I have written this not because I believe I am the most
knowledgeable, or the best or even the most experienced person who has
had any involvement with the Liffey Descent. I am doing it because I
love the Liffey Descent and in the hope that my efforts might inspire
others to share their experiences of this great event.
I have done it now because Declan Ward encouraged me to do so. I
also think that a more complete record of this event should be
developed as the time of the 50th Liffey (2009) and the 50th Anniversary (2010) are beginning to approach.
I am also aware of time and mortality, although I do not care to
dwell on it too greatly. I am also aware that the immortality of youth
is unfortunately no longer with me.
I have written this entirely from memory from my current residence
in Skopje, Macedonia where I am involved in a two year EU funded
project with the Ministry of Environment. I do not have access to
records, although I have some in Cork. Thus I apologise in advance for
the inevitable errors that I have made with names and dates. This
record is inevitably personal and very selective. I also apologise to
those who I know or who I have known and have omitted from these few
pages. I would simply ask for those who think that I have got it wrong
or who I have omitted to write to me or to Declan Ward and to put the
record straight. The event is bigger than any of us.
My involvement with the Liffey started in 1967, but more of that
later, thus I can claim no knowledge based on personal experience
before that year. Anything I have set out about the years before this
is to record what little I know and hopefully to stimulate others.
My starting date of 1967 should be compared with my still paddling
contemporaries Ian Pringle (1966), Gerry Collins (1968), Mick Keating
(1970) and P. Murphy (1969). I also knew well those who started fairly
soon before me in the era 1964-1969. Niall Alexander, George Glasgow,
Gerry Nevin, Jim McIntyre (Belfast Canoe Club), Robin Love, Tony Maher,
Donald Cromer, Arthur Nelson and Rory Farrell (Salmon Leap Canoe Club),
Ernie Lawrence, Mal Lowry, Dave Talbot and Bill Hallowes of Wild Water
Kayak Club. Frank Lee, Martin Kennedy and Gay Nally of Espoir Canoe
Club and of course the great Jock Kelly of Kilcullen Canoe Club. Mick
Feeney, originally of Carrick on Shannon Canoe Club, has participated
in, organised, assisted, photographed and attended Liffey Descents from
before my time and is still always there. Derek Martin was also heavily
involved although I never recall having seen him paddle. Regretfully at
least two of this list are no longer with us.
I should also list my immediate contemporaries in Belfast Canoe Club
of that time, Raymond Rowe, Joe Fairley, Graham Hamilton, Geoff Long,
Malcolm Kerry and John Marshall and a little later Norman Rowe and Kyle
Browne and also mention Charles Morgan who paddled with Jim McIntyre in
I was also privileged to know Ronnie Taylor originally from Dalkey
Canoe club who together with others from that club such as Ernie
Lawrence go right back to the beginning in 1960 when I believe but 8
boats were involved.
This record will inevitably stray beyond the Liffey, and at this
point I would bring in Arthur Keenan, who was well known in Northern
Ireland Scouts circles and his contemporaries in the period of the
early 60’s and before who completed in such events as the “Round
Ireland’s Eye” Race and the Portmarnock (or thereabouts) to Dun
Laoghaire Race which portaged the peninsula at Sutton. The Carrick to
Bangor (across the mouth of Belfast Lough) was also a popular race in
those days. Many of the Belfast paddlers mentioned would have competed
in this one.
Slightly more recently I have known Shay Cassidy (WWKC), Carmel
Vekins (WWKC and Limerick), Eileen Murphy, Breda Keating (Grade Ten and
SLCC), Vivian Farrell and Mylie Lennon (SLCC).
I mention the people above as having their own memories of the race
and so anyone who is seriously researching will need to talk to these
people. Amongst perhaps the less obvious (at least to the current
generation) of these I would highlight both George Glasgow and Derek
The first sponsor of the Liffey was
Coca-Cola. They sponsored the race from 1965 until 1969. After that
there was no sponsorship for a number of years.
What has changed since 1967?
There have been
many changes since 1967 especially in equipment and the attitude of
paddlers and indeed simply in general wealth.
should be remembered that 1967 was not so long after the Second World
War (the Emergency) at which time all canoes were lathe and canvas.
Many canoes in those days were of the “folding” variety which meant
that you could dis-assemble them much like a tent and put them into a
bag. Once in the bag it was convenient for you to place your canoe on
the train from whence you could choose the river in Europe that you
wanted to explore or you place it in your submarine and choose which
battleship you needed to mine. The paddles also “broke” in the middle
for ease of transport.
I learned to paddle in such a canvas boat at Easter 1965, when my scout troop (4th
Knock Belfast), much to my disgust, decided to go canoeing rather than
to the mountains. Shortly afterwards we began to build plywood canoes.
Sheet of plywood were cut up according to templates and the resulting
shapes laced together with copper wires. Glass fibre tape was then
applied to each joint and the canoe finished. These canoes were
considerable lighter, stronger and faster than their canvas
We happily went touring in these canoes for 1-2 weeks at a time
around the lakes in Fermanagh. We gradually learned there were more
serious things that could be done with canoes when we entered these
boats in the NI sprints in Belfast. A sprint was 250m in those days.
The course was over a tidal section of the Lagan outside the Queens
University Boat Club.
We learned of the Liffey and in 1966, our scout leader Joe Fairley
and Graham Hamilton did the race and enthused us to enter the following
We got to know the more serious paddlers in Belfast like George
Glasgow and Gerry Nevin (K2) and Niall Alexander and Jim McIntyre (K1).
