When it rains it pours; Murphy's Law prevails in Ireland


December 2, 2009, 11:29 AM

You know Murphy's Law. If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

Well, that's the way things were in Ireland over the past week. It seemed like everything and everybody -- man, nature and God -- was conspiring against us.

Man -- Irishmen -- has already ruined the Irish economy. Our prosperity is gone, unemployment is soaring and next week we face into the toughest budget in living memory to get the state finances under control, a budget which is going to lower our standard of living sharply and be extremely painful for everyone.

Last week nature added to our misery when the worst floods in a century hit places all over Ireland after weeks of heavy rainfall. Then when everyone was knee deep in freezing, filthy water, a huge storm with icy temperatures and gale force winds hit the country over the weekend to compound the suffering.

Even God -- represented by the Catholic Church -- seemed to be against us. The report of the judicial investigation into child sexual abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese was finally published last week and revealed that a succession of bishops over many decades had known what was going on but covered it up. This allowed even more children to be abused.

Some of the best-known bishops in the country over the past 50 years were implicated. It was shameful and deeply shocking.

It was indeed a black week in Ireland. All the news was bad. The despair and depression in the air were almost tangible.

The TV cameras followed Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen as he trudged through flooded streets in midland towns wearing his rubber boots and his raincoat, urging people not to be too downcast and miserable. The words pot, kettle and black came to mind.

Let's face it. There is no reason to smile at the moment. We're used to a drop of rain in Ireland, but this was rain on a Biblical scale. If Noah's Ark had come floating down the Shannon last week no one would have been surprised.

Of course, the widespread flooding could not all be blamed on Mother Nature. Yes, most of it was due to the very heavy rainfall that caused rivers to burst their banks and flood vast areas of farmland, particularly in the midlands and the west on both sides of the Shannon.

Parts of Cork City were awash, and low-lying areas in towns all over the country were swamped. Pictures of boats being rowed down streets and people being rescued from their houses filled the TV news and the papers.

But there was another factor at work that had made the bad situation even worse. During the construction boom of the Celtic Tiger years houses were built everywhere here, on river banks, in boggy fields, even on lands that were known to be flood plains close to lakes and rivers.

The more concrete was poured and the more roads were built, the less the surrounding ground was able to cope with heavy rainfall. And last week we paid the price for that greedy madness.

We also seem to have forgotten some uncomfortable facts. Like the fact that most towns and cities in Ireland are built on rivers, and most of them have some streets that are low-lying and therefore prone to flooding.

Usually this only happens every 20 or 30 years. The number of buildings swamped is usually small, people mop up and in between the floods people forget.

But what happened last week was on a different scale, as the spectacular TV pictures of the center of Cork City under water demonstrated. With global warming, we now have to accept that more severe and frequent flooding is going to be a part life here in the future.

There's no point in blaming the government, as many people here tried to do last week, saying flood defenses were inadequate and the government should have been better prepared to deal with flooding on a big scale. People were demanding that the government give millions to those affected by the floods and spend more millions to improve flood defenses.

But the reality is that people need to start taking responsibility themselves for where they live. There is also the fact that the widespread flooding of farmland in the midlands, on both sides of the Shannon, is nothing new, even if the scale this time was greater than normal.

Ireland is shaped like a big saucer that slopes very gently towards the center, through which the Shannon flows. When rainfall across the center of Ireland is heavy that's where the water goes, and the only place it can get out to the sea is through the mouth of the Shannon. The land around much of the Shannon is almost flat, so flooding is normal rather than highly unusual.

Local politicians have for decades been building political careers on promises to have the Shannon drained. More drainage works would probably help, but the truth is that a better drained center channel last week would have led to a faster flow downstream and caused even worse flooding in areas in the lower Shannon.

The answer to all this, of course, is proper planning and an end to the system that allowed people with political influence to build in unsuitable areas. That and an acceptance that in future some low lying streets may have to be turned into public parks, and some areas around the Shannon may have to be treated as summer grazing rather than all year farmland.