Not many people have heard of Meitheal Mara's river cleaning service, but those that have know just how important a duty it is.
The story begins roughly ten years ago, back in 2007, when the River Lee had become clogged with discarded items both big and small – from shopping trolleys to submerged trees, beer kegs, bicycles and pieces of furniture.
Enough was enough. The City Council decided something needed to be done – so they contracted water-based organisation Meitheal Mara to help them out.
The Council gets a service and Meitheal Mara gets additional funds to run the other worthwhile river-based projects it spearheads. It was a match made in heaven.
Fast forward to today, and the organisation, which started as a community boat building project but has now become so much more, can still be seen out on the water, quietly loading up everything and anything that the citizens of the city have felt appropriate to throw into the Lee.
Since the first big clear out of the channels in 2007, Meitheal Mara has fished roughly 100 life rings, almost 300 traffic cones, almost 100 bicycles, and more than 600 shopping trolleys from the waters.
Considering shopping trollies can cost upwards of €300 each, this means that almost quarter of a million euro worth of trollies has been deliberately discarded into the river within the last decade alone. It's a staggering number by all accounts.
Last week, this reporter was lucky enough to witness a Meitheal Mara river clean up first hand – low tide, life jackets, grapple hooks and a big steel boat and we were ready to go.
Within the first two hours of being on the water, the team had fished out ten shopping trolleys, six traffic cones, two bicycles, two scooters, two hubcaps, a traffic barrier, a child's buggy, a fully functioning umbrella, and six large pieces of scrap metal.
A painting was also fished out of the flowing waters – and it wasn't even half bad. It's an odd haul, but one which the cleanup crew is entirely used to seeing.
“We have pulled all sorts out of the river. Last year we pulled out a Christmas tree, complete with lights on it. We also pulled out an armchair, and an inflatable penis... that was quite something. That was a first for us. I guess it was from a hen party or something,” said Bádóireacht Manager of Meitheal Mara, Clare Hayden.
“It's disappointing to see so many trolleys in the river every time we head out, but it's kind of par for the course now. We've gotten used to it. It's always a lot of the same material – shopping trolleys, traffic cones, life rings... we do collect an awful lot of life rings when we're out on the river. It's awful. And then you always get the random stuff as well. You never quite know what you’re going to get when you go out on a river clean up. We’ve also retrieved a toilet seat, a zimmer frame, submerged trees, beer kegs and road signs.”
Meitheal Mara tries to reunite the items with their owners as much as possible and will recycle or scrap what they can't return.
“With the shopping trolleys it kind of depends how quickly we can get our hands on them. We try and get them back to the supermarkets but sometimes by the time we get to them they've rusted quite a bit and in that case we have to send them for metal scrappage,” explains Clare.
“Life rings we would get back to the council and road signs we'll get them back to the council too. We also work to reunite people with their belongings where possible – bicycles and submerged boats for example.”
While the organisation removes items from the river all year round, it holds a major clean up every spring during the low tides, using grappling hooks to fish items from the water.
“We don't go out for a few months over the Christmas period, and we start up again in spring. The first one after that period is always a big one. So we started going out again a few weeks ago and that was when we got a full Christmas tree out of the river and we got quite a few bicycles. It was probably three boat loads that time. Usually, it would be around two boat loads we would get every couple of weeks,” said Clare.
“Quite a lot of the river we'd be able to do by boat, which is great because we're dealing with shopping trolleys, railings, things that have rusted and can be quite sharp, so we need a fairly robust boat to do it. The river clean-up would not be possible without the powerboat Mainport Lee - an aluminium boat which has been provided by Mainport Holdings.”
Clare said Meitheal Mara is more than happy to provide the river clean service but said it would be better if people simply stopped throwing things into the waters in the first place.
“We just want people to be aware of it. Things that go into the river, there's only one place that's headed and that's to the sea. And there's massive pollution in the sea already these days. And the other thing is in relation to the life rings. Once they're gone into the river they're gone and then in the case of someone who might need one, they're not there when they're needed most. I know that the City Council spends an awful lot of money on replacing life rings and on trying to keep them in place. So we'd like people to be more aware of that and to be mindful of it,” she said.
“And obviously the Lee swim happens in the channels as well so there is a danger to people using the waterways if there are items underneath the surface, particularly if a shopping trolley or any bit of metal has been left there for any length of time as you can see they can get quite rusted and it is a safety concern. It is even a safety concern for us when we are pulling things out of the river so we would have to be very careful when doing that.”
Lord Mayor of Cork Councillor Des Cahill has previously praised Meitheal Mara for the large-scale annual clean ups and condemned those who throw items into the river, particularly trolleys and life buoys.
“Firstly it's theft, secondly it's bad for the river, and thirdly items like trolleys are dangerous in the river,” he said.
“God forbid somebody jumps in or there's a swimming race or anything like that and someone dives into the water and is injured by a trolley just below the surface. It's commendable what Meitheal Mara is doing and it's important to recognise that."