Christo­pher Mo­ri­arty’s de­fin­i­tive guide of­fers won­der­ful de­tail on al­most ev­ery kilo­me­tre of the river’s jour­ney from Wick­low’s blan­ket bogs to Pool­beg Light­house

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Paddy Wood­worth

It would chal­lenge even a pain­ter like Turner to cap­ture the sub­tle vari­a­tions of milky light that suf­fuse the mouth of the Lif­fey, seen from Dublin’s South Wall un­der a mild De­cem­ber mid­day sky.

Christo­pher Mo­ri­arty sur­veys the scene, long fa­mil­iar to him, with as much de­light as if he were see­ing it for the first time.

“Stand­ing here,” he points out, “you can see one of the old­est land­scapes in Ire­land, Howth Head, and one of the youngest, the Bull Is­land, in one view.” He swivels around the big-sky, big-wa­ter panorama to the east and then south­west. He dis­cusses the ge­o­log­i­cal ages rep­re­sented in the Wick­low and Dublin coast­lines as if they were the months of last year.

A flight of small wad­ing birds hur­tles over us for an in­stant and then dis­ap­pears, in­vis­i­ble against the wa­ter. I rashly ven­ture the opin­ion that the birds are dun­lin. “Per­haps they are knot,” he sug­gests gen­tly, and he is right.

He turns to the west, up­river, and in­di­cates old and new fea­tures of Dublin’s port and docks. There are the now-iconic, once-hated, red-and-white chim­neys of the old ESB power sta­tion, which he cam­paigned to save from de­mo­li­tion. There is the waste­water plant, which he agrees is a sin­gu­larly ugly build­ing, but whose suc­cess in re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion in the bay he praises very highly.

“Look,” he says, turn­ing again in a full cir­cle. “Out there to­wards the sea and the moun­tain hori­zons, ev­ery­thing is an­cient, calm, nat­u­ral . . . and back up the river, ev­ery­thing is in­dus­trial, it’s all hu­man busy­ness.” He pauses. “You know,” he says sim­ply, “I love it all.”

That pas­sion for places, fired by a deep cu­rios­ity about ev­ery­thing from ge­ol­ogy through plants and birds to ar­chi­tec­ture, his­tory and even in­dus­trial pro­cesses, per­me­ates this re­mark­able Dubliner’s life and work. He spent his ca­reer as a bi­ol­o­gist with var­i­ous State fisher- ies agen­cies. His spe­cial­ity was eels, of which he has writ­ten Eels: A Nat­u­ral and Un­nat­u­ral His­tory.

Rivers of­fer him ap­pro­pri­ate scope for his wide-rang­ing re­search. He has writ­ten an in­valu­able guide to the Dod­der, and was a co-au­thor of The Book of the Lif­fey, pub­lished by Wolfhound Press, to mark Dublin’s mil­len­nium. But now he has pub­lished what may prove to be the de­fin­i­tive guide to Anna Livia, The River Lif­fey: His­tory and Her­itage (Collins). Mo­ri­arty of­fers won­der­fully mul­ti­di­men­sional de­tail – and fine il­lus­tra­tions – on al­most ev­ery kilo­me­tre of its jour­ney from Wick­low’s blan­ket bogs to Pool­beg Light­house.

Fin­negans Wake

He draws on nat­u­ral, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, and of­ten on lit­er­a­ture, to tell the river’s story. Any­one writ­ing about the Lif­fey has to ref­er­ence Fin­negans Wake. Mo­ri­arty has the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to bor­row ex­ten­sively from a lu­cid and funny ac­count of Joyce’s baf­fling mas­ter­piece by his co-au­thor on the ear­lier Lif­fey book, Ger­ard O’Fla­herty.

Mo­ri­arty’s gaze re­turns from the city’s dock­lands to the moun­tain sky­line, search­ing for a sign of the river’s source, where Joyce’s young wash­er­women chat­tered on Kip­pure bog, de­scrib­ing how the in­fant stream “fell over a spill­way be­fore she found her stride and lay and wrig­gled in all the stag­nant black pools . . .”

We can’t see the source it­self, of course, and nei­ther could Joyce have lo­cated it from the South Wall when he wrote Wake. But Mo­ri­arty’s scan finds the faint line of the top of the trans­mis­sion tower on Kip­pure’s sum­mit. So we can, in fact, find the pre­cise hori­zon be­yond which the bog wa­ters will be­gin to gather into a sin­gle vis­i­ble stream, and even­tu­ally flow past us here, to the sea.

