'More people will drown there unless it is made safe': Cork community affected by broken weir speaks out

The families of local heroes who risked, and tragically lost, lives to save others in a treacherous part of the river Lee now demand that a broken weir is fixed, as a priority, to save others.
'More people will drown there unless it is made safe': Cork community affected by broken weir speaks out
The damaged weir at Ballincollig Regional Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

As Linda Geasley’s brother collapsed to the floor howling in horror, she knew that their brother Bernard was gone.

He had disappeared into the river in seconds after jumping in to save his older brother who had slipped in while fishing.

Search and rescue teams combed the river for hours until gardaí knocked on the family's door at 12.30am to say that a body had been found.

The family has spoken publicly for the first time through the Irish Examiner to warn others of the dangers of that river and to push for urgent action to fix the broken weir.

“It is going to happen again unless something is done,” said Ms Geasley, Bernard’s grieving sister. “We don’t want any other family going through what we’re going through.

“He jumped into the river to save our brother," she said, describing what happened that evening. “They were fishing with a friend. My brother Glen was fixing the line when he slipped into the water. He was swallowing water and called to Bernard for help. Bernard jumped in and pushed Glen out of the current.

“The strength it must have taken to lift him and push him out of the current, I guess he didn’t have the strength to get himself out then.

“Their friend grabbed Glen and got him out but Bernard disappeared.

“He was a very strong swimmer when he was younger. But it doesn’t matter how strong a swimmer you are, there are whirlpools there, and they just suck you down.

“The guards brought Glen up home. I’ve never seen anyone so distraught. He was howling and collapsed to his hands and knees on the floor. Then I knew Bernard was gone."

Linda said that she and her siblings spent their childhood by the weir.

“It was so safe then," she said. "The water was very calm, we used to swim there all the time and there were never any drownings.

“But a few years ago it collapsed and everything changed.

“Even after Bernard died people were down there swimming again. Something has to be done to make it safe again.” 

Joe and Phil Geasley, with their daughter Linda, and grandchildren Jamie Collins (left) and in front Sophia Collins and Brooklyn Bohane, who lost their son Bernard recently in the drowning incident at the weir in Ballincollig Regional Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Joe and Phil Geasley, with their daughter Linda, and grandchildren Jamie Collins (left) and in front Sophia Collins and Brooklyn Bohane, who lost their son Bernard recently in the drowning incident at the weir in Ballincollig Regional Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Linda said that grief is starting to hit heavily now, smashing into her suddenly in devastating waves as the numbing force of shock slowly lifts.

“I’m trying to be there for my parents. They’re devastated.

“I tried to clean up his room the other day and I just broke down looking at his clothes. It’s so, so hard.

“He was so funny, always the first up dancing at a party.

“He loved life so much. He really wanted to live.” 

Linda said that their brother who Bernard jumped in to save is now wracked with crushing guilt.

“We told him it’s not his fault. He slipped in, he wasn’t swimming or play-acting.

“He has two kids and Bernard didn’t have any. Bernard loved his niece and nephew so much, they’re 12 and six and they need their daddy. I think Bernard did it for them."

Bernard, who died days before his 41st birthday, had narrowly survived childhood. He was hit by a car when he was 10 and was in a coma for three weeks.

“It was a miracle he survived that,” said Linda. “After that, he was very protected by everyone.

“Dad was doubting his own religion after Bernard died. He said that he prayed for all of us but he didn’t think he had to worry about Bernard because he had already been given a miracle.

“Dad asked, ‘why did God give him back to just take him away again?’ But we got another precious 30 years with him."

Linda said that Covid-19 public health restrictions were probably somewhat of a blessing for the funeral as it restricted the number of people who could attend.

“I thought Glen and my dad were going to collapse," she said.

“But when we were coming out of Inishmore church, people were wearing t-shirts with Bernard’s face with the words ‘hero’ and 'rest in peace’. That was such a nice thing to do. The neighbours, friends, and family have been so good, bringing food, baking, bringing platters of sandwiches. They've been such a huge support."

Bernard was well-liked in the local community.

“Everyone was mad about him. He had no badness in him. He always had a smile and a word for everyone. We're all just devastated," said Linda.

