In the shadow of the Shannon lies a tense Athlone
Anxious and frustrated, locals in the town prepare once more for an all too familiar fight with the river
Christmas decorations twinkled in the window of one house in the Deerpark housing estate, but there was little sign of any festive cheer.
Bright yellow ESB vans were filing down the twisting roads and the rainy, windy air thrummed with the growl of pumps battling the water pooling ominously close to gates, gardens and doors.
One local resident was keeping a close eye on the water levels. "We're all extremely worried," said Mary Casey. "Almost exactly six years ago the whole street was gone, there wasn't a light on anywhere," she said. "It was so sad to see people's lives out in their gardens - carpets, chairs, tables. Everyone did up their houses afterwards, but here we are again. And nothing was done in those six years to deal with the flooding problem."
Around the corner where the water was advancing towards The Park estate, local Independent councillor Kevin 'Boxer' Moran was exhausted after a night working the pump. "I got about two hours sleep last night. It's a struggle to keep the waters from going into the houses, and it's not helped by the strong winds. But I was here in 2009, and so we know what to do," he said.
And it's the dreadful events of winter 2009 which are preying on the minds. There is also a warning that flood waters may not recede "for days and weeks" in some places.
All eyes are nervously trained on the rising water levels of the river, which is now hovering dangerously close to the top of its banks, swollen by heavy rainfall and whipped by gales.
Everywhere within the danger zone, white sandbags were being filled and stacked. Army personnel were visible, helping to shore up defences. "We have 40 personnel here and six trucks," explained one soldier who was placing sandbags around Flynn's Funeral Home which is right on the riverbank, on a low-lying stretch of road down the hill from the town centre. "It's anticipated that the situation could worsen over the weekend, and we're monitoring the areas which may have difficulties."
There was a sense of organisation mingled with anxiety and also frustration. In a supermarket in the town's shopping centre, Annie was stocking up on extra food supplies in case she and her family ended up unable to leave their house in the Golden Island estate which is also at the mercy of the Shannon.
Annie, who declined to give her surname, was irate. "I can't believe this is happening in this day and age. The Government did nothing to sort this out after the last time," she said. "What's going to happen to us if the house gets destroyed? Where will we spend Christmas?"
As night fell on the town, the darkened river tossed and turned in its restless bed. Inside Sean's Bar (reputedly Ireland's oldest pub, in situ since 900AD mere metres from the banks of the Shannon) a vigil was underway.
The bar's co-owner Paul Donovan has been here before.
"In 2009 we battled for nine solid days, for 24 hours a day," he explained.
"We had to keep the pumps working throughout every night. It was hard, but we kept the water out. And now the water levels are only about nine inches off the 2009 levels. We badly need a wall along the river like the one built in Carlow after their flooding six years ago," he added.
Paul, like many local residents, was all-too aware at the rapidity of the rising river levels.
"I coach at Athlone rowing club, and recently we had to measure the water depth to ensure it wasn't too shallow for the boat."
A member of the local sub aqua team, drinking coffee at the bar, warned Paul that the flood danger may not peak until Monday.
Outside the cosy confines of Sean's Bar the heavy rain arrived with the dusk and hammered down on the already sodden streets. Perched atop the roof of Athlone Castle, an illuminated Santa on his sleigh beamed down on the river from the best and safest view in the town. By 7pm, the river had reared its head over its banks and Flynn's funeral home was in peril.
It's going to be a long, tense weekend for those living in the shadow of the Shannon.