River tale is a Suir thing

The River Book: A Celebration of the Suir

The Suir will be familiar as one of the Three Sisters (along with the Nore and the Barrow) and flows through Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny, Limerick and Cork. Photographer Paddy Dwan and poet Mark Roper have come up with a book that’s not so much a run-of-the-mill guide book as a textual and visual meditation on the many aspects of the river.

The narrative, which combines prose, poetry and first-hand testimony from people familiar with the river, tracks the Suir from Fiddown to the sea itself, a natural course to follow. There’s a nice tension between the gentle pastoral scenery on offer on many pages, some of them visually stunning studies at dawn or twilight, and the urban sprawl of Waterford, the main city on the river.

Striking photographs run in parallel with well-selected text from the likes of Edmund Spenser and The Great Parchment Book of Waterford, both strands combining for an unusual effect.

Dwan and Roper capture the ebb and eddy of one of Ireland’s most important waterways and those who have made their home on its banks, including Waterford city’s famous wild goats:

“Buttercup-buttered meadows on Bilberry Rock. The goats up there, their coiled horns, their wise eyes watching over the city.”

The book also features snapshots of the Viking city’s past, including some entertaining verse about one of the city’s legendary conduits which also refers to the many Waterfordians who made their lives on the banks of rivers further afield:

“Last night as I lay on my bunk I had a pleasant dream,I dreamt I was in Waterford town going down by Denny’s Lane,With Maggie Ryan upon my knee and a jug of rum in my hand, But when I awoke I hadn’t a smoke on the Banks of Newfoundland.”

There is also a lovely account of a child mistaking the ESB meter-reader for his father, a more innocent story than it might appear.

It’s not all rose-tinted nostalgia and beautiful bucolic imagery, however, with the daily reality of a river’s life also represented. There is first-hand evidence of the drug problem in Waterford city and one passage eloquently captures the less appealing flotsam a river carries on its journey:

“Sewage, blood, offal, effluent, tannery leavings, chemicals, bodies, rotted piers and piles and wharves and boats, metals, arsenic and mercury locked into the mud. The river’s taken all of it. It flows through the city, dark, experienced. Its hands are dirty. It knows what’s expected of it.”

Many other Suirside locations are included in the book, some of which will be fondly remembered by Waterford natives — the old iron foundry at Bilberry, for instance, and the Red Iron Bridge, gingerly traversed by many a child growing up in the city.

There is also one humorous anecdote which in turn highlights how we take the precious resources of our rivers for granted until it is too late:

“My uncle would take my brother fishing, between Passage and Wexford. Soon as they caught a salmon, my uncle would say, ‘Come on, we’ll go over to Ballyhack’, and he’d bring the salmon in to Wattie Byrne’s pub and put it in behind the counter and they’d be drinking until the salmon ran out! It was like his credit card, they’d drink until the price of it was gone.”

These are only a few of the highlights of an imaginative and beautifully presented book. A river flows past many banks on its way to the sea. Dwan and Roper have done well to convey the variety of landscapes which are watered by the mighty Suir.

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