Wednesday’s storm, rainwater has been coming in through the walls of his already badly damaged home. Sean, 67, who lives with his wife Margaret and their son Paul said the whole downstairs section of their home has been destroyed. Floorboards and carpets have been taken up.
He said: “The flood came in the front door, in the letter box, and so fast we could not save anything. The only things we saved were the radio and television, which were on stands. We were told that the whole place downstairs has been contaminated. I bought my house from the city council years ago under the tenant purchase scheme. We have insurance, but not for flooding. Nobody down here in St Mary’s Park can get flood insurance. The government says there is €25m out there, but that’s for the whole of Ireland. We have heard nothing yet. The only money we have got up to now was €100 each to me and my wife, to tide us over.”
By Wednesday morning, Sean said the house had been mostly dried out. But later that day, another massive storm hit, throwing his hopes of returning to normality in the near future up in the air.
Sean said: “The rain came in through the walls. That never happened before. It would seem the walls have become porous from the big flood.” He said he does not have any idea how much it will now cost to restore his home.
With more bad weather forecast over the coming week, the residents of St Mary’s are doing all they can to hold their community together.