Finding the Liffey’s source: Anna Livia takes her first steps
Christopher Moriarty’s definitive guide offers wonderful detail on almost every kilometre of the river’s journey from Wicklow’s blanket bogs to Poolbeg Lighthouse
Christopher Moriarty, author of ‘The River Liffey: History and Heritage’, draws on natural, social and political history, and often on literature, to tell the river’s story.
It would challenge even a painter like Turner to capture the subtle variations of milky light that suffuse the mouth of the Liffey, seen from Dublin’s South Wall under a mild December midday sky.
Christopher Moriarty surveys the scene, long familiar to him, with as much delight as if he were seeing it for the first time.
“Standing here,” he points out, “you can see one of the oldest landscapes in Ireland, Howth Head, and one of the youngest, the Bull Island, in one view.” He swivels around the big-sky, big-water panorama to the east and then south-west. He discusses the geological ages represented in the Wicklow and Dublin coastlines as if they were the months of last year.
A flight of small wading birds hurtles over us for an instant and then disappears, invisible against the water. I rashly venture the opinion that the birds are dunlin. “Perhaps they are knot,” he suggests gently, and he is right.
He turns to the west, upriver, and indicates old and new features of Dublin’s port and docks. There are the now-iconic, once-hated, red-and-white chimneys of the old ESB power station, which he campaigned to save from demolition. There is the wastewater plant, which he agrees is a singularly ugly building, but whose success in reducing pollution in the bay he praises very highly.
“Look,” he says, turning again in a full circle. “Out there towards the sea and the mountain horizons, everything is ancient, calm, natural . . . and back up the river, everything is industrial, it’s all human busyness.” He pauses. “You know,” he says simply, “I love it all.”
That passion for places, fired by a deep curiosity about everything from geology through plants and birds to architecture, history and even industrial processes, permeates this remarkable Dubliner’s life and work. He spent his career as a biologist with various State fisheries agencies. His speciality was eels, of which he has written Eels: A Natural and Unnatural History.
Rivers offer him appropriate scope for his wide-ranging research. He has written an invaluable guide to the Dodder, and was a co-author of The Book of the Liffey, published by Wolfhound Press, to mark Dublin’s millennium. But now he has published what may prove to be the definitive guide to Anna Livia, The River Liffey: History and Heritage (Collins). Moriarty offers wonderfully multi-dimensional detail – and fine illustrations – on almost every kilometre of its journey from Wicklow’s blanket bogs to Poolbeg Lighthouse.
He draws on natural, social and political history, and often on literature, to tell the river’s story. Anyone writing about the Liffey has to reference Finnegans Wake. Moriarty has the advantage of being able to borrow extensively from a lucid and funny account of Joyce’s baffling masterpiece by his co-author on the earlier Liffey book, Gerard O’Flaherty.
Moriarty’s gaze returns from the city’s docklands to the mountain skyline, searching for a sign of the river’s source, where Joyce’s young washerwomen chattered on Kippure bog, describing how the infant stream “fell over a spillway before she found her stride and lay and wriggled in all the stagnant black pools . . .”
We can’t see the source itself, of course, and neither could Joyce have located it from the South Wall when he wrote the Wake. But Moriarty’s scan finds the faint line of the top of the transmission tower on Kippure’s summit. So we can, in fact, find the precise horizon beyond which the bog waters will begin to gather into a single visible stream, and eventually flow past us here, to the sea.
The previous weekend, I had sought out these very early stages of the river, with the help of Moriarty’s book. I skipped looking for the source itself, which is a rather arbitrary notion in such a shape-shifting wetland. Moriarty rightly talks about “sources” rather than “source” in his chapter on the Liffey’s origins, and painstakingly traces a dozen rivulet tributaries on the boggy slopes of its high catchment.
It’s very easy, on the road from the Sally Gap towards Kilbride, to find the lovely adolescent Anna Livia as she takes her first big steps
But it’s very easy, on the road from the Sally Gap towards Kilbride, to find the lovely adolescent Anna Livia as she takes her first big steps. Soon she is striding along quite fast, beneath the almost exaggeratedly romantic landscape of the Coronation Plantation, the closest landscape in Ireland to the Victorian ideal of the Scottish highlands.
The going is tough here, hiking into the first obvious point of entry off the road. High-stepping over robust tussocks of purple moor-grass provides more exercise than most gym workouts. Still, it’s worth struggling on for a bit, taking in the golden peaty water frothing silver over granite races, and the gaunt silhouettes of Scots pines, marking the plantation’s highest reaches on the far bank.
Just a little further down the road, a neat white-washed house indicates much easier access. A lane leads across the river, now several metres wide, and offers beautiful views of fine oaks down along the banks, and more Scots pine stands climbing the hills.
Beautiful but melancholy
Beautiful but melancholy, and not only because of the day’s lingering mists. There is a sense of being in a ‘ghost forest’, because there is little sign of this magical woodland regenerating. Overgrazing, especially by Wicklow’s large population of wild deer, prevents seedlings becoming saplings across the county, as Moriarty points out.
This is part of Wicklow National Park, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service has tried planting oaks in deer-proof tubes to restore the woodland. But there are signs that some deer have learned to scrabble up the tubes with their front hooves, and nip off the emerging shoots, even several feet above the ground. Moriarty also mentions the plantation is home to rare birds like whinchats and crossbills, so its demise would be a significant loss to biodiversity.
Nearby, the sharp angles of a formal obelisk stand out oddly against the soft curves of the bog. A stone plaque purports to tell the story of the plantation, but most of the inscription has long been illegible. We need to refer to Moriarty’s book, and he had had to refer to a writer from 1912, to find the full text.
The plantation commemorates the coronation of “his Most Gracious Majesty King William IV” in 1831, was initiated by the Marquis of Downshire, and promised timber for the “improvement of the County and the Benefit of the Labouring Classes”.
Tellingly, however, the inscription ends – and this bit is still clearly visible in situ today – with a blank date to be filled in for the completion of the plantation, which never happened.
It’s a long, long way to the South Wall from here, via the lakelands of Blessington, the farmlands and parklands of Kildare and Dublin, and finally through Anna Livia’s great urban thoroughfare. But with Moriarty’s book as a companion, it becomes a fascinating journey to envisage over years, a kind of informal Leinster camino.
How to fall in love with a river
“My first encounter with the Liffey left a lasting memory. It must have been before the second World War because my father had taken the family by car to the picnic place at Ballysmuttan [Co Wicklow]. Pinkeen-net in hand, I paddled in the shallows until I tripped, fell flat on my face and was rapidly removed by startled parents from the embrace of Anna Liffey.”
Moriarty’s family then built a holiday cottage nearby:
“There we spent Easter and summer holidays and many, many weekends for the next 12 years. And there it might have ended, had I not been awarded a studentship in 1958 to investigate the ways of the fishes of the [nearby Blessington] lakes.”