The secret life of the Liffey

FOR most people, the Liffey is Dublin’s river.

Hill-walkers and mountain lovers know it as a tumbling Wicklow stream. Few people know the middle reaches. There is little access to them, apart from a handful of bridges. In Kildare, the river mostly flows through private land, including stud farms, where the public is not welcome.

There are a few secret accesses, mostly known to anglers, and they reveal a remarkable river. The Liffey has two great things. The first is that, unlike most midland rivers, it avoided the ravages of arterial drainage during the last century. Another Kildare river, the Slate, is a tributary of the Barrow. It must have been very lovely once, but now it’s a big ditch flowing in straight lines between high banks.

The second saviour of the Liffey is that it’s a source of drinking water for Dublin and Kildare. It never suffered the pollution damage that affected so many rivers of this size.

It’s not pristine. It has dams, hydro-electric generating stations, water-abstraction points and artificial weirs. But it still retains most of its original beauty and it’s bursting with life.

The best way to become intimate with a river is to walk slowly through the water in body-waders, using a trusty, hazel wading-staff as a third leg. I’ve been doing quite a bit of this recently, because this is the height of the trout fly-fishing season.

Fly fishermen are acutely conscious of the life on a river, particularly, of course, the fly life. The Liffey still has the classic, seasonal succession of winged insects hatching from underwater larvae that all limestone rivers once had. Anglers have great names for these flies and wait for them to appear — first, the large spring olive, then the iron blue, the pale watery, and the blue-winged olive. Later in the summer, big sedge flies will hatch from caddis larvae and flutter across the water surface in the evening light.

You think about these as you wade slowly, feeling the brisk push of the current against your legs.

You have to look where you’re going: deep wading carries risks, and beneath your feet is clean gravel and long, waving clumps of very bright-green water plants.

And you have to stop frequently and assess the water ahead for feeding fish or emerging insects. This is when you can take in the broader picture: the trees, with their new leaves, a yellow wagtail on a rock, the place where an otter left the river to hunt rabbits on the land last night, the flash of a kingfisher.

It’s so magical, you feel sorry for all those people who do not know the secret Liffey.

Nature table

COWSLIP (Primula veris)

Cowslips are now in full bloom, a bit later than usual this year. They are related to primroses but primroses are originally a woodland flower and bloom earlier in the spring, before the tree canopy has formed. Cowslips are a grassland plant and carry their clusters of flowers on a long hairy stalk so they reach above the grass and attract pollinating insects. Sometimes the flowering period of the two species overlaps and hybrids. The hybrid is called a false oxlip and typically has the flowers of a primrose on the stalk of a cowslip. Cowslips declined rapidly in the second half of the 20th century because of changes in grassland management —- they are intolerant of artificial fertilisers. There are some signs the decline has reversed, though this may be because of their popularity in commercial wildflower seed mixes. However, you should still refrain from picking the flowers and, in particular, transferring them to your garden.


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