Taking in the city from a curragh on the Liffey.
“Sometimes when I’m rowing up the river I can hardly believe I’m rowing up there into the city. At this stage of my life, it’s a new lease of life. It’s very enjoyable.”
Putting the glass of the IFSC to your left shoulder and skirting the rim of the River Liffey, take a walk down North Wall Quay, you’ll pass the Famine Memorial and traverse over the long retired, and GRIFT tagged, Scherzer Rolling Bridges and every now and again you’ll notice images of old Dublin coming up for air from where once lay cobbles.
The images, in black and white, lie dotted along the Quay by Dublin City Council and depict scenes of a City engaged in and aware of its maritime proximity and of a working river that was once vital to the economic life of the place.
In the images passengers crowd steps down into the river as they wait to board the Liffey Ferry. No handrail to lean on. Boats and ships are moored and boarded as far up river as Gandon’s Custom House. British Army soldiers with Dublin accents, sailors, children and women of all classes inter-mingle. The River as a Port. Trade, emigration, war. The Liffey sucked it all in and spat it all back out too, or so it seems from the photographs.
In radically changed environments obsession with authenticity dominates. City Councils chop their mandate into Quarters, grabbing onto threads of the past. Who was here first and who and what belongs more? But Dublin has always been a Port. Forever new. Dublin exists because the Liffey exists.
Now though the Port no longer pushes into the heart of the City. If you squint hard enough from O’Connell Bridge, you can see the cruise ships and tankers far on the horizon. But you’re squinting and as a result not making the connection with the Liffey being part of and essential to this distant Port life.
Squinting and not making the connection to the Liffey simply being, being the reason you are here simply being.
As the decades have rolled on and the retreat of the Port has taken place we have, as Dubliners, lost our connection with the Liffey as a jumping off point to the wider world. So what of the Liffey now? Deindustrialized and stereotyped as dirty and foul, who is speaking up for Anna Livia today?
It’s early Saturday morning in mid September. A week of incessant rain has been acting as a buffer between the high temperatures of summer and the approaching autumn. But today we’re back to summer. The water around Stella Maris Marina is pacific, the stillness only broken by the arrival of the massive Mazarine cargo ship.
It turns on a six-pence and docks. In a few days it will sail again for the Port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. No Brexit here or there. Best to circumnavigate where there is.
There’s eight of us. Standing on the jetty that juts out into the marina, the blinking lights from the Docks are punching through the hint of mist and help create a Blade Runner-esque type vista.
On the road traffic coughs through the East Link toll-bridge while the Mazarine dominates the docks. The four currachs that lie still in the water awaiting us to embark may seem out of place when compared to the currachs’ usual postcard perfect setting; piloted by rugged Men of Arran and framed by the hills of Connemara. But for 15 years currachs have been rowing out from here in Ringsend and into the City.
We get in and push off.
Dave Kelly is always the answer. The question being asked is how you got involved. How did you find yourself rowing a currach up the Liffey?
From deep in Dublin’s Northside, Dave had been drawn to the siren call of the currach on persistent holidays to Inis Oírr. Watching on for two weeks every summer as islanders threw themselves and their currachs into the deep Atlantic, Dave finally broke and used the only water near to him; the River Liffey.
The result has been Draíocht na life, a collective of individuals – only one of whom hails from Connemara – who all found themselves drawn to the Currach and the Liffey. Drawn to the deep idea of the Currach and all the connotations it boils up and the Liffey and how it allows you to be free and at peace in the heart of the City.
Dave attests that in the beginning if anyone ‘’even looked crooked at the currach, I would ask them would they like to get in.’’
A statement that is backed up by Gerry Doyle’s tale of how his chance meeting with Dave catapulted him into a new world, “I was on my way home from work. I live on the Northside of the City and I was working on the Southside and I was crossing the Ha’Penny Bridge when I saw Dave Kelly come up the river in his Currach. Flying up in his currach.
So I walked around to the boardwalk to watch him as he came up and as he got under the Ha’Penny Bridge he stopped rowing and he started chatting to me and he asked me did I want to get into the currach.