“We’re calling for something to be done. More people will drown there unless something is done."

Emma Coughlan also lives in Inishmore Park, just down the drive from the Geasleys. Her daughter Abí, 14, narrowly escaped drowning in May after she entered the water to save a friend and lost consciousness.

“Abí’s very tall so she went in to help her two friends," said Emma. "But they got such a fright that they clung onto her and she lost her footing. She said it felt like a rock was pulling her foot down. She was scared.

“She kept trying to kick it back, pushing her legs against it, and then she blacked out. I think it was actually the current pulling her down.

“Men spotted her in difficulty, they threw her a life buoy but she lost consciousness. They had to pull and drag her to get her out.” 

Abí was dragged to safety and taken to hospital where her lungs were X-rayed to look for fluid and she was kept in overnight for observation.

Although she luckily survived, she now suffers persistent back pain, terrifying flashbacks, and trouble sleeping at night.

Both Emma and Abí now avoid the river.

“Before it happened, I’d often sit on the rocks by the river. You’d be a significant distance from the water but suddenly it would hit your feet without warning.

“When we were young, it was always calm there. But since the weir collapsed it’s been a nightmare.

“The men who saved Abí told me that she’s a very lucky girl to have survived, and I’m a very lucky mum to still have my daughter today.

“She’s usually an outgoing person, she loves soccer and was always out before, but since this happened she’s like my shadow.

“Then, since this happened to Bernard, people have been telling her, 'you’re lucky that wasn’t you'. 

“Bernard was a lovely guy. Every day, he’d pop by and say he was going out fishing, he’d say, ‘I’ll bring you back some fish, they’re popping below’. He’d never pass you without saying hi. I’ll miss him. He always had a smile, he was always happy, and he loved his fishing.

“I haven’t slept properly since it happened but I’m so lucky to still have my daughter today."

Emma has "fabulous" memories of long summers spent by the weir, watching the water cascade down it with a stable pool above. 

“Everyone wants it fixed," she said. "So many things have happened there now but people still don’t realise how dangerous it is."

Emma Coughlan with her daughter Abí who was rescued from the weir in Ballincollig Regional Park earlier this summer. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Emma Coughlan with her daughter Abí who was rescued from the weir in Ballincollig Regional Park earlier this summer. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Fine Gael councillor Derry Canty said that he “predicted tragedy” due to the damaged weir “long ago”. He warned Cork County Council, which was responsible for Ballincollig at the time, that something awful would happen unless the weir was fixed but nothing was done.

A boundary change last year moved Ballincollig into the Cork City Council area so responsibility has now shifted to the city authority.

“If the weir was fixed, it would stabilise the water flow into that part of the river," said Mr Canty.

“Fixing the weir would save lives and create a valuable new amenity for the community, feeding the canals that run off the weir to create safe places for people to learn to row and kayak.

“Even Enda Kenny walked around here when he was taoiseach and we spoke about fixing the weir. 

“I don’t care what it costs, the price of life is so much dearer."

Mr Canty said that some anglers had objected to fixing the weir out of concern that it could prevent fish from passing freely down the river. However, he said that he is willing to work with anglers on the weir repair and to include a fishing pass so that fish could still swim freely down the river.

“Problems with the weir were flagged in 2001, people were looking to shore it up," said Fianna Fáil councillor Colm Kelleher, who has also been working on the issue for years. "But that didn’t happen and it collapsed in 2014.

“Now, 19 years later, it may cost between €1.2m and €1.8m to fix the weir. It just needs concrete and reinforced steel to change the flow of the water."

Mr Kelleher said that Cork City Council is now responsible for the area and he raised the issue with the council almost one year ago.

“The onus is on Cork City Council to have it repaired. But Cork City Council really inherited a problem which had been kicked down the road for almost 20 years by Cork County Council."

Mr Kelleher, who grew up in the area, knows the river well.  

“Prior to the weir collapsing, the water was like an infinity pool on the Iniscarra side," he said. "It was so calm, the surface was as smooth as glass. I swam there safely as a child. That would be the case again if the dam was fixed."

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