I’ve always been fascinated by Dublin’s River Liffey… people usually cringe when they hear that I swim in the river, and instantly talk of shopping trollies and worse. I have swam and kayaked on the river for years now. I’ve swam through swans and rainbows and marvelled how the river walls muffle the sound of the city. Stroking or paddling into the cool shade of the bridges and looking up to the sky as I pass through underneath, occasionally catching the eye of a curious kid looking down, or on rare occasions a business suit pausing long enough to follow the unexpected movement in the corner of their eye. I always enjoy the glance of surprise that turns to amusement when they see me grinning up. I always smile on the river. Anna Livia makes me smile.
Years ago when I didn’t have a penny, I saved up to buy a National Gallery print of Jack B Yeats’ Island Bridge Regatta. I stared at it for hours and smiled, not knowing how it moves me, but always feeling the greeny cool of the river and falling into dreams of a whimsical past.
Driving home from work in the city along the Strawberry Beds I spent years watching kayakers in the river. I envied them. But never imagined I could join them in their bright, colourful craft. That changed and I started paddling with the Wild Water Kayak Club, learning new skills and finally getting close and personal with the river, racing among electric blue dragonflies and chasing kingfishers in the heart of green, lush country, just 4 miles from O’Connell Bridge. What capital city can claim an amenity like that? I joined the paddlers in the city too, and paddled ‘sit-on-tops’ with the crew at City Kayaks near the famine ship the Jeannie Johnson. I paddled against the tide and paddled beneath the bridges to Heuston Station and beyond to Islandbridge. Building strength and constantly marvelling at the beauty of this river, looking at the city from a whole new perspective.
I took my river skills to Africa to kayak white-water Rapids on the Nile in Uganda, before returning to take part in the Liffey Descent with kayak champ, Kipper Maguire. The longest marathon kayak race in the world and I was part of it. As I heard the crowds cheering while we paddled through the weirs, I felt I had stepped behind the glass, into the deep, greeny waters of Jack B Yeats’ regatta print.
Back at my desk, typing news stories about my river. I always wrote about the Liffey Swim with a thinly veiled envy. I was fascinated by the hardy men and women who tackled the cold tides of the river with just swimsuits, caps and goggles. I was intrigued by the origins of the race nearly a hundred years ago. Designed by a Corporation enginneer to prove the quality of the Lifffey Water. I never imagined I could join the swim but I always wondered what it must be like.
A couple of years ago I went for a Christmas swim with a friend I’d met through a charity pool swim for Rehab. Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville took me by the hand and introduced me to sea swimming. I’m still not sure if I was guided or dragged. But Fergal’s enthusiasm and natural confidence in the water can have that effect. Bouncing around in a big, powerful surf for the first time ever, I felt more alive and confident than I ever imagined possible. I joined the Eastern Bay Swimmers, swam all year round in the sea at Malahide, competed in my 1st ever Leinster Open Sea races and qualified to participate in the Liffey Swim.
I didn’t shout about it, didn’t blog about it, I didn’t feel I’d worked hard enough and I knew I was no where near as strong as the other swimmers around me. I didn’t really think I could do it, but I lined up on the morning of the swim, on a pontoon on the river, opposite the Guinness Gates. I was squashed into a pink swimsuit and felt I was glowing like a neon light. The Lord Mayor was there, my dad (90) was there and hundreds of white-capped ‘real’ swimmers were there. I felt I shouldn’t be. Mortified I stood on the pontoon. Because of my lack of speed in the qualifying sea races I had a pre-race-start, so I got to dive in a couple of seconds before the others. As I hit the water, my embarrassment disappeared in the welcome of the river. I reached out to swim and my smile returned as I realised that for this three seconds, I led the Liffey Swim. One hour and 28 minutes later, I climbed up the Liffey steps at the Custom House and on wobbly legs I hugged my dad. I could tell he was proud, and I suddenly felt my eyes fill with salty emotion. This was a big day for me. I was the last person out of the water but it didn’t matter. Finishing mattered. Fergal later joked that I was the first person to ‘lead’ the Liffey at both ends.
Today I got a Facebook message from a friend, saying they had just bought me a print of the Jack B Yeats’ classic ‘The Liffey Swim’. They hadn’t two pennies to rub together but they had spotted the print, thought of me, and beat down the price to €15. So I now have a second matching Jack B Yeats’ river print to hang on my wall and bring that whimsical Anna Livia smile into my home. When I gaze at my new print, I can look behind the glass and know what it feels to slip beneath the greeny cool currents of the river.
My friend has no idea about my love for the river and these two prints. My friend has no idea that I had one but was missing the other. My friend has no idea of the value of that €15 impulse buy. Which is why I want them to know that life is funny like that. Sometimes a kind gesture has a meaning far greater than one can possibly imagine. Sometimes when you make a ripple, you make waves.
Thank you friend xxxx