There’s a ladder down the side of the wall at the Ha’Penny Bridge so I went down that and into the currach with him and I thought I would be floated up the river like Little Lord Fauntleroy but no, Dave gave me a set of oars and my life jacket and we rowed up to the railway station and that was it. I’ve been rowing ever since.”
That was almost a decade ago. For Jude McHugh an encounter with Dave and her transformation into a Liffey currach rower came during the long, dead hours of lockdown.
“I got into it from meeting Dave one night in Temple Bar during Covid with my mask on!
I had met Dave years ago during a showing of Donal O’Ceilleachair’s film ‘The Camino Voyage’ and I hadn’t seen him since, then met him by chance during Lockdown walking through Temple Bar and even though I had my mask on he recognised me and we stopped and chatted and he invited me down and since then that’s been it.
Before I started rowing, I would have seen the Liffey as just something to go over when going from south-side to north-side on a Bus. The only time I’d ever been on it before was on a tour boat after getting a two-for-one Groupon voucher.
Before I would have thought of the Liffey as being inaccessible for ordinary people in the City.”
We pass under the Tom Clarke Bridge and the Liffey begins to narrow. The walls close in. Renamed in 2016 after the Easter Rising architect, the bridge is a reminder of the role the Liffey played in the rebellion, its long reach into the City proving to be a vital attack line for the British, as the HMY Helga shelled citizens and rebels alike.
Today parts of the North Wall Quay yet to be claimed by towering office blocks lie in wide open ruin awaiting their role to be fulfilled.
From the Central Bank, Lady Lavery’s eyes follow our oar strokes while the juxtaposition of a currach cutting through its watery reflection offers space for lazy analogies. But we row on.
Buildings just like currachs follow a similar line of construction; the frame first and then the outer waterproofing skin second.
Of the five currachs on the water today, three have been built by Eddie Tuthill. A Dubliner with no boating background he too had always been drawn to the mysticism of the currach.
‘’I was never in a currach until I built my first one roughly 20 years ago. I had no connection. If I was over in the West for a holiday I’d see them and I was always attracted to their shape and style and often said to my wife I’d love to build one of them and unfortunately I never did until my wife died.
One Saturday myself and my brothers drove down to Spiddal and took photographs and measurements of currachs there and from those photos and measurements I built my first one.
But I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it away and was genuinely about to cut it up until my friend Ciaran Healy rang me and told me about Dave Kelly and how he’d met Dave and Dave had given him a go on a currach, and I’ve been here since.
Sometimes when I’m rowing up the river I can hardly believe I’m rowing up there into the city. At this stage of my life, it’s a new lease of life. It’s very enjoyable.’’
Eddie lives inland. The five kilometre restrictions of lockdown once prevented his passage to Ringsend and freedom, so instead of rowing he built another.
During the lockdown the woman next door to me one day asked ‘’what are you doing in there, all I can hear is tap, tap, tap’’. And that’s what I was doing, building this one.
Eddie’s new three-seater currach; Faoilean, is a thing of intense beauty. He claims humbly that all you need to build one is to be good with your hands.
Today the river is thick. A combination of heavy rain and a big moon means we float along at almost street level. From behind bridges iconic buildings reveal themselves while the perma-pigeon atop Daniel O’Connell’s head is the first sign that The Liberator is close at hand.
The board-walk teems and all of a sudden the Armada exiting from under the central arch becomes the city’s focal point.
Hugh Mooney who is rowing alongside Gerry Doyle loves the buzz of rowing into the heart of the bustling City weekend, ‘’It’s a great thrill especially when you are rowing a currach you made.’’
The last currach Hugh made came during a stint working in Oman.
‘’I was living and working in Muscat, Oman, in an engineering college and they had all the machinery so you could get the ugliest looking piece of timber and put it through the machinery and it would come out great. So there’s a currach out there in Oman that I left there, and gave to an Englishman. God forgive me.’’
We reach the shade of the Four Courts. Under the trees, which back on dry land burst out through the footpath, the water takes a green hue. Each rower’s appreciation of the Liffey is stout. Brendan Kielty offers a defence against the Bagatelle libel.
