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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Come hell or high water

In Venice they call it Acqua Alta. A Westmeath whirlpool doesn’t have quite the same ring, and this may not quite be St Mark’s Square – but high water is still high water, and an inundation is an inundation in any language.

“A farmer leads his donkey and cart through the flooding in Athlone today,” reads the caption, when it really ought to say something like: “This farmer played a blinder with his donkey and cart, carrying goods and people back and forth through the flood waters when most other modes of transport were hopelessly stranded”.

The flooding south of Athlone in December 1959 was a major news story in Ireland and even in the UK – there’s a British Pathé film clip of the deluge to be found online – and our front-page coverage tells a dismal tale of army trucks being brought in, families being shipped out and disinfectant being poured into the water.
Taken from the air, the front-page image records the sort of flooding big-picture which has become all too familiar around Irish rivers in recent years: fields and ditches turned to lakes and islands. For this shot, though, the photographer chose to zoom in on one small, almost intimate, moment.

His subjects stand knee-deep in the water which swirls, literally, all around the picture. It must be freezing and is probably smelly. The farmer is either angry or despairing – maybe both – as he gestures to something beyond the edge of the frame. He has, you might say, reached the end of his tether.

The expression on the face of his donkey is stoic, resigned, unfathomable. Behind them, the brimming water stretches far, far into the distance.

It was a miserable end to 1959 for the people of the Shannon basin, and 2016 began with devastation across much of the same area. Some aspects of life in Ireland, it seems, never change.

Arminta Wallace