Friday 21 September 2018

'No one will be leaving here tonight, that's for sure'

In Baltimore in west Cork for Hurricane Ophelia last Monday, our reporter was ­lifted off his feet by the wind - but he was even more blown away by the ­solid stoicism on display

Weathering the storm: An onlooker watches as Ophelia takes hold in Baltimore, west Cork. Photo: Emma Jervis Photography
Weathering the storm: An onlooker watches as Ophelia takes hold in Baltimore, west Cork. Photo: Emma Jervis Photography

Graham Clifford

As the first winds of Ophelia began to tickle the southern coast on Monday morning, Kieran Cotter stood at his shop counter serving customers and keeping a constant eye on his iPad.

"Look here," he tells me, "the National Hurricane Centre in the States predicts that while we won't now be in the eye of the storm, we'll be in the devastation zone. I can tell by the coordinates of Opehlia."

The local RNLI coxswain Kieran is the go-to-man in the west Cork fishing village of Baltimore at times like this.

"Well, Kieran what do you think?" asks one concerned local who pulls up her car outside on the narrow street overlooking the harbour.

"We'll be fine," reassures Kieran. "It'll be strong but we're robust around here."

And robust the people along Ireland's coast certainly are.

Throughout Monday, I witnessed a community, well used to being battered by storms racing in from the Atlantic, ride this one out. Further out on the islands of Sherkin (where winds reached 135kph) and Cape Clear, those islanders who remained hunkered down until Ophelia passed through.

Locals gathered from early morning in Jacob's bar overlooking the pier in Baltimore.

From here fishermen could see the storm unfolding. When news comes through that there's concern over the safety of the moored RNLI lifeboat, two locals jump in a car and head off to check on its safety.

Initially coffee flows and soon after pints of the black stuff. The bar begins to fill and by lunchtime, there's a crew of 30 watching and waiting.

With every passing hour, news trickles through. Of fallen trees on the two approach roads to Baltimore.

"No one will be leaving here tonight, that's for sure," says one fisherman. And he's right. It would be madness to take the roads out of the fishing village so prone are they to fallen trees and accumulated debris.

By midday, the force of the waves crashing into the harbour in Baltimore is causing concern. "But sure we're still four hours from high tide," exclaims one man to no one in particular.

A wave bursts through a heavily-reinforced stone wall by one of the piers, throwing concrete and stones high into the air. Thankfully no one was near when the Atlantic came ashore.

And throughout it all, Kieran's shop stays open. In the darkness, customers wander in, amongst the gusts, to buy provisions by candlelight. They leaved armed with coal, chocolate, Pinot Grigio.

Another woman pops in to ask him: "Well, Kieran is that the worst of it over?" She'd rather hear it from him than Met Éireann or Sky News. If she went home without his blessing, no one would take her seriously.

In the Stone House bed and breakfast, Rianne and her husband Gerry have a little generator running so we can keep our mobile phones charged. Its purr is music to my ears.

This is a community which stands up to storms. But it's far from complacent, despite a veneer of indifference.

When I arrived on Sunday night, just hours before Ophelia came calling, I found packed pubs and a traditional music session in full swing. "Are you not worried about the storm," I asked one musician? "Ah sure, we've had much worse around here over the years, kidnappings, piracy, you name it, we've had it - it'll be a breeze," he joked.

In reality though, all preparations had already been made. Most boats and fishing trawlers had found shelter in Castletownbere, things were tied down and thanks, in a large part to the wonderful work of Met Éireann, those along the coast knew well that this storm had to potential to do real damage and perhaps even claim lives.

Indeed, when news came through on Monday afternoon that three people had been killed in other parts of the country, a hush fell over the pub. One man made the sign of the cross.

When daylight emerges, it's clear this robust village has literally weathered the storm. There is some structural damage and some boats broke free of their moorings, but all in all, the impact was relatively mild.

By 9am, the N71 road leading from Baltimore to Skibbereen and on to Clonakilty is clear of fallen trees - thanks to trojan work from council staff and locals. Electricity returns to most areas in west Cork by mid-morning.

What a robust little nation we are. A storm with wind speeds similar to Ophelia would have caused extensive damage to coastal communities on islands far from here but, whether we realised it or not, our frequent Atlantic storms from the south west prepared us for this one coming directly from the south.

And the feeling of national togetherness was inspiring. Tragic as it was that three people lost their lives in Ophelia, it was extraordinary that there wasn't a greater death toll. Remember, 18 people died on the island of Ireland when Storm Debbie hit in 1961.

Of course, our buildings are now sturdier and our warning systems far improved, but still the resolve shown during Ophelia was amazing.

Leo may get lots of the praise, but the real lions were those men and women who looked after each other when the winds picked up.

And my abiding memory from Monday will not centre on the gusts which literally took me off my feet in Baltimore, but of a man and woman nursing their large glasses of wine in Jacob's as they broke into song.

"The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun, tomorrow, tomorrow I love ya tomorrow, You're always a day away'….

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