My home by the Lee: nav­i­gat­ing Ire­land’s ‘Venice of the North’

As con­tro­versy rages on over plans for flood de­fences along the scenic city banks of Cork’s River Lee, JOE O’SHEA en­joys a new an­gle on his na­tive town from an urban kayak­ing trip

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - ON THE ROAD - EN­GI­NEER­ING FEAT

On a gor­geous sum­mer’s evening, with the city above us and of­fice work­ers lazily wend­ing their way home down the quays, we pad­dle slowly un­der a 200-year-old bridge, watch­ing the light dance on the stone vault above. This is my home town. And as Sam Cooke fa­mously sang, I was born by the river (but not, thank­fully, in a “lit­tle tent”).

My late mother’s fam­ily lived on a nar­row laneway, Keyser’s Hill, thought to be the old­est “street” in Cork, with a name de­rived from the Vik­ing or Norse word for “the pas­sage lead­ing down to the wa­ter­front”.

We grew up a stone’s throw away and when we were kids, there were still two broth­ers, city fish­er­men with old clinker-built whale­boats, who lived on the lane.

The Flynns wore sea boots and peaked caps and had a grim side­line as the men who were called out by the city when there was a body in the river. They knew the cur­rents and the snag points. We would see them from the class­rooms of our school on Sul­li­van’s Quay. Once, they pulled the body of a 13-year-old class­mate from the river as we looked on.

The river and its quays and docks were al­ways there when we were grow­ing up. But I don’t think 15-year-old me could have imag­ined I would one day be pad­dling a kayak past City Hall, or view­ing the steep Vic­to­rian ter­races of that shabby dowa­ger Mon­tenotte from un­der the old swing bridge by the bus sta­tion.

I’ve re­cently come back to Cork city and old, bat­tered Bar­rack Street, hav­ing left when I’d just turned 18. Back then, in the 1980s, Cork was a city that had for­got­ten its story, as a great Mer­can­tile Port, once the main pro­vi­sion­ing port of the Royal Navy, a place that had al­ways lived through its river and epic har­bour.

The con­nec­tion with the river and har­bour had been bro­ken. The city, suf­fer­ing from long eco­nomic de­cline, had turned its back on the Lee and the At­lantic. In a cen­tury-long sleep, Cork had for­got­ten.

I’ve re­turned at a time of ma­jor change. The city is com­ing back to life, re­dis­cov­er­ing the river and the har­bour. The stone-built ware­houses and quay walls are be­ing seen in a new light. Our tribal mem­ory of sea­far­ing, trad­ing, be­ing open to the world, is reawak­en­ing.

So on a stun­ning, blue-sky evening at the start of a heat­wave, my­self and my wife Holly (orig­i­nally from the Cur­ragh, now in Cork via New York, Dublin and Lon­don) are about to go out on to our river for the first time.

The good folks from At­lantic Sea Kayak­ing, who do reg­u­lar urban kayak­ing trips from the cen­tre of Cork, are about to show us our city from an an­gle we have never en­joyed be­fore, pad­dling un­der the bridges I’ve crossed a thou­sand times, float­ing by the gi­ant sea-go­ing tugs moored by the iconic (for me, any­how) Port Of Cork sign that wel­comes vis­i­tors to the city.

Fa­ther-and-son team Jim and Naoise Kennedy run kayak­ing trips, for tourists, lo­cals and cor­po­rate groups, year-round from the float­ing pon­toon dock in front of the Clay­ton Ho­tel across from City Hall.

You don’t need to have much ex­pe­ri­ence in a boat, the kayaks are sta­ble, easy to pi­lot and if you are wor­ried about, say, float­ing down har­bour and end­ing up bob­bing around in the At­lantic, one of the guides can join you in the two-per­son craft.

As the evening is so stun­ning and the river is calm, we take the ro­man­tic op­tion of shar­ing a kayak for our pad­dle un­der the bridges.

With a wry smile, our guide Naoise ex­plains that while a lot of cou­ples opt to share a kayak, the skit­tish craft can put a strain on their to­geth­er­ness and team­work skills.

“Some peo­ple call them Divorce Boats,” he says, with the air of a young man who has seen some things.

Risk­ing re­la­tion­ship-break­down, as well as an un­sched­uled swim, we scramble into the kayaks and start pad­dling slowly into the mid­dle of the chan­nel.

And it is out on the water, at low tide and 20ft be­low the quay walls, that I get a star­tling new per­spec­tive on my old town. It’s al­most as if Cork was meant to be seen from the river, with the quays above and the steep, ter­raced hills look­ing al­most Mediter­ranean in the warm evening sun.

We pad­dle down to where the two chan­nels of the Lee meet, the last point on the is­land that is Cork City cen­tre and then head up­river to­wards St Pa­trick’s Bridge.

Pad­dling past a gi­ant ocean-go­ing tug — one of the be­he­moths serv­ing the Kin­sale gas field — we feel pretty tiny in our lit­tle craft. But the light, re­flect­ing off the water, danc­ing on the stone and metal vaults of the bridges above us, is spec­tac­u­lar.

Urban kayak­ing and ca­noe­ing have be­come hugely pop­u­lar in cities like Am­s­ter­dam, Venice and Syd­ney, cities that are built on the water. And it makes a lot of sense in Cork, a city that started re­fer­ring to it­self (in true Lee­side style) as the “Venice of the North” in the mid-1700s.

Back then, it was still a city of canals and wa­ter­ways — what are to­day main streets like Pa­trick’s Street and the South Mall were then river chan­nels that al­lowed ships to dock right up in the heart of the city.

Lo­cal his­to­rian and city coun­cil­lor Kieran McCarthy has spent many years look­ing at the history of the Lee and will pub­lish his lat­est book — on the river and the har­bour — in Au­gust.

And, he says, Cork peo­ple be­gan re­fer­ring to their city as the Venice of the North back when the city had more canals and wa­ter­ways than streets.

“Still to­day, if you dug down un­der Pa­trick Street or the Grand Pa­rade, you would find old wa­ter­ways, cul­verts, an­cient de­fences against flood wa­ters,” says Kieran.

“Cork city is build on 17 or 18 marshy is­lands, it re­ally was a huge feat of en­gi­neer­ing to put a city there at all. You could say Dublin is built along the banks of a river, Cork is built in the mid­dle of one”.

Our city has been fight­ing against flood and tide since the Vikings estab­lished the first set­tle­ments, and Kieran points to re­cent ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs which have re­vealed prim­i­tive flood de­fences and at­tempts to shore up river­banks made by the Norse­men.

“The story of the city is re­ally the story of that re­la­tion­ship with the river and the har­bour, it

You could say Dublin is built along the banks ofariver,Cork­is­built in the mid­dle of one

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