The Liffey is filthy, but can you imagine if it was clean enough to swim in?

Game Changers: Making the Liffey swimmable could be life-changing for communities who don’t live in wealthy seaside neighbourhoods

“Would you swim in that water?” an older woman asked a boy as the sun shone on the strong arms of the women swimmers during the Liffey Swim last month. At Watling Street Bridge, the slowest swimmers were started first so the last (and fastest) woman sliced through the water with thrilling speed.

“Yes, if it was a sunny day,” the boy answered with a smile. The woman shuddered. But I was with him. I’d love to climb down one of the iron ladders and have a gentle dip in the Liffey at high tide, not least because it’s five minutes from my home. It was beautiful to see so many swimmers in a waterbody that has been predominantly empty of bodies all the time I’ve lived in the city.

Lots of people around me on the bridge talked about how filthy the river was and how brave the women were to be diving in. And a question stayed with me afterwards. Why are we okay with our majestic Anna Livia being a polluted soup that only the bravest or maddest will enter? She’s the vital artery of life that was here before our city. How are we okay with this?

Copenhagen is a city with a tidal river that is a clean and healthy amenity. In 1992 the Danish city spent the money to separate rainwater from sewage, a process we won’t complete until 2025. Our Victorian sewage system combines sewage and storm drains into overflow tanks that are regularly overwhelmed by downpours, dumping untreated sewage into the bay.


In the Danish capital you can swim in swimming-pool-sized timber-decked bathing areas dotted up the river. Wild swimming access is an equality issue. A move to make the Liffey swimmable could be life-changing for communities who don’t live in the wealthy seaside hoods.

Paris is spending €1.4 billion to make the Seine an outdoor pool for three Olympic swimming events next year. The money will be spent on a giant underground storm water tank and the authorities aim to connect into the sewage system the more than 20,000 homes and houseboats that discharge wastewater into the river. The hope is for an Olympic legacy of public swimming areas to be opened to Parisians in 2025.

In a recent EPA study of the Liffey catchment, with all its waterbodies, only one factor was improving. Forestry was having less of an effect. Agriculture, industrial and urban wastewater are showing no improvements. The health of our water system is our health. Imagine how much better we could feel with a swimmable Liffey and Grand Canal Basin for good measure? Maybe Anna Livia needs legal representation. Maybe we should flow it into the Four Courts as a living entity to ask to be reborn in pristine health.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests