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
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
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