The pre­vi­ous week­end, I had sought out these very early stages of the river, with the help of Mo­ri­arty’s book. I skipped look­ing for the source it­self, which is a rather ar­bi­trary no­tion in such a shape-shift­ing wet­land. Mo­ri­arty rightly talks about “sources” rather than “source” in his chap­ter on the Lif­fey’s ori­gins, and painstak­ingly traces a dozen rivulet trib­u­taries on the boggy slopes of its high catch­ment.

But it’s very easy, on the road from the Sally Gap to­wards Kil­bride, to find the lovely ado­les­cent Anna Livia as she takes her first big steps. Soon she is strid­ing along quite fast, be­neath the al­most ex­ag­ger­at­edly ro­man­tic land­scape of the Corona­tion Plan­ta­tion, the clos­est land­scape in Ire­land to the Vic­to­rian ideal of the Scot­tish highlands.

The go­ing is tough here, hik­ing into the first ob­vi­ous point of en­try off the road. High- step­ping over ro­bust tus­socks of purple moor- grass pro­vides more ex­er­cise than most gym work­outs. Still, it’s worth strug­gling on for a bit, tak­ing in the golden peaty wa­ter froth­ing sil­ver over gran­ite races, and the gaunt sil­hou­ettes of Scots pines, mark­ing the plan­ta­tion’s high­est reaches on the far bank.

Just a lit­tle fur­ther down the road, a neat white- washed house in­di­cates much eas­ier ac­cess. A lane leads across the river, now sev­eral me­tres wide, and of­fers beau­ti­ful views of fine oaks down along the banks, and more Scots pine stands climb­ing the hills.

Beau­ti­ful but melan­choly

Beau­ti­ful but melan­choly, and not only be­cause of the day’s lin­ger­ing mists. There is a sense of be­ing in a “ghost for­est”, be­cause there is lit­tle sign of this mag­i­cal wood­land re­gen­er­at­ing. Over­graz­ing, es­pe­cially by Wick­low’s large pop­u­la­tion of wild deer, pre­vents seedlings be­com­ing saplings across the county, as Mo­ri­arty points out. This is part of Wick­low Na­tional Park, and the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice has tried plant- ing oaks in deer-proof tubes to re­store the wood­land. But there are signs that some deer have learned to scrab­ble up the tubes with their front hooves, and nip off the emerg­ing shoots, even sev­eral feet above the ground. Mo­ri­arty also men­tions the plan­ta­tion is home to rare birds such as whin­chats and cross­bills, so its demise would be a sig­nif­i­cant loss to bio­di­ver­sity.

Nearby, the sharp an­gles of a for­mal obelisk stand out oddly against the soft curves of the bog. A stone plaque pur­ports to tell the story of the plan­ta­tion, but most of the in­scrip­tion has long been il­leg­i­ble. We need to re­fer to Mo­ri­arty’s book, and he had had to re­fer to a writer from 1912, to find the full text.

The plan­ta­tion com­mem­o­rates the corona­tion of “his Most Gra­cious Majesty King William IV” in 1831. It was ini­ti­ated by the Marquis of Down­shire, and promised tim­ber for the “im­prove­ment of the County and the Ben­e­fit of the Labour­ing Classes”.

Tellingly, how­ever, the in­scrip­tion ends – and this bit is still clearly vis­i­ble in situ to­day – with a blank date to be filled in for the com­ple­tion of the plan­ta­tion, which never hap­pened.

It’s a long, long way to the South Wall from here, via the lake­lands of Bless­ing­ton, the farm­lands and park­lands of Kil­dare and Dublin, and fi­nally through Anna Livia’s great ur­ban thor­ough­fare. But with Mo­ri­arty’s book as a com­pan­ion, it be­comes a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney to en­vis­age over years, a kind of in­for­mal Le­in­ster camino.

“My first en­counter with the Lif­fey left a last­ing me­mory. It must have been be­fore the se­cond World War be­cause my fa­ther had taken the fam­ily by car to the pic­nic place at Ballysmut­tan [ Co Wick­low]. Pin­keen-net in hand, I pad­dled in the shal­lows un­til I tripped, fell flat on my face and was rapidly re­moved by star­tled par­ents from the em­brace of Anna Lif­fey.”

Mo­ri­arty’s fam­ily then built a hol­i­day cot­tage nearby: “There we spent Easter and sum­mer hol­i­days and many, many week­ends for the next 12 years. And there it might have ended, had I not been awarded a stu­dentship in 1958 to in­ves­ti­gate the ways of the fishes of the [nearby Bless­ing­ton] lakes.”

Christo­pher Mo­ri­arty (be­low), au­thor of The River Lif­fey: His­tory and Her­itage, draws on nat­u­ral, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal his­tory, and of­ten on lit­er­a­ture, to tell the river’s story

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