With industry comes pollution and more has probably been written on this aspect of the river than any other. Not so much the unsightly disposal of a refuse bag or the discarding of an old mattress but pollution more insidious. An early example is from 1886 when an anti-pollution sub-committee reported back to the Cork Board of Guardians. They found that sulphuric acid was finding its way into the Martin after a process of waste filtration through cinder bags. It was Mr. Arthur Mahony who showed the sub-committee around the dye works on their visit while Mr. Nicholas Mahony chaired the meeting that heard their report. On a positive note the sub-committee reported that no water closets were discharging into the river with the “dry earth” system being the one in use at the mills.
In the 1920s there were some concerns in the village over sewage, but it’s not till 1961 that pollution really takes off or, at least, the publicity around it, reaching a scale that’s hard to credit. In that year an estimated 700 fish were destroyed as a result of ‘factory effluent’ with one Blarney resident saying it was ten years since so many fish had died. There was another incident in 1965 with the polluter promising to provide fingerlings to replace destroyed stock but, according to the Cork Board of Fishery Conservators, not proving very prompt to do so. The Cork Otter Hounds said they had met with six otters on the river that same year but with none in 1969. Paddy Sleeman, an authority on otters, is in no doubt that they’re present on the Martin again today.
The July of both 1970 and 1971 were disastrous with thousands of dead fish floating along what the Examiner called “one of the best stocked trout rivers in Cork”. “Even eels”, said John O’Connell of the Cork Trout Anglers, “which normally escape the effects of pollution, died in their hundreds”. It was a disgraceful sight for tourists to see. It was said that the dead fish were “as fat as sausages” because they had developed a taste for cheese. Paddy Hoare of the Blarney Trout Anglers reckoned that in 1971 virtually nothing could have escaped. Locals were also “extremely worried” about their children and the fact that the river was a source of public water supply. People were annoyed but there seemed be a lack of political will and no effective mechanisms to deal with the problem. Philip Mullally of An Taisce expressed disgust at the whole situation. The Board of Fishery Conservators said they were expected to prosecute poachers but felt powerless regarding pollution. They even felt under pressure, said Dan Good, “to refrain from taking action against certain concerns”.
Some remedial measures were taken. In 1973 the Munster Trout Anglers was invited to visit the Rathduff cheese factory to see new effluent tanks that had been installed. But come the summer of 1980 a 2½ mile stretch of death was again observed near Rathduff. The water was dirty brown with the familiar very unpleasant odour. The Blarney Trout Anglers saved over 600 trout that had gathered in two tributaries for oxygen away from the polluted area. Incidentally, in the same year, and in the two following, the cheese factory applied for permission to discharge effluent into the Martin. Also, in 1980 Cadbury’s underwrote a £3,000 restocking programme for pollution they caused in the Blackwater and Rathduff followed suit promising to provide personnel too if necessary. But July was pollution season and come July 1982 salmon fry, trout and eels were again decimated, this time from Wise’s Bridge to Blarney. On this occasion a chemical discharge was suspected with the water staying clear.
All the while regular dumping was proceeding apace. In 1984 Jerry Keating (Munster Anti-Pollution Committee) remarked that the stretch between Blarney and Waterloo was in regular receipt of domestic refuse from cars by night. He lamented the time Mahony’s dredged and cleaned it a few times each year.
July 1989 saw two incidents. One was the consequence of cement washings from local authority works, possibly the Mallow Road. Restocking was undertaken the following year with the release of four thousand 4 to 5-inch fingerlings. The next big kill was in 1996 when 70,000 gallons of slurry somehow got in to the river. This drew comment from junior minister, Eamonn Gilmore. Would 1997 allow recovery? No, July 18th of that year saw perhaps the most devastating incident of all with an estimated 78,000 fish killed following what was described as a slurry ‘spillage from a pig farm’. All the salmon, trout and eels from Grenagh to Blarney were wiped out as the toxic mess made its way towards the Anglers Rest over the course of a weekend. The ESB did their flushing job, not for the first time, and the city’s water supply was saved. In all of these incidents there is no mention of prosecution. That’s because there doesn’t appear to have been any until this one. Eventually the Environmental Protection Agency and the South West Regional Fisheries Board were successful, and Macroom Mills were fined £10,000 plus £2,000 costs. A contractor had been collecting slurry from their unit of 380 sows to spread on neighbouring farm land. Well, apparently, he overlooked to close a valve “and a small amount” according to the defence “had entered a nearby stream”.
We are not there yet. The walls of what was described as an old earthen lagoon, or a disused cheese tank, gave way over a January weekend in 1999 and spilled 5,000 tonnes of sludge into the river. It had been stored in it
for six years and now the river was blackened for 12 miles, practically its whole length. The fish had spawned just a month previously, but fortunately heavy rain kept the sludge from settling on the gravelly shallows where it would have destroyed the eggs and last year’s fry.
Things have certainly improved since and in the light of all that a dead sheep rotting in the river for two weeks at Waterloo in 2007 doesn’t seem so bad.
The river in flood is a good flushing mechanism but more typically flood, of course, is a disaster in its own right. Heavy rain over three days in 1931 saw the dam burst causing considerable flooding but no stoppage of work at the mill. That served as a prelude to December 1948 when Blarney experienced its most serious recorded floods. The dam burst also on that occasion, this time at about seven in the evening, causing a wall of water to sweep over the inch, clear the ten-foot bank and gush through the ground floor of the houses on Shamrock Terrace. Betty Roche was coming around the Waterloo Road with Eily and Joe Cremin on a pony and trap at the time when she saw all the lights on and the doors open on the terrace. They had been hoping to make it to a dance in Ballincollig but realised just how bad things were when they saw that.
Many people remember their Christmas baking being destroyed, having stored it in low cupboards and presses. The people at the Waterloo Inn were able to touch the flood water from the upper windows, a novelty certainly, but it led them to say a few rosaries too. Bina Murphy had been rearing turkeys there and they were all swept away along with furniture and beer barrels. The Gardaí had to abandon their Christmas Dance and their dayroom was under nearly 5 feet of water. Some people around the Square were trapped in their houses and had to be rescued through the skylights. The Cork branch of the Red Cross provided blankets and mattresses while tractors and lorries removed furniture and household goods. A hundred men returned to the mills when they could to clean out the slush and mud. Bales of tweed were recovered from the Martin and there was a big loss in socks.
Rectification work was well under way by the summer of 1950. The main features were that the river was diverted to eliminate two sharp bends and deepened by 4½ feet for two hundred yards. While the new bridge had double the water carrying capacity of the old and cost £2,000. In the initial days, February 1949, Thomas Looney T.D. made a recommendation to the county council that the workmen be paid extra as they were obliged to work in water.
Despite the good work there was significant flooding in 1968 when it rained for 20 hours continuously. The Martin again burst its banks causing flooding around the Square. The Donoughmore road was also badly affected with the morning bus carrying workers for Blarney and the city not able to get through. More flooding in January 1974 saw trees uprooted and reminded some people of 1948. The Blarney to Tower road flooded in 1988 and again in 1990 when 3 feet of water covered Riverview Estate. This led to legal action in which it was claimed that the county council was negligent in siting the estate on land adjacent to two rivers. One resident in a wheelchair was brought to ‘terra firma’ in the bucket of a J.C.B. The net result here was that the council paid out £½ million to 40 families and spent a further million on remedial works. The Shournagh was realigned and embanked, two unused eyes were reopened on Tower Bridge and Willison’s Bridge was replaced.
Finally, from the child’s eye, when the late Frank Cronin’s grandson saw the colour of the Martin in spate in 2015, he asked ‘Granddad, why did they throw chocolate in the water?’
The above excerpt was taken from a much larger article titled ‘Modest Martin: A History of a Local River’ by Richard Forrest and published in Issue No 11 ‘Old Blarney’ Journal.