A Suir thing

THERE are arguments, sometimes heated arguments, over the claim to be the second-largest river in Ireland.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that it’s often hard to decide exactly where a river starts or at what point in its estuary it finally ends.

But everyone accepts that the Shannon, with an official length of 386 kilometres, is the longest river in Ireland, or indeed, in these islands.

The three contestants for the second prize are the Barrow, the Suir and the Erne. The official length of the Barrow is 190 kilometres and of the Suir 183 – which means the Suir loses out by a mere seven kilometres.

The Erne is a paltry 120 but it has a greater volume of water due to the many large lakes along its course.

According to this, the claim made inside the front cover of Michael Fewer’s new book Rambling Down the Suir that the river is “reckoned by many to be the second largest after the Shannon” looks dubious. But this does not alter the fact that it is a mighty river and does not detract from Fewer’s achievement.

The book is an account of a detailed exploration of the river from its source on the Devil’s Bit Mountain in Co Tipperary to its mouth in Waterford Harbour. Many different forms of transport are used but whenever possible Fewer reverts to his favourite one, walking. It is well illustrated with the author’s fine photographs, drawings and maps as well historical material.

This includes several reproductions of drawings and paintings by George Victor Du Noyer who worked for the Geological Survey of Ireland in the mid-19th century and recorded many riverside scenes in very accurate detail.

Fewer is a retired architect so, as you might expect, his comments on the buildings he comes across during his exploration are informed and interesting.

And he doesn’t attempt to conceal his frustration over the many examples of neglect of our built heritage he encounters. His website describes his other main interests as “hill-walking, nature and Irish history”.

This is reflected in the book when he bashes his way determinedly along overgrown pathways along the bank, pausing to enjoy a glimpse of an otter or the beauty of wildflowers in early summer.

The historical detail is immense and ranges between anecdotes from the Middle Ages to little-known stories of the Civil War. Although his knowledge is considerable he dishes out the information in small and easily digestible mouthfuls. The book has a modest tone – cultured but never lecturing.

He also seems to have a gift for creating an instant rapport with strangers and for me the best bits of the book were some of the human encounters in the course of the journey.

I particularly liked the one with a man he met when he was searching for a disused graveyard.

The man proceeded to give him a detailed and voluminous history of the locality that was all completely wrong.

I’d recommend you to buy this book rather than borrow it from the library because, after you’ve read it, you’ll probably find yourself continually taking it back off the shelf to check some point of detail in it.

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