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Our 300-year-old Co Armagh cottage home will be lost to history unless we get help to counter flood threat

By Linda Stewart

Published 04/02/2016

Dan McQuillan
Dan McQuillan
His flooded house
His flooded house

It's been their dream home for 11 years - but Dan and Kate McQuillan fear they may be forced to walk away from their traditional thatched cottage after it was deluged by the floods.

The couple have spent the weeks since Christmas battling night and day to keep floodwater and sewage effluent out of their 300-year-old cottage in the Birches area of Co Armagh.

Dan says they "fell in love" with the historic thatched cottage when they bought it in 2005, but it could end up falling into disrepair if they have to walk away. He claims people in the area have been left high and dry by the Rivers Agency.

At the height of the storms that deluged homes and businesses throughout the area the floodwater was a foot deep at the front and two feet deep at the back. Weeks later the pumps have finally been turned off, but effluent is still seeping up through the floor of the living room and the toilet can't be used because the septic tank system is completely blocked.

Inside the cottage are spectacular twisted bog oak beams as historic as anything you might see in the Ulster Folk Museum, but the electrics are shot, and filthy water is still seeping in. Render on the external walls is starting to show cracks.

"The sandbags were four or five feet high in some places," Dan said.

"We haven't been able to use the toilet since before Christmas because the septic tank had flooded.

"Then we got up on New Year's morning, looked out, and the water was up to the kerb at the front door.

"We phoned the Rivers Agency and they were out within 45 minutes with one pallet of sandbags. In the end nine pallets were needed."

Two pumps were constantly running because the water was seeping under the sandbags. Then one night Kate woke Dan at 4am to tell him the pumps had gone off. "The water was right across the floor and the pumps had failed," he said.

"That happened four times. Basically, the water that came in here wasn't just water - it was sewage mixed with it.

"Kate would sit up all night, I would get up at 6.30am and she would go to bed, and we'd swap over in the evening."

Mr McQuillan paid tribute to Rivers Agency staff on the ground who had battled to keep the water out, but he was scathing about the organisation and doesn't believe that the sluice gates at Toome were fully opened in November as claimed.

"The natural flood plain for Lough Neagh is around Coleraine but this has become the flood plain because the water couldn't go to Coleraine," he said.

He was angered by comments from agency chief executive David Porter, who said if climate change predictions were true people would have to adapt to this pattern of flooding.

"This is a 300-year-old house - it has been here ever since 1700.

"I would like to put it to Mr Porter if this was his house and he was up to his knees in effluent and the flood was caused by somebody's ineptitude, what would he say?

"If this house disappears, that is it gone forever. This is the tradition of our country that I am sitting in.

"If this house can't be protected by some sort of flood barrier round the whole property it will fall into disrepair. We will have to walk away from it."

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill recently announced a new homeowners' flood protection scheme, but Mr McQuillan says he has been told it wouldn't cover the kind of protection his house needs.

"This house needs some sort of retaining wall right round, a sluice gate in front and some kind of sump tank, so that if the rain starts the automatic pump can pump the water out into the field," he explained.

Mr McQuillan says he has lost a £900 scanner and 14 years' worth of work files, but the job of clearing the house and assessing the damage is only starting.

Meanwhile, Nigel Sands, who owns Sands Marine at Kinnego Marina, one of four shops on the Lough Neagh shore swamped with 10 inches of floodwater, says they reflooded again as recently as last Friday.

He says his insurance company will write off the entire stock, which was worth £200,000.

"All the carpets have to be ripped up, the counter is starting to rust and the displays are starting to delaminate," he said.

"My biggest disappointment is that the Rivers Agency were totally aware.

"They knew how much was coming into the lough and going out of the lough.

"At what stage did they think it was pertinent to warn people through the media that the lough was going to overflow?

"It's a Government agency controlling the biggest lough in the British Isles. Why would they stay quiet? If they had put out a warning we might have been able to put up a wall or something.

"We're now into the sixth week and I haven't been able to trade. My biggest gripe is that they stayed silent.

"It's the lack of any sort of support from the Government. You pay your rates and taxes and you say: 'What am I paying this for?'"

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