Macroom: Choked by traffic is the first in a new digital series from The Southern Star. The Big Story, which will be exclusive to The Southern Star’s digital platforms, will bring readers closer to West Cork’s most important topics.
Episode one is written and produced by Southern Star reporter Kieran O’Mahony and Southern Star digital manager Jack McCarron.
By Kieran O'Mahony
COMING in at a cost of over a quarter of a billion euros, the Macroom bypass project which began construction last year – with almost 30% of it completed so far – is according to those working on it one of the most challenging and exciting projects they have worked on.
From the challenges posed by Covid-19 to the difficult topography that they have encountered, this project has been years in planning, which will see the construction of a new 22km dual carriageway offline of the existing N22 that will by pass the town of Macroom and the villages of Baile Mhic Íre and Baile Bhurine.
The €280m task is led by Cork County Council and contractors Jons Civil Engineering and John Craddock JV and there are currently over 300 people working on the project.
With 18 road bridges, 24 accommodation structures and a number of culvert structures, it is indeed engineering at its most spectacular.
The road will be constructed through challenging terrain, which varies through the development from hilly remote land with rock outcrops at the western end, to low lying pasture lands to the east of Macroom and will cross a land-locked section of the Inniscarra Reservoir to the south east of Macroom.
The project includes the construction of 130 structures, including crossings of the Sullane, Laney, Foherist and Bohill rivers, while the junctions on the project will be at Slivereagh at the western end, at Toonlane East at Baile Mhic Íre, at Gurteenroe, Milstreet Road and at Coolcower at the eastern side of Macroom.
For the people of Macroom and indeed frustrated motorists, this project can’t come quick enough for them as the town has suffered due to the large volumes of traffic that have ‘choked’ the town for the past 40 years.
Macroom is now being given a new chance to ‘breathe’ and ‘rejuvenate’ and claim back its hinterland after years of congestion.
With a number of new private and social housing developments already taking place in Macroom, along with the construction of a new fire station, a new garda station and an extension at the community hospital there is a sense that a new era for the town is being heralded.
Plans are also in place for some public realm enhancements to be completed ahead of the completion of the bypass so that Macroom will be ready to welcome both locals and tourists back to the town.
Killian Lynch, who runs his own auctioneering business in the heart of Macroom, feels the town will thrive once the bypass is up and running and even grow.
‘They have been on about this bypass with the last 40 years but thankfully funding was received in 2019 to get it finally started. Macroom will take half a step backwards and five steps forward when it is completed,’ said Killian.
‘With a lot of towns that are bypassed they don’t have the services or amenities before it happens but we have it all here. We have all the big shops, an 18 hole golf course and top of the range schools and we have a massive hinterland as well who can’t come into the town as they are constantly getting caught up in traffic. In some cases, a five minute journey could take up to the best part of an hour.’
Killian said this will be the dawn of a new era for the town which will become a commuter town.
‘In the next County Development Plan it is predicted that over the next eight years, over 400 to 500 new houses will be needed in Macroom. But it has all the amenities to cater for this and everything is in the centre of the town and Macroom should fly.’
Chairman of the Lee Valley Enterprise Board, Pat O’ Connell told The Southern Star earlier this year that more businesses will be attracted to the town once the bypass is completed and he said it is essential that adequate signposting will be laid out on the bypass on both sides to indicate what is on offer in Macroom.
Local Fine Gael TD Michael Creed said that taking out the unnecessary heavy traffic will allow Macroom ‘to breathe once again’, while Fianna Fáil TD Aindrias Moynihan said it gives a whole note of new opportunities for the town centre and its communities around it.
The Southern Star was recently given an exclusive tour of the construction site in the company of several Council engineers who are overseeing this significant project.
Speaking on site at the Coolcower flood plain, Mary Flynn, project engineer for the N22 project said that Cork County Council are delighted to have reached this stage of the project so far.
‘Large public works like this take a long time to get to construction so we’ve been 20 years planning this road development and it’s great to see it coming almost at a point where we will deliver it for the local economy,’ said Mary.
‘It will result in some journey time savings and improve connectivity between Cork and Kerry and also remove congestion in Macroom and the villages. These places will be given back to the people and given a chance to rejuvenate.’
Mary said they are on schedule to finish the project before the end of 2023.
‘It’s great that we have kept going even during Covid, which was also a challenge to us. We’re heading into the height of the project now and there are a number of structures complete and visible to the public. There was also great interest from the public last December when we were transporting seven pre-cast concrete beams from Banagher in Co Offaly. Getting these beams, which were the longest beams placed on a bridge structure in either Ireland or the UK, to the site was quite a task but a significant milestone for the project. It’s so dramatic to see this type of scale of works underway.’
