Fergus Finlay: Dublin Bay is a priceless asset — why allow it become a filthy mess?

Almost nine million cubic metres of untreated sewage and storm waters has been discharged into Dublin Bay over the last four years
Fergus Finlay: Dublin Bay is a priceless asset — why allow it become a filthy mess?

SOS Dublin Bay, a volunteer group, used their towels and dry robes to spell out the figure "18,611" on the beach to represent the number of people who signed their petition calling for an end to raw sewage dumping in Dublin Bay. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

One of the weirdest things that ever happened to me occured on my 66th birthday. I’ve told this story before, but it still sends a shiver up my spine when I remember it. 

As you know, your 66th birthday is the day that every Irish citizen becomes entitled to, among other things, free travel.

There are several ways to apply for it, but I decided to walk in. That involved taking the DART into Dublin and going to an office full of really helpful Department of Social Protection people. 

You were advised in advance to bring various documents establishing your identity, and your original birth certificate. 

You could also bring an escort in case you couldn’t cope at that advanced age. So, of course, I brought my highly competent missus.

As we sat waiting — it was around 11 in the morning — I glanced at the birth cert and realised that I had actually been born at 10.22am all those years earlier. So I looked at my watch, to see exactly, to the minute, how old I was.

That watch was my pride and joy. It was a Seiko, and it had been given to me as a present for my 30th birthday. It had never been off my wrist for 36 years.

And when I looked at it, it was stopped. At exactly 10.22.

Immediately, the music of The Twilight Zone (you’d have to be my age to remember it) swirled around my head. I was convinced this was a message, and a deadly one at that. How, in the light of it, could I possibly survive the day?

On the way home I decided that since I wasn’t going to make midnight, I’d better do something I’ve always wanted to do but been afraid of. 

I went down to the Forty Foot in Sandycove — a short walk from where I live — stripped off to my togs, climbed to its highest point above the water, and leaped in.

Those who saw it described it as awesome. My daughter, Sarah, said it reminded her of the scene in Moby Dick where the great white whale breaches for the first time. 

As for me, I’ll never forget the shock of that water. I finally knew what James Joyce meant when he referred to it as the scrotum-tightening sea.

But as you can see, I lived to tell the tale. I haven’t done it too often since, although I have jumped off the wall at Sandycove Pier a couple of times.

But one of the great privileges of my life is to live beside the sea. I spent my childhood in Bray, and every summer on the beach there, or at the baths at the foot of Bray Head (sadly long crumbled into the Irish Sea). 

I miss the sea when I’m not close to it, and love nothing more than watching the hundreds of swimmers near us in summer, or the massive waves we sometimes get in winter.

I have access only to a little bit of Dublin Bay. A huge area of the Bay has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because of its unique qualities. 

Salt marshes, dune systems, rare nesting and wintering waterfowls live side by side with people exploring the natural beauty of the bayside landscape.

There’s even, I discovered, the Irish mountain hare, a uniquely Irish sub-species of hare, which is now under severe pressure from recreational disturbance and illegal poaching. 

Dublin Bay is one of only two designated biospheres in Ireland — the other is around the lakes of Killarney.

If you climb Dalkey Hill (it’s a gentle stroll really) you can see the whole of this biosphere reserve, all the way to the Hill of Howth; it is one of the great views of the world, a gift from nature to the people of Dublin. 

I’ve often thought, looking out from the top of that hill, that if whoever coined the phrase “see Naples and die” had ever climbed Dalkey Hill he’d change his mind instantly.

There’s only one problem. Dublin Bay is filthy. Filthy to the point of being dangerous. 

Water which is being accessed every day by more and more people — and is becoming more popular and more essential every day the lockdown lasts — is becoming poisonous.

There’s a small but highly reputable organisation called SOS Dublin Bay. It’s a group of volunteers with a shared passion to protect Dublin Bay as an amenity. And they clearly have a lot of expertise.

As part of detailed research, they’ve just concluded an online survey of 1,200 people who have used the bay for recreational purposes. 

One in five of the people who responded reported feeling ill or being ill after being in the bay — including suffering from diarrhoea or gastroenteritis.

What’s the reason? According to SOS a total of almost nine million cubic metres of untreated sewage and storm waters has been discharged into Dublin Bay from overflow tanks at the Ringsend Wastewater Treatment Plant over the last four years.

To me anyway, that’s an unimaginable amount of untreated material entering the Bay. 

The group uses the analogy of 74 Olympic pools full of untreated wastewater every single month. It happens apparently because there are times when the treatment plant simply can’t cope with the amount coming in.

There have already been some temporary closures of beaches, and SOS says that unless action is taken there is every likelihood that a number of treasured locations, north and south of the city, will have to close permanently. 

That would be a tragedy, and ultimately a serious blow to our capital city’s reputation. 

Who wants to visit a city whose beaches have all been closed because of pollution?

SOS are providing a significant public service, because they’re highlighting a problem that needs to be fixed before it becomes a crisis. 

Of course, they’re advocating for major investment, and that’s unavoidable. But they’re also saying there are things that should be done right now — things that seem entirely affordable.

For example, they call for a year-round survey of Dublin Bay swimming waters, with daily sampling and testing at 10 different locations. 

They want the information gathered to be put up on electronic signage at established swimming locations and on social media. 

That data wouldn’t just keep people safer — it would also help to ensure that all future investment is properly targeted at the root causes of the pollution.

The existing plant in Ringsend has an ultraviolet treatment facility which reduces the damage caused by effluent. Unfortunately, (of course) it appears that this UV plant operates only from June to September. 

SOS argues — it seems entirely logically to me — that it should be kept going all year long.

Dublin Bay is a priceless asset — not just locally but nationally. It is a tragedy that it is being allowed to degrade when fixing it is well within our capacity.

Even if I never do a mad leap into the water again, thousands of people will, and should. They must never see a sign in front of them that says: “The Irish Sea is Off Limits”. It needs to be fixed now.

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