‘’I think the Liffey has a very bad rap and it goes back to ‘’dear old dirty Dublin’, which might have been true at one stage but it’s an alliteration which persists.
The Liffey is the dark colour because it is bracken coming down from the mountains. From the bogs. It will never be crystal clear water, it’s not Mediterranean water, it’s bog water. People don’t know or haven’t been helped to appreciate that the Liffey is in, what the fishermen call, rude health.
It’s a fantastic resource, salmon go up the river, followed by seals and a seal in the river is a sure sign that the river is healthy because they wouldn’t be there if their food source was absent. We’ve seen otters, there are herons, swans by the bucket load along with mullet and mackerel, ducks and brent geese. It’s a very rich environmentally strong resource.’’
Hugh agrees, ’It’s an artery which brings wildlife into the City; seals go up the river, otters have been seen, sea birds, shags, all types of wildlife are associated with the river so it’s really a positive contribution to the City.’’
In the shadow of the Four Courts Dave conducts a straw poll on whether or not people want to press on for the weir at Islandbridge, where the sea water of the city Liffey meets the mountain water of its inland stretch, or make a turn and begin the row back to Ringsend.
Without a hint of mutiny the consensus is to make for Ringsend and the promise of tea that awaits.
(Wo)Man of Liffey
The closing scene of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 epic Man of Aran sees the islanders take their currachs into a raging Atlantic storm. Today’s Liffey is still with a beating sun overhead. Flaherty would have called the photoshoot off hours ago.
But the row is still taxing.
According to Brendan, to row a currach, ‘’You have to be both very intelligent and good looking. It’s very difficult initially because a lot of it is counter-intuitive but your knuckles teach you very quickly how to get into the rhythm of rowing the boat and after that it literally becomes second nature. As soon as you sit in and the moment the first oar goes in the water you’re catapulted into a different state of mind; peaceful. You leave the whole world behind you when you’re on the river.’’
Jude references her knuckles too, ‘’It’s hard. It was really hard at the start too as I started in the cold weather and got blisters and couldn’t get the knack of rowing and kept banging my knuckles and then having to row backwards as well! But I’ve got the knack now and great encouragement from everybody else that’s doing it.’’
Gerry reckons that, ’’Rather than pulling like a dog you let your weight do the work and I’ve plenty of weight on me so I fall back on the oars and let that do the work.’’
The association of the currach with the Aran Islands had happened long before Flaherty’s cameras captured them, but it was his film which firmly bonded the two together forever. Now the currach, no longer a working boat, has seen its role slip into being a part of the commodification of Ireland’s past that the tourist industry has pushed. For Brendan currachs on the Liffey once seemed alien.
‘’Originally I was hostile to the concept of currachs on the River Liffey going through the centre of Dublin City, because it didn’t fit in with the pretty pictures from the West of Ireland. From the Paul Henry paintings and the postcards.’’
Since Dave put his first currach in the Liffey 15 years ago he and those who have come, gone and remained have done their bit to marry the visions of the Burren with those of the boardwalk.
We make for Port and home. As we row back under the Tom Clarke Bridge the gothic silhouette of a Cormorant greets us. Perched on a buoy with wings stretched out like a ’90’s Mancunian it seems to be greeting our safe arrival rather than attempting to dry out its non-waterproof feathers, a strange evolutionary glitch for a bird that dives for fish.
The Draíocht na life crew tie up their currachs and head for tea. Later on, alone, Dave will bring the currachs back out into the Marina and tie them to their moorings.
If it wasn’t for the Draíocht na life collective on the river that Saturday morning the water would have flowed down from the bog and out to the Irish Sea without a ripple having been made. As we rethink all aspects of our city our perception of what the Liffey is and isn’t should also come into the conversation. It is a resource, just like our parks, that can and should be utilised for the public good. We can’t just leave it to the likes of Dave to show us what can be.
Actually, maybe we can.
Words: Kevin Brannigan
Photos: Sean Breithaupt