Wednesday 26 October 2016

Tánaiste makes a splash as canoe tips her into icy waters of the Nore

Published 01/01/2016 | 02:30

Tánaiste Joan Burton and junior minister Ann Phelan take a tumble into the Nore during their visit to Thomastown, Co Kilkenny Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Tánaiste Joan Burton and junior minister Ann Phelan take a tumble into the Nore during their visit to Thomastown, Co Kilkenny Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Jim Phelan (80) in his home beside the Nore in Thomastown Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Joan Burton pictured after a boat capsized on the Quays Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Publican Eamonn Price of Tim's Bar cleans up after flood waters entered his pub. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Not 10 minutes before, Joan Burton had been worrying about the waterproof capabilities of her black wellington boots as she weighed up the advisability of standing in for a picture beside the raging waters of the River Nore.

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"I'd better not," she finally decided. "I don't want to get my feet wet."

Sometimes we're better off not knowing what lies beyond the next corner, otherwise we'd never get out of bed in the morning.

For within minutes, Joan and colleague Ann Phelan would be splashing around in the water themselves.

After the devastation of the previous day's swirling waters which came right up the main street of Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, the clean-up operation had already begun.

Sim Treacy in the hardware store had sold 26 pairs of wellingtons and four pairs of waders that day.

"It's an ill wind," he joked.

Publicans Shem O'Hara and Eamonn Price were on a frantic quest to clean up their premises before the New Year's Eve rush.

Meanwhile, in his home on the banks of the Nore, Jim Phelan (80) - who was born in an upstairs bedroom - reflected on the nature of his beloved river.

He remembers worse floods - 1968, and the one on St Patrick's Day in 1947 caused by melting snow when the waters had gushed out of bedroom windows in the town. He had caught a lovely salmon swimming in the street.

"The floods will happen," said Jim philosophically.

By afternoon, the Tánaiste and Minister of State at the Department of the Environment Ann Phelan had arrived for their tour to inspect the damage.

Their first meeting was with local artist Shem Caulfield, whose 200-year-old house is the lowest-lying dwelling-place in Thomastown, with the floods rising to two inches below the electrical sockets.

"You managed to get ashore since the last time I was talking to you, Shem," Ms Phelan greeted him.

They discussed the long-term flood relief strategies feasible in the Nore Valley, with Shem suggesting a return to the old tried and trusted method of planting trees. "Trees and bushes," mused the Tánaiste.

Next was a visit to the health food shop, where Paddy Witherow was minding the place for his daughter, Edel, and where the flood waters had broken in for the first time (it escaped the devastation of the 2009 deluge).

Joan asked him about the popularity of health food, and Paddy told her that the secret of life was "prevention".

"So if you can prevent the flood out there for us," he said, and added: "These buildings didn't go up yesterday."

Afterwards, he shrugged and said: "Politicians are politicians and we're not very far from an election."

There was another short stop into the Soma beauty parlour.

Moments later, Joan and Ann were sitting trustingly in a small light vessel described by Shem as a Canadian canoe as he walked in his waders, towing them slowly behind, en route to inspect the damage to his house. In the back, the two politicians cut an oddly touching sight - like two small children being led by the hand.

The junior minister's press officer grimaced and emitted a low groan. Her Spidey senses were tingling. She did not like the look of this.

Beside them, the RTÉ cameraman walked along easily in ordinary wellington boots. Was the boat even necessary at all?

All was well - until Shem went to turn a corner and somebody lost their balance.

There was barely a splash, hardly a ripple as the two politicians tipped heavily in.

Aghast, the bystanders froze, scarcely able to believe their eyes. "Jesus, it's happened - they're in," someone squealed in horror.

The worst thing about it was that it didn't even really come as a shock.

In slow motion, the women seemed to sit there in the icy waters for an age. And then there was a scramble.

They walked the rest of the way to Shem's house.

Afterwards, Shem plunged into an agony of self-recrimination.

"The pictures will hardly be used, will they?" he asked. We didn't have the heart to tell him.

But the women laughed off their close encounter with one of the Three Sisters.

"We can't say we didn't experience the flood," said Ms Phelan.

"I'm grand," said Joan. "I'm very fast on my feet."

Her black trousers were saturated, but she said she had a change in the car.

"How to drown a Tánaiste," groaned Shem, as Joan reassured him with a gentle "No, no, no".

But indeed, there was a silver lining in all of this.

Because while Enda might have emerged from hibernation to heroically hop on to the back of a tractor in Athlone, he may as well have stayed at home and cracked open another tin of Roses.

Talk about stealing his thunder. With a stunt so picture-perfect, we'd almost be tempted to believe Joan did it on purpose.

Irish Independent

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