Rivers trusts are charities, established by local people to look…
Open waters, open hearts in Thomastown
A Community River Trust in County Kilkenny is inspiring local love for its waterways. In the small kitchen of a converted mill on the banks of the River Nore, around 20 people are crammed together, eating sandwiches, warming their hands with mugs of tea, and contemplating the prospect of an autumnal dip in the chilly waters of Thomastown’s Weir Pool. The collective enthusiasm for this wild swim is about as low as the water temperature, but a few brave souls are making a strong case. Will they do it?
The swim marks the grand finale of the ‘Open Waters: Our River, Our Town’ festival in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny – a weekend of education, awareness and community that took place in celebration of World Rivers Day from 21st – 23rd September.
Transition Year pupils from the local secondary school, Grennan College, got involved in river walks to explore local ecology, learn about pollution and water sampling, and ask questions of staff members from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Kilkenny County Council and Inland Fisheries Ireland (the Council’s Environment Officers remarked on how engaged the pupils were). The public, meanwhile, was invited to come together for a free screening of the film ‘River Blue’ – an Irish premiere, no less – as well as a clean-up of the Weir Pool with the local Tidy Towns group and a tree planting ceremony.
There were also talks on topics including the development of a ‘Nore Vision’ – a long-term strategy for the future of the river, sustainable development, technological solutions for litter monitoring, community action and the value of nature, in addition to the bracing river swim – which did take place, in the end, as the shivering swimmers will testify.
The festival was organised by the Thomastown Community River Trust, a voluntary group that came together in 2008 when a neglected v-shaped weir was breached in a flood and a popular local swimming area was lost. “When things are gone, people miss them,” observes Shem Caulfield, a founder member of the Trust, who grew up on the river. “I’d thought a couple of letters to Ministers would be enough to get it fixed…” he smiles. “It was the start of a huge learning curve for us.” Instead, the Trust found that there were many agencies involved in Ireland’s rivers, each with its own remit, and opportunities for local voices to be heard were few and far between. “In my experience, in all the equations to do with rivers, there is no space for community,” he says.
The following years were spent in meetings, negotiations and consultations with bodies including the Office of Public Works, Inland Fisheries Ireland, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, the Heritage Council and the Local Authority. “We did lots of talking, but there was no actual work being done. We needed to find a project where people can get out there on a Saturday and get their hands dirty.”
From a walkway to The Weir Pool…
That first project saw the Trust work with local schools, the fishing club and Trails Kilkenny to develop a walkway along the river. This early success galvanised support for a more ambitious project – the re-instatement of The Weir Pool – that would once again provide a space for wild swimming, kayaking and water safety classes away from the currents of the main channel.
The Thomastown Community River Trust secured funding from the Kilkenny Leader Partnership for a feasibility study to examine the needs of local stakeholder groups, an archaeological survey was completed, and the design process commenced. “It was slow,” recalls Shem. “Riverbed surveys were done and the designs had to be modelled for flow and water quality, which was a big cost. We eventually finalised the design, working with Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Office of Public Works, Kilkenny County Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, then we went looking for planning permission.” The works commenced in 2014 and the Weir Pool was officially opened the following year. No concrete was used in the final construction, instead natural materials including rock and willow panels were employed, with willow saplings planted to improve the banks’ resilience and provide a habitat for wildlife.
Taking the long road was worth the effort: the local community has warmly welcomed the Weir Pool and it is currently used for swimming lessons, the sub-aqua club, kayaking and canoeing, triathlon training and lifeguard training.
“I remember at the launch, a man said to me, ‘This is fantastic! People will want to come here to live, people will make businesses here because of this place!’ It was a great endorsement,” says Shem. “Our aim is to promote personal responsibility for our waterways. We want to see people become advocates for their river. When you’re swimming in it, you want it to be clean, you want it to be safe. That’s where it starts. We want the Weir Pool to be an outdoor classroom for everyone.”
Community engagement has become a buzzword for State agencies and academics, but what does it really mean? In practice, consultation initiatives to secure the all-important social license to operate can often feel like one-way streets designed to inform people about decisions that have already been made, rather than opportunities to empower locals to take part in a genuinely participatory process.
So when a community comes together of its own volition to inspire its people to love their river, it’s something to celebrate. Duly, the ‘Open Waters’ festival received support from the Heritage Council, Inland Fisheries Ireland, Kilkenny Leader Partnership, Kilkenny County Council and the Local Authority Waters and Communities Office, among others.
“One of the greatest achievements of our group is in building relationships with those bodies and agencies and the remarkable people in them,” says Shem. “Structurally, they are risk averse. But we managed to build trust and bring them into a space where they could play a bit with ideas. That to me is something to shout about. We’ve got community in the equation now.”
Hannah Hamilton is the owner of éirewild, a consultancy that helps businesses make space for nature. She is also the Executive Coordinator to the Irish Forum on Natural Capital. www.facebook.com/ ThomastownCommunityRiverTrust