Even with Fermoy’s Blackwater river shrunken and lowered by damage to Fermoy weir, An Spiorad Saor John Mahon, Ireland’s only MKIII wheelchair-accessible boat, still provides an invaluable service, and the boat’s skipper is appealing for funding to stay on the water.
An Spiorad Saor John Mahon, known affectionately in Fermoy as ‘The Wheelyboat’, has been a regular sight on the Blackwater for the past 14 years, plying its route from Fermoy Rowing Club down to Castlehyde House and back. The collapse of much of Fermoy’s historic weir has left water levels on the Blackwater river at a 200-year low, making 75% of The Wheelyboat’s route unnavigable, and Covid-19 has kept the wheelchair-accessible fishing boat off the water for most of a year.
“We’re down on our knees, to be honest,” says Chris ‘Kipper’ O’Donovan, skipper of The Wheelyboat. “That’s why I set up a GoFundMe to try and raise funds. We have annual running costs of around €1,400, before ever we put the boat on the water.”
It’s a beautiful April afternoon, as we set off from the slip by Fermoy Rowing Club, and the river is lower than it has been in the two centuries since Fermoy’s founder, John Anderson, built his weir, a beautiful, limestone structure that has crumbled away.
“The idea for The Wheelyboat came from a desire to make the river more inclusive, to make it accessible to people with disabilities,” Chris says.
Previously a globe-trotting chef who worked for royalty — he cooked for Britain’s Prince William’s second birthday party — Chris says he and his friends, Harry Kenny and Eddie Hegarty, came up with the notion of buying a wheelchair-accessible boat.
“We’re a community-based organisation, and we’re open to everyone.”
He hopes the community will support their fundraising, and he says the people of Fermoy have always been generous. He singles out Charles McCarthy, of McCarthy Insurance Group, as a great supporter.
Another benefactor has been Inland Fisheries Ireland, which recently funded a canopy for The Wheelyboat, and new lifejackets and fishing gear for the children who use the boat.
All along the riverbank, as we head upstream, past the whitewashed wall of Saint Bernard’s Well, people are out jogging, walking their dogs, or sitting at tables on Barnane Walk, enjoying the river and the sun.
By Nyhan’s Island, the river turns slightly to the right. The channel to the left of the island has mostly dried-up. Swans nest on the island, and every summer it serves as the starting point for Fermoy regatta.
With the collapse of Fermoy weir, the town hasn’t had a regatta since 2018, and, even with repairs planned, rowing club members say they are not confident of holding an event before 2025.
Gliding through still, dark waters that reflect greens and browns, we pass under tall trees on the north bank. Up the slope are the big houses along the Castlehyde Road, originally home to British army officers. James Joyce’s parents lived up there, too.
Under overhanging branches of horse chestnut trees, wildflowers bloom pink and white among the reeds.
A rough, stone barrier lines the riverbank to our right. This is known locally as ‘The Whispering Wall’, and it marks the beginning of Castlehyde: 26½ acres of woodland, an area teeming with wildlife.
A mile-and-a-half from setting off, we come toward the turn in the river by Glenabo, and ‘The Rock’, an archipelago of half-a-dozen jagged, stone ridges jutting from the water. In normal summer conditions, this bend can be carefully navigated by experienced pilots. Now, the riverbed is visible not a foot below water.
“End of the line,” says Chris.
“The Rock is three feet above the water, and there’s no getting around it. We predicted, years ago, this would happen, if the weir was allowed collapse.”
Chris says the mile-long stretch from here to Castlehyde was always Fermoy Rowing Club’s training ground, but now boats can’t make the turn, for fear of damage.
Unable to offer the full tour of the river now — “and it’s as low below the weir as above” — Chris, a certified angling coach, hosts regular angling sessions for children on The Wheelyboat.
One of the regular young anglers is eight-year-old Harry O’Flynn, from Kilworth.
Harry’s mother, Evelyn, says Harry has been angling with Chris — known to the children as ‘Kipper the Skipper’ — for the past two years, and he loves it.
“Harry’s grandfather and great-grandfather were champion anglers, but it skipped a generation with his parents, so it’s brilliant that Harry is such a great angler, and it’s great to see how much he enjoys fishing,” Evelyn says.
“Harry took to angling so quickly, and it has really helped him to develop concentration and patience, and it’s been brilliant for his self-esteem, too. It’s great to see him out on the water with the other kids.”
Evelyn is full of praise for Chris, saying he has instilled in the children a great appreciation of water safety, and a love of the environment.
“He operates on a catch-and-release basis, and that’s a great way to educate kids about conservation,” Evelyn says. “It’s an educational sport, and ‘Kipper’ makes it a fun adventure for the kids.
“The Wheelyboat is such a great amenity.”
Chris ‘Kipper’ O’Donovan is raising funds for An Spiorad Saor John Mahon on GoFundMe.