Speaking at the same site where flood balancing arches are being constructed in the ESB Carrigadrohid flood plain, Cathal Tuohy, senior resident engineer for roadworks for the project said these balancing culverts are being built to ensure the new road doesn’t impact on the flood plain itself.
‘It’s certainly the most challenging roads project that I have ever been on and I’ve been working on this for four years now. It’s also the most challenging terrain that I’ve ever encountered on any scheme to date. There’s a considerable height difference – over 150 metre difference between the far end of the project in Ballyvourney and to tie in with the reservoir here.’
Cathal said they are about 30% through the shifting of the material, known as the ‘cut and fill’ and this area will be one of the biggest fills of this project.
‘Over 400,000 cubic metres of material is to come to this location from north of Macroom, which gets cuts and machines will start depositing the material across this flood plain in the coming weeks. Rock is particularly a significant issue with this project also.’
Cathal expects this end of the scheme will be nearing its completion by the end of 2022, while the far end by Ballyvourney is the ‘critical path’ of the job.
‘This is where the most significant rock cuts will be and we’re only getting into there now and while challenging it’s also an interesting project.’
The key challenges for the project are Covid and Brexit, according to Jonathan Noonan, project liaison officer for Cork County Council.
‘It’s being managed very well on site and we’ve had no cases on site and you can see that there is full segregation among the workforce and mask wearing is mandatory even outdoors and we have a number of Covid compliance officers on site also to monitor Covid,’ said Jonathan.
‘It isn’t through luck alone that we haven’t had cases, it’s because it’s been effectively managed throughout the site.’
Brexit too has also brought its own complications.
‘There have been delays in getting some materials to the site because of it but we’ve plans in place to do advance purchasing of materials so that we have them stockpiled on site to overcome that issue.’
While finding the project exciting, Jonathan says it is also one of most complex and challenging projects that he has worked on and the number of structures are almost twice what would normally be expected on a scheme of this size.
‘I think it’s also one of the most complex projects in the country but we are very proud to be delivering this not only for the people of Cork but also for the people of Kerry and the region as whole and it’s a significant project for the region which will bring benefits for the like of Macroom and its neighbouring villages.’
We were then escorted to the western section of the scheme over by Ballyvourney, where the team have to extract rock from 30 metres – a millions cubic metres of rock – which they will move and fill down through the rest of the site. They hope to traffic over the Bohill bridge structure with construction plant in mid-June, which will allow them to make significant progress on the middle section right as far down as the Carraigaphooca junction.
Jonathan said they will be carrying out significant amounts of blasting of the rocks using explosives.
‘We drill holes into the ground and we fill them with liquid explosives and then we carry out controlled explosives and it speeds up the rock removal process but we do have to meet with noise and vibration limits as part of our planning. It’s a safe and controlled operation.
The project also had to take into consideration the habitat of the Kerry Slug on this side of the project.
‘We’ve carried out a significant Kerry Slug habitat and relocation exercise. All our areas are protected and signed and we have a full plan in place to protect the slugs and it’s a key environmental constraint but it’s worth it to preserve a protected species.’
Also during early advance works, Cork County Council discovered that bats – Lesser Horseshoe, Natterer and Brown Longeared – resided in an old shed, which was on the future footprint of the Bohill Bridge structure.
‘We had to see a National Park and Wildlife (NPWS) Derogation licence in order to demolish the old building, which in turn required a new bat building to be constructed in advance,’ said Cathal.
‘The new building was completed by May 2019 and the demolition of the old shed had to be done piece by piece by hand in a very controlled manner to ensure minimal disturbance.’
The building is currently being monitored by Cork County Council to satisfy the terms of the NPWS Licence and the presence of bats are still evident there.
Senior resident engineer for structures, Cian Kiely, gave us an overview of works underneath the impressive Bohill river bridge at Cappagh West.
‘This is the longest structure on the project, at 121 metres long and it’s very complex as there were a lot of environmental constraints here too. The Bohill river which passes underneath the structure has fresh water pearl mussel which cannot be disturbed and also there’s the Kerry Slug habitat which was a major constraint too,’ said Cian.
If that didn’t pose enough challenges for the project team, they also hand to contend with ESB pylons running parallel to the bridge.
‘This bridge was manufactured in Seville by Tecade who are one of the world leaders in this type of structures. It’s a weathering bridge with a copper colour and it fits in with the surrounding countryside.'
The construction of this bridge started last July and Cian and his team hope to be taking dump trucks across the bridge by next month.
‘I’ll probably never see a scheme this large and this complex again in my lifetime again I’ve worked on different projects around the world and it’s great to see such a complex project being undertaken here in Cork.’