CRAIC IN A KAYAK

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - ESCAPE | DESTINATION IRELAND - ME­GAN HOL­BECK

Our con­voy of bright plas­tic kayaks is strung along the empty Lif­fey, fol­low­ing a speed­boat loaded with mu­si­cians and in­stru­ments. The sun is shin­ing, the river­banks busy with tourists and lo­cals. Ahead, the el­e­gant white arch of Ha’penny Bridge crosses the river, form­ing a fin­ish line bustling with spec­ta­tors. Some­one yells: “Pad­dle faster: they’ll catch you!” There’s more bar­rack­ing, the pace quick­ens un­til it’s like dodgems on wa­ter, along with du­bi­ous steer­ing, low-speed col­li­sions and a sound­track of splash­ing, laugh­ing and dif­fer­ent ac­cents.

There’s not much more Ir­ish than mu­sic, craic and the Lif­fey, but it takes a ge­nius to com­bine them into a two-hour pack­age. That ge­nius is Darinka Mon­tico, of­fice man­ager of Dublin’s City Kayak­ing, who came up with the idea af­ter men­tion­ing the amaz­ing acous­tics un­der the bridges to a mu­si­cian friend. “It’s not a nor­mal kayak tour,” she says. “It com­bines mu­sic with pad­dling, scenery, po­etry and the city to show off the cre­ative Ir­ish per­son­al­ity.”

I’m an hour into Mu­sic Un­der the Bridges, which is one of those spe­cial trips that gives out­siders a glimpse of what it’s like to ac­tu­ally live in a city. And Dublin looks good: there’s happy pad­dling along the Lif­fey, ad­mir­ing the fa­mous bridges and beau­ti­ful streets. In­stant friends are made as you “bump into” peo­ple along the way: the dou­ble sit-on-top kayaks are sta­ble and easy to use, but the steer­ing (and pad­dlers!) can be slow to re­act.

Then it’s cul­ture time as we raft up and bob un­der old bridges as mu­sic echoes around, the mu­si­cians play­ing wa­ter-themed songs.

The trips, which cost €39 (about $63), run weekly in sum­mer but each is unique, with mu­si­cians, pad­dlers, weather and the tides de­ter­min­ing the flavour. This Satur­day af­ter­noon we have two reg­u­lars: Fin Divilly and poet John Cum­mins are in a band called Shakalak (re­named Shakayak when afloat) and play us orig­i­nal num­bers and Ir­ish clas­sics, with some spo­ken word thrown in.

It’s Ni­amh Doolin’s first speed­boat per­for­mance, and her voice echoes beau­ti­fully as she sings of loss, love and the wa­ter. It’s not just the mu­sic though: a big part of the magic is the ban­ter, hu­mour, warmth and sto­ries, all flavoured with a love of Dublin.

City Kayak­ing (citykayak­ing.com) sprang from this af­fec­tion for the city and its most fa­mous river. Six years ago two keen pad­dlers, Jonathan O’Brien and Michael Byrne, be­gan run­ning kayak tours in an bid to build a com­mu­nity around the unloved Lif­fey.

While I wouldn’t drink it, the wa­ter is fine, although sur­pris­ingly quiet – dur­ing our twohour trip we don’t en­counter an­other boat. This means there’s no stress with our hap­haz­ard steer­ing, and no jostling for the best lis­ten­ing spots un­der the bridges. There are three ses­sions un­der three dif­fer­ent bridges, each last­ing about 15 min­utes. Half the chal­lenge is to stay in the right spot, es­pe­cially un­der the low arches of O’Con­nell Bridge.

Luck­ily we’ve got help, other­wise there would be bumps, bruises and no one within earshot of the mu­sic. Jonathan not only drives the speed­boat, he keeps it (and the 10 kayaks) in place dur­ing per­for­mances. With his long hair and beard, he looks like Thor of The Avengers, when braced off a bridge to keep the fleet still.

It’s not only Ir­ish cul­ture we ab­sorb, but its his­tory. The lo­ca­tion of City Kayak­ing’s jetty helps: look­ing up­stream you can see the mas­sive cruise lin­ers in Dublin Port, part of the boom­ing mod­ern tourism in­dus­try. This con­trasts with cen­turies past when the traf­fic was the other way, as mil­lions of Ir­ish left due to famine, war and the econ­omy.

Moored next door is the Jeanie John­ston “cof­fin ship” replica (jeaniejohn­ston.ie), now a mu­seum. It gives in­sight into the des­per­ate con­di­tions dur­ing the Potato Famine (18451852) when about a mil­lion em­i­grants left Ire­land in sim­i­lar boats head­ing for North Amer­ica. (An­other mil­lion peo­ple died, from a population of only eight mil­lion.)

Just up the road is the huge EPIC, the Ir­ish Emi­gra­tion Mu­seum (epic­chq.com), which tells the story of Ir­ish di­as­pora and its huge ef­fect. Then there’s the his­tory along the route it­self. The neo­clas­si­cal Cus­toms House stretches along the north bank, with a tur­bu­lent past that in­cludes be­ing burnt down by the IRA dur­ing the Ir­ish War of In­de­pen­dence.

The seven bridges we pad­dle un­der each have a story. O’Con­nell Bridge was named af­ter Daniel O’Con­nell, “the Lib­er­a­tor” who achieved Catholic eman­ci­pa­tion in 1829, while Rosie Hack­ett Bridge (named af­ter a union ac­tivist) is the new­est to cross the Lif­fey and the only bridge in the city cen­tre named af­ter a woman.

Then it’s time for a drink. Pub crawls af­ter the pad­dle are par for the course, so keep your plans flex­i­ble and your af­ter­noon free.

THE WRITER TRAV­ELLED COURTESY OF TOURISM IRE­LAND AND FAILTE IRE­LAND, IRE­LAND.COM

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