The Liffey Descent in its 20 years of existence (at time of writing. ed) has been to paddlers joy, frustrations satisfaction, humiliation, elation, disgust, thrill, terror, jubilation and consternation. Its continued attraction and its importance in the development of Irish canoeing through the years cannot be underestimated. To some its a race where skill on the weirs and rapids can overcome the trained and practised competitor - to others it is to succeed in the most challenging water conditions of any long distance race in the world or simply to complete the course.
If one were to set about designing a river course with frequent obstacles and fast flowing water it is very unlikely that they could surpass the natural hazards that the 17 mile Straffan to Islandbridge course has to offer. For who could better the weirs at Straffan, Wrens Nest or Palmerstown or the gaping Sluice Weir, albeit all once man made with different intentions than the purposes that we paddlers now see fit to use them for. The immense variation of the course is perhaps its greatest attraction - the winding difficult section from Straffan to Templemills where the current continually swirls unpredictably through the treacherous overgrown and partly submerged trees, the pace of the river as it speeds down through Celbridge rapids, the direct contrast that follows across Leixlip lake, most times shallow, and the energy sapping portage around Leixlip dam are some. The distinctly different character of each weir, none of which can be treated with any less respect and some like Straffan, Lucan, Wrens Nest and Palmerstown that have become canoeing legends.
Whenever canoeists gather to swap recollections of past moments, the Liffey Descent invariably dominates the conversation with fables of heroism and disaster, luck and catastrophe. Tales generated by the mountain of incidents that each year occur are told and retold which only further add to the amazing charisma of the event, for it would be a very fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) paddler who did not have at least a few hair-raising moments during the race. Looking back over the years I can recall many epic moments of the Liffey - like in 1970 when Ernest Lawrence and Tony Snell swam to the finish line with their K2 in tow after breaking up at Chapelizod, like the unfortunate British junior who capsized at Wrens Nest while leading the junior K1 class and watched in horror as his boat was broken in half by two helpful frogmen uneducated in the ways of emptying waterlogged craft, like the first sideways shoot of Lucan of British crew Bosher and Whitby, like the frightening spectacle of a foreign paddler trapped against Leixlip bridge in his upturned canoe. These are but a few of the moments which have given the Liffey Discent a character all of its own.
The Descent day has always been special in Irish paddlers minds, a day looked forward to and yet feared. The nerve jangling tension that begins from morning rise and reaches its peak as the paddler catches his first awesome sight of Straffan Weir with the full avalanche of the Liffey at its most venomous is enough to send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned campaigners. What else can compare with the doubt and expectation that is felt as the charge is led downstream toward the countless faceless images cheering from the bridge. Then its over the top, fight for survival on the chute or down the middle and hope to get through the stopper. Either way its a few seconds of hoping followed quickly by exhilaration or a spontaneous profane outburst. Straffan is, of course, the spectators delight. Hoardes of canoes all looking for a path to go down. Paddles clashing in mid-air, cheers for those who fall in, roars of applause for those who survive after looking in danger and then the absolute chaos as the open singles thunder over on top of each other. There is the utter dejection on the faces of those whose ill luck it is to break up so early, the scrambling to the bank of the capsized, the despairing shouts that come from paddlers looking for replacement blades, the looks of concern on the mothers of sons and daughters being swept under the arches amid a sea of boats and paddles. The ensuing traffic chaos which commences at Straffan bridge almost surprises the action on the water as the next vantage point is to be reached without haste.
If you're a paddler who suffers from claustrophobia then you have no place in the Liffey Descent as it heads through the tight confines of the "jungle" beyond Straffan. To me this is potentially the most dangerous part of the course where speed of turn and agility of neck and shoulders are demanded to avoid a collision with the natural obstacles which line the way. It can also be the most exciting part of the race if you are engaged in a close competitive battle with a few other paddlers and wish to test the limitations of the opposition.
The Sluice Weir has always been the target of the thrill-seekers - a risk between capsize and a loss of seconds on the slower cromers side. For K boats, a calculated gamble that courts rebuke for the insolence of making the attempt, but a moment to be savoured afterwards if successful in judging the angle of entry and riding the bronco style waves and daunting stopper at the exit. Lucan, the graveyard of more boats than any other weir on the Liffey is deceptively simple looking but continues to wreak havoc year after year. The baths, almost suicidal, have proved too big a temptation for many ambitious slalom paddlers who only just lived to rue their decision. The huge right hand wall (facing upstream) still remains as daunting as ever and although K2 crews have conquered it in Liffey flood there is no queue of paddlers waiting to emulate the feat, least of all solo paddlers.
When arms are weary and tiredness is having its effect on the body the last thing a paddler wants to meet is Wrens Nest. "Wrens" perhaps the most famous weir in the world, looms up on the tiring paddler almost unexpectedly after a lengthy flat water paddle, roaring like thunder, chilling to the bone. Faces peer from the banks, overhanging the water shouting directions, as if they knew, but all waiting for someone to make a mistake. Cheers above tell you that the paddler ahead has gone in. "Where's the bloody vee"', "a bit more to the left, shit' ****", down into the right hand stopper slapping desperately, the blades are whipped and water, white, green, bubbling, churns you about like a cork. Divers pause then in, as you submerge gasping and choking and meekly scramble for the bank.
If luck is not in then it could be down the perilous left hand stopper at Palmerstown where few come out the right way up. And you find you can stand, but a step further and the current has you, dragging you downward, swirling you about with the agitation of a washing machine, allowing you brief moments to surface and then sucking you beneath again until you grab the v..elcome toggle of the rescue slalom. Its almost over then, the pain is forgotten the Chapelizod and broken Weirs are more signposts to the finish unless the paddlers is unlucky enough to break blades at Chapelizod in which case the trek up to Trinity boathouse is a long long way.
The crowd of supporters are waiting and it brings a nice relief to the paddler who had thought himself forgotten to see a welcome party cheer him as he limps across the line. Another year, another Liffey, another badge and suddenly the pain is gone.