Shannon's awesome power like an animal unleashed
Communities beside the river can only wait and pray that they will be spared, writes Liam Collins in Athlone
The relentless intensity of the rising river has laid waste to a corridor from 'Carrick' in the north to Limerick in the south, where the mighty River Shannon eventually spills its enormous strength into the Atlantic Ocean.
But not before it has marooned farms and homes, laid waste to flood plains and lapped dangerously around the streets and homes of those who have come to live too close to the embrace of the vast waterway.
The hinterlands of Carrick-on-Shannon, Athlone and Limerick have turned into a vast inland sea, parts of it abandoned before the rising waters.
It is not only by the banks of the Shannon that the devastation is evident.
The deluge brought by Storm Desmond and the heavy rains in its wake have left large parts of the West under water, from Ballyhaunis and Crossmolina in Co Mayo and Craughwell and Ballinasloe in Co Galway to Banagher and Parteen in Offaly and Clare.
As the clean-up continues in Bandon, parts of Co Cork and Kerry are waterlogged as rivers and lakes rise and spill over and engulf anything in their path.
The images, from satellites and photographers tell the story vividly - water finds its own level and in the last week it has found new ground as swollen rivers pushed out to new boundaries that no flood barriers could defend.
"It's in the lap of the Gods," says an 81-year-old man who has lived in Wolfe Tone Terrace on the eastern side of the Shannon river in Athlone all his life, philosophically.
As he watches the dark waters swirling by, he knows that another inch or two's rise in the river could ruin his home.
As he speaks, the pumps and generators are humming, spilling the spoilt water from the torrent that is edging ever closer to the low-lying areas of the midland town back into the river.
It is a scene that is all to familiar to others living along the length of the Shannon.
"Look," he says, pointing at the rows of newly built apartment blocks on the western side of the river, "before they were built, it spilled out on to the land, but the concrete is holding it back."
Now the rolling river has found new lands to flood, flowing out on either side downstream from Athlone as far as the eye can see.
Another passerby joins the conversation.
"The Shannon hasn't been drained properly since the British were here in 1914," he declares. And we all agree that draining the Shannon has been a perennial topic since de Valera was in power, probably even before that.
With new environmental concerns, it is now more unlikely then ever to happen.
As Civil Defence, Army personnel and council workers pile sandbags from an army lorry nearby, the observers agree among themselves that one sole authority is needed for the river if anything is to be achieved.
But another arriving resident has a happy smile. "I think we're winning," he says, cheerfully stepping over the sandbags to get into his home.
Rows of white bags, each filled with a tonne of sand, line the roadway as the river inches its way out of the central channel, threatening anything in its path.
But the good news in this bleak scene is that the deluge expected by Met Eireann may be milder than anticipated.
While the river rose by two inches in the past 48 hours, the rainfall is not as heavy as had been expected and may be 50mm over the next few days, at the lower end of the forecast spectrum.
Gauges on all parts of the Shannon have shown the river is rising and between midnight on Friday and Saturday morning you could see the evidence of an inch rise in the water level. Some of the barges and boats tethered by the river have risen until they are almost level with the quays as the water lapped at the walls under Athlone Castle.
In the darkness of Saturday morning, heavy rainfall has sent torrents of water cascading down Strand Street from the high parts of the town to add to the woes of those living lower down.
Foul water, with pieces of toilet paper fluttering in its wake, gushes from manholes. But the pumps and generators seem to be holding back the flood as they belch water back into the roaring river outside Flynn's Funeral Home, said to be the most low-lying part of the river bank on the eastern side of the Shannon.
Most people stay indoors, some even pray, but they know from experience that there is no real defence against the fury of 'mother nature.'
On the other side of the river in the trendy 'Left Bank of Athlone' - which is in fact the right bank of the river - an old woman irons clothes through open curtains, looking out to where the eyes of the bridge that joins Connacht and Leinster seem to be slowly closing with the sheer volume of black water pouring down through Carrick-on-Shannon, Lanesborough and all the little towns and villages that line the river bank.
Under the cold shadow of Athlone Castle, the town is once more under siege, but this time from a timeless enemy, rather than a great invader.
"Ireland is a saucer and we are in the middle" says John Donohoe of Johns Bookshop, quoting one of the boatmen on the Shannon. Like others in this part of town he has seen it all before, especially in 2009, when the water was hitting the quays with such force that he could hear it thumping on the stone.
Upstream and downstream, the Shannon has spread out into the lowlands, creating an inland sea, ruthless and unforgiving to all who stand in its path. One man tells me that houses out in the lowlands have already been abandoned to the water.
Locals talk about 2009 as the benchmark. Yet standing in Sean's Bar, which is also quaintly on Main Street, although it is on the Roscommon side and hasn't been the main street for at least two centuries, I am reminded of being here in the 1980s and being told then that occasionally the water rose into the lower reaches of the bar, forcing the drinkers to move their stools to higher ground.
But back then there was a flood plain to drain away the waters. With construction over the years, the rising river has been trapped within new boundaries; trapped like a caged animal, it has become dangerous to those on its banks.
It is possibly too soon to blame climate change for what is happening, maybe people should have been more aware of their history and factored it into the planning decisions that were taken for riverside towns, not just along the Shannon, but many other waterways as well.
There is also a widespread belief that 'flood relief' in certain areas has merely pushed the problem of flooding on to places which never experienced flooding before.
Yet through all its travails, I have somehow forgotten the raucous resilience of rural Ireland. As the river rose, inch by inch, it was not a matter of any great concern to those who were not under immediate threat.
As men in high-viz jackets did their best to outwit the rising water with their machinery and flood barriers, only the occasional revellers, on a cigarette break from one of the local pubs, came down to the rivers edge to watch the rising waters on the trendy Left Bank of Athlone.
"Jaysus, would you look at that!" a woman exclaimed, but soon retreated, attracted to the warmth and the rising sound of music from pubs like The Snug.
I wait for the band to launch into the Bob Dylan lyric "the river's on the rise" but it never comes, they are too wrapped up in their own tunes for a little irony on a cold December night.
It is only those who have come too close to the caress of the swirling waters who must spend their days and nights in worry and dread.
Many have, of course suffered, especially those in the outlying areas who have been overwhelmed by the rising waters, but for now the sandbags, the pumps and the great efforts and dedication of the emergency services all along the Shannon have kept the river moving.
The next few days will be crucial, yet one way or another the power of nature will dictate the eventual outcome.