If the Irish are ‘freshwater people’, we should start acting like it

Many of our rivers run free with raw sewage, polluted by 34 towns and villages

The old stream at the ford. Illustration: Michael Viney

The old stream at the ford. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

The brilliant overture to summer has raised the wild grasses knee-high and taken the first outriders of the Wild Atlantic Way down the boreen to the sea.

The car park has been waiting for them, a discouragement to barbecues on the protected machair or 4x4 trespass on the dunes. To construct it meant bridging and culverting a stream from the mountain and thus obliterating the boreen’s dip through a ford, made for tractors, carts and horses.

Approached in winter, the dog and I could find the stream in flood, leaping over its low rock waterfall and rolling across the boreen in a surge of waves and shifting cobbles. As the sentinel heron billowed off in the wind, I’d wade through the ford while gazing firmly ahead, the dog groping for a footing in the flow.

Summer brought the wildlife to the ford as to a festive place. Sand martins swooped in to dig nest-holes in the bank, a dipper dived and walked below the waterfall. There was a sandpiper paddling and once, in the grass above, a whole chorus line of butterfly orchids, white and fragrant.

The Camlin has beauty along its meanders. It is also remarkably healthy, with a full assembly of river creatures great and small

This was how a hill stream could be on its way to the strand and how, for the few years, I knew and loved it. The waterfall is now a dry ledge, the wildlife gone. For farmer and writer John Connell, however, two days on a river have made a book and his own fond package of wildlife memories.

Connell is an emigrant who, returning to Co Longford, wrote The Cow Book, about his immersion into the family farm. More recently, in the Covid lockdown, with “the world grown quiet”, he recognised a chance to realise a long-held promise as “a voyage of the heart”. Finding an old friend at home, he recruited him to help paddle a canoe down the nearby Camlin river, from Ballinalee through Longford to the Shannon.

Gosh indeed

The canoe, in fire-engine red, with great upturned points fore and aft, needed right and left paddlers, so one oar was taken by Pete Geoghegan, a journalist, geographer and amiable partner allowed encouragements such as “Gosh, that’s beautiful”.

The Camlin has beauty along its meanders. It is also remarkably healthy, with a full assembly of river creatures great and small. Mayflies, dragonflies, swallows and kingfishers weave about the bow. Roach and trout swim under it. There is even a surprising colony of freshwater mussels. Each gets its factual exposition, along with local history and myth that help to make the Camlin “The Stream of Everything”, the title of Connell’s new book, published by Gill.

Its author, who is in his 30s, has returned from a travelled and eventful youth, leavened by a spell of dark depression. This has made good, philosophical thoughts worthwhile, and Connell offers plenty, along with the simple small talk and eventful narration that help to lend the book its warmth.

Some of the happenings belong to novice mariners, such as coping with gusts of wind that rush the canoe into lacerating, overhanging branches, or learning how to reverse the craft and nudge it into circles. There are forbidding passages between high, unscalable forestry banks and sudden, uncharted obstacles in spiky fallen trees.

“We are the freshwater people,” writes Connell of the Irish. “This is our culture and our lifeblood.” And there are signs that this may one day be true. Almost half the Republic’s 3,000-odd rivers may still be ecologically bad, but the rest have been dwindling quite fast over the past decade of concern.

Raw sewage

Among the most intractable are the rivers that 34 towns and villages pollute with raw sewage every day, a problem the Environmental Protection Authority says will take another decade to cure. To speed it up will need communities to become, indeed, “freshwater people”, agitating for and involved in the improvement of their rivers.

River trusts are community-led charities started by local people. There are now 10 of them in the Republic and a further seven in the North

The EPA’s Catchments Unit and the Local Authority Waters Programme have put strong support behind the highly energetic Rivers Trust, a cultural and expert import from the UK’s environmental movement.

River trusts are community-led charities started by local people. There are now 10 of them in the Republic and a further seven in the North, the rivers and their catchments covering almost a quarter of the island. A cross-Border partnership aims for better protection of the land and streams feeding the river Derg and the Erne.

In a new Rivers Trust appointment, developments in Ireland are served by Dr Constanze O’Toole, a freshwater ecologist of German origin who studied at TCD. She will work with local community groups forming new trusts. For a map of existing ones, go to catchments.ie.

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