Flooding has occurred in Cork city in recent years, with resultant devastation for traders. Flooding, however, has been an occasional phenomenon throughout Cork’s history.
The city of Cork initially developed from two of the thirteen marshy islands on the River Lee. These two islands would correspond with the surrounds of modern-day North Main Street and South Main Street. John Tyrell and Kieran Hickey point to the city's vulnerability to flooding: "The flood risk in Cork arises not only from catchment runoff, which from early times washed over the islands and marshes of the lower Lee valley, but also from its location in the tidal reaches of the estuary. This has additionally subjected the city to tidal fluctuations and inundations" (Tyrell and Hickey, 1991, p. 81). The city centre's has always been vulnerable to flooding influenced by the fact that many of today’s principal streets lay were constructed around river channels.
Flooding and Oliver Plunkett Street
In the floods of February 2014, Oliver Plunkett Street was one of the worst hit locations in the city centre. The legacy of the street’s historic marshland origins is evident to this very day. Kieran Hickey found that out of 277 flooding occurrences recorded in Cork from 1841 to 1988, Oliver Plunkett Street was the most frequently affected city street. It suffered in 102 out of those 277 recorded floods. The next closest streets, lying well behind, are St Patrick’s Street (49 times) and Grand Parade (40 times) (Hickey, 2004, p. 30).
While the floods of February 2014 live in recent memory, flooding has been an all too familiar occurrence throughout the history of Oliver Plunkett Street.
Floods of 1789 and 1853
Before the nineteenth century, the worst recorded instance of flooding in Cork was in January 1789, when it was recorded that "the water was near five feet high, in many parts seven feet high" (Tuckey, 1837, p. 201). Bearing in mind that there were reports of three feet of water in the flooding of February 2014, we can only imagine how more devastating the 1789 floods were.
The flood of 1-2 November 1853 followed a prolonged spell of heavy rain which lasted several weeks. This torrential flood claimed eleven lives. Oliver Plunkett Street, or George’s Street as it was known at the time, also suffered in this flood. It was reported in the Illustrated London News that the lower parts of Grand Parade, George’s Street, and all the streets in the vicinity were inundated. "Cars, carts, wheelbarrows and vehicles of every sort, were in full requisitions, and were dashing in every direction." The report also describes the situation at the North Gate Bridge in the city:
The bridge being unable to convey away the vast body of water, and overflowing its banks, the water rushed rapidly along until coming to the New-street it parted, and sent a portion of its waters down the South Mall, and a portion down George’s Street, from which it flowed with great rapidity until it poured into the river at Anglesey bridge ... of George IV’s bridge not a vestige was to be seen. The entire country for miles around was a waste of water (Illustrated London News, 12 November 1853, p. 407).
Tyrell and Hickey point out that the previous century saw an increase in flood activity in Cork, with years of particularly intense flooding in 1928, 1929, and 1935. Other years of peak flooding frequency occurred between 1953 and 1966 with 60 recorded flooding instances (Tyrell and Hickey, 1991, pp. 82-4).
On the night of 2-3 November 1955 the city centre suffered what the Cork Examiner called ‘one of the worst nights in over fifty years' (Cork Examiner, 2 November 1955, p. 1). Newspapers also reported fire brigades driving through flooded streets to fight fires caused by the effects of water on electricity mains. Exceptionally high tides caused severe damage in the city, including Oliver Plunkett Street, as the following reports demonstrate:
Post Office workers found Cork’s G.P.O. surrounded by water and summoned a P.O. van to bring them to the door of the building.
A jewellery show on Oliver Plunkett St. Lost stock to value of several hundred pounds ... the proprietor stated that on hearing the gale during the night he came into town and though his car broke down in the floods he arrived at his shop at 5 a.m. just in time to save his valuable stock of clocks and watches (Evening Echo, 2 November 1955, p. 4).
Reports for the flood of 7 March 1962 focused on economic losses for traders. A combination of high tide and south-easterly gales caused the River Lee to burst its banks. The resultant flood was noted for how quickly it struck, with no prior warning for traders:
On Oliver Plunkett Street many shops were seriously affected. Mr James Casey, manager of a furniture premises, who arrived at his shop premises at 8:30 found that the damage was much more severe than last October. This time it reached back into the stores and to the furniture manufacturing department. Valuable carpets and furniture were saturated (Evening Echo, 7 March 1962, p. 1).
Recent Flooding Events and Potential Solutions
The twenty-first century has seen a number of incidences of large-scale flooding in Cork city centre. The flood of October 2004 caused millions of euros worth of damage after the River Lee overflowed its banks at high tide. Newspapers noted that it was the worst flood to hit the city centre since the 1960s and water levels exceeded those of the 1962 deluge (Irish Examiner, 28 October 2004, p. 4). The Irish Examiner reported that some workers in Oliver Plunkett Street were trapped in the upper floors of buildings after the lower floors flooded (Irish Examiner, 28 October 2004, p. 1). This flood coincided with the redevelopment of paving surfaces in Oliver Plunkett Street in 2004. There was an angry reaction from traders who criticised the lack of prior warning for retailers, and the government for a lack of investment in flood defences in Cork (Evening Echo, 29 October 2004, p. 1). Retailers on Oliver Plunkett Street were devastated, among them the long-standing O’Connor’s Shoes shop, where stock was destroyed and Finbarr O’Connor reported that the water was up to his knees in the shop – about two and a half feet. (Evening Echo, 28 October 2004, p. 2).
Since the devastation of 2004, the city has been struck twice by serious flooding. In November 2009 and February 2014, in which Oliver Plunkett Street was one of the worst hit areas in the city. Advanced warning meant that many businesses avoided damage to stock, even if the deployment sandbags in many cases proved inadequate. Some shops were flooded up to three feet, causing tens of thousands of euros worth of damage for traders. That flooding incident led to a government commitment to initiate a flood defence plan for Cork (RTÉ News). Should this plan prove successful it should bring a welcome end to a phenomenon that the residents and retailers of Oliver Plunkett Street and its surrounds have endured for well over two centuries.
2014 Olver Punkett Street Flooding Image: irishexaminer.com
Evening Echo and Irish Examiner (Cork City Libraries: Local Studies Department).
Hickey, Kieran, 'Flooding in the City', in John Crowley, Robert Devoy, Denis Lenihan and Patrick O'Flanagan (eds), Atlas of Cork city (Cork, 2005), p. 25-30.
Tyrell, John and Kieran Hickey (1991), A flood chronology for Cork city and its climatological background, Irish Geography 24(2), p. 81-90.