ERIC HICKEY can trace his family’s involvement in local business in Bandon back for more than 160 years and, through all that time, the threat of flooding has been ever-present.
“There have been Hickeys here since at least 1855,” he says, “They’ve had pubs and grocers and other businesses, they have always been involved in the town.”
Eric and his wife Breda run Hickey’s bookshop in the heart of Bandon, located at the junction of South Main St and Bridge St.
Hickey’s enviable central location also has its drawbacks however as it sits at the low point in a town that has repeatedly been subjected to flooding from the river. In the 1970s, Eric and Breda took over the premises from his parents who ran it as a grocery store and Eric has lost count of the number times the shop has been flooded.
“It seems like every year we were flooded, sometimes more than once, you lose count after a while,” he says. “The Black and Tans tried to burn it down in the ’20s and it survived that so I suppose the floods was another thing we just had to survive.”
According to Jim Casey, head of flood risk management for the Office of Public Works (OPW), flooding in Bandon is nothing new but, with the growing influence of climate change, the severity and regularity of events has increased over time.
“Bandon has a history of flooding dating back to the mid 1700s and since about 1975 there have been 10 major flood events in Bandon,” he says. “Most recently and most severe was the 2009 event, impacting in excess of 300 properties.”
The 2009 event that saw parts of the town under up to seven feet of water, meant that the flood threat in Bandon could no longer be ignored and work began on the long process of putting a flood defence scheme in place. The scheme would ultimately cost more than €30m and includes new walls and embankments, river dredging, a new pedestrian bridge, underpinning of Bandon Bridge, a new fish passage, drainage works and new pumping stations.
But the scheme has not been without controversy or its critics. Environmental groups were deeply concerned both by the sheer scale of the project and the construction methods involved, resulting in numerous objections and court action thus delaying the project. Earlier this year, the main contractor, Willis, was convicted in relation to a fish kill on the Bandon River in 2017.
In 2018 the Friends of the Irish Environment group threatened legal action over the machinery that was being driven on the river bed in contravention of EU regulations. In 2021, the fish pass constructed as part of the scheme was labelled a “failure” by leading ecologists who claimed it was actually harming fish in the river.
But now completed and officially opened by the Minister of State for the OPW, Patrick O’Donovan, the scheme has withstood its first tests of bad weather — much to the relief of residents such as the Hickeys.
Eric says: “You are no longer having to get up at three or four in the morning on a stormy night to try and stop the water.
For the first time I can remember we can sleep at night, we don’t have to worry about what the night will bring — it is such a relief.
"It has been quite a while since we had a flood now and we just hope it will stay that way. It seems it will so we are really hopeful all will be well.”
A little further down South Main St is O’Farrell’s newsagents, a bustling local shop run by Hilary O’Farrell, chair of the local Business Association. Hilary’s shop has also been repeatedly flooded over the years but she says that Bandon can finally look to the future with the completion of the flood relief scheme.
“We are all delighted to see it happening, everyone in the town. Residents, businesses, we can finally look to the future, this has been hanging over the town for so long. We have gone through tough times in Bandon and there is a huge sense of relief now.”
Along with works on the flood relief scheme Bandon has also seen major investment in its water supply and wastewater network which saw the town effectively become one huge building site for the past decade.
Hilary says: “It was very difficult for the town and nothing could really happen until the works were all done but we are are finally there. The huge worry of flooding has gone and we are now seeing investment in the town which we are really grateful for. There are big plans for the public realm in the town centre and it’s great to see, Bandon is looking to the future now.”
According to local TD Christopher O’Sullivan, the completion of the works is an opportunity for Bandon to focus on the future and what kind of town it wants to be.
“It’s a huge reassurance for Bandon and it’s an opportunity. Ask any Bandonian and they will tell you that the river is the heart of the town and this is a chance now to put the river at the centre of the town in the most positive way. I would like to see real effort now in developing natural habitats along the river to bring it to life, to see the river as a focal point with walkways and boardwalks, it can be such an asset for the town and for West Cork.”