George and Gerry by that time were paddling a “Moonraker” K2. This had
a glassfibre hull with wooden cockpits inset and parts of the deck
still in canvas. The resin used had a lot of filler and so the
glassfibre hull tended to be quite brittle, hence the much higher
probability of snapping a K2 in half. Niall’s K1 was well finished with
a glass fibre hull and a shaped plywood deck. The paddles used had just
become the asymmetric timber shafted “Lendals”. These were produced by
Alastair Wilson in Ayshire. Alastair had represented UK in the Rome or
Tokio Olympics and was a good friend of Jim McIntyre’s. This meant that
we had access to these paddles for about £15 a set.
I can remember buying our first K2 with Raymond Rowe, a second hand
Moonraker in 1968 for £20. I think a new one would have been closer to
£50. We made our own spray decks.
In terms of the Liffey, at that time, the attitude was that the
sluice was too dangerous to shoot, and because the gap in the weir was
narrow, it was safer to portage the sluice altogether and this most
people did. However it was here in 1969, that the English paddler
Norman Jackson with his exceptionally strong boat took the South
African paddler over the face of the weir in an attempt to break the
South African’s boat and did not succeed. Jackson’s boat was
interesting as it was built with the rudder being part of the boat. The
last 10 cms of the boat was hinged and acted as any normal rudder but
was protected above and below by the remainder of the boat. This
designed was ruled illegal the following year as infringing the “no
concave hull sections” rule.
Lucan Weir was clearly impossible and so any sensible person
portaged it at the downstream end. Hence the pure astonishment amongst
the canoeing fraternity, when Bosher and Whitby first shot the high
drop in 1968.
All other weirs were deemed shootable, although Islandbridge was not
easy. From what I recall it is shot close to the right hand side.
The advent of the Kevlar K boat has meant that is much easier to get
a boat down the race these days, even if they cost more money. Likewise
the winged paddles have made a significant difference to the times. The
paddles are probably the most significant technical advance in the
equipment and in my opinion are probably worth 5 minutes on time over
In terms of training, there is no comparison. In 1967 little
training was done by anyone in Ireland. Niall Alexander was
probably the best and I think that he trained daily in the boat from
about February onwards until the Liffey. The use of running and weights
were beginning to come in but I would say it was 1969-1970 before
paddlers really began to train through the winter.
In those days there were no other races on the Liffey and people
like us from Belfast paddled the course for the first time the week or
two before. We would arrive at Celbridge and have to wait while our
driver drove to town and got the bus back. We would then paddle down
and try to remember the course. Of course we camped everywhere we went.
We were lucky to be looked after by Joe Fairley, my scout leader, who
bought a minibus to transport us around. We all paid petrol and I seem
to remember it would cost us less than 5/- (25p) for food for the
I like to think that I repaid Joe slightly when we won the Carrick
on Shannon K2 event in 1969 (Sorry Mylie and Viv). My regular partner
Raymond Rowe was sick at the time with Weils’ Disease contracted
through cuts on his rear end and Lagan Water, so I paddled with Joe. It
was the only race he ever won.
boat-check in was at Castletown House on the morning of the race. We
were all parked outside the front doors of the house. We were allowed
to make use of the toilets in the basement.
When the time was right we all marched carrying our boats and lead
by a pipe band along the avenue to the main street in Celbridge and
across the bridge. At the boat-check we were all given numbers which
coincided with a permit on the bank. As far as I remember the pegs were
on both sides of the river. We were drawn on the far bank below the
mills. The pegs started about 20 yards above the bridge and went back a
further 50-60 yards to accommodate all the boats.
All the classes were started together, although these comprised only
Mens K2, Mens K1 and Ladies K1. The only other type of boat that was
recognised was the “Class 3” which was similar to a K1 but which had
the dimensions of a whitewater boat.
The idea for this type of start I believe originated with the Sella
Descent in Spain. A number of paddlers, which included Niall Alexander,
Jock Kelly and Ernie Lawrence, had attended the Sella Descent in 1964.
Whilst Niall was always an extremely serious paddler, in general this
team did not do particularly well in the Spanish series. However the
organisers awarded them a trophy for being the “most sporting team”.
This trophy was duly presented to the ICU and became the well known
Ribadesella Cup, named after the town where the Sella Descent finishes.
The race was duly started. My partner, Raymond Rowe, and myself were
paddling a hard chine plywood craft of K2 dimensions. We were not very
fast but safely negotiated the rapids which were much feared in those
days. We were shocked when we reached the weir at St. Wolstan’s. The
lake was low to provide the flood on the lower river and the weir stood
about five feet high. There were boats everywhere and paddlers swimming
and shouting. No one had ever seen the weir before and as a result no
one knew where to shoot and the result total chaos. Someone directed us
to the fish-pass and we made a clean shoot.
The remainder of the race passed without incident for us as I
recall, although not being terribly fit in those days the slog from
Chapelizod to Butt Bridge seemed interminable. I am sure that Dubliners
can tell me how many bridges there are between Islandbridge and Butt
Bridge, but for the two young lads from Belfast there may as well have
been a hundred.
Eventually we arrived at Butt Bridge climbed the steps and placed
the boat on the car which in those days was not difficult to park close
to the finish line. We then made our way to the Tara Street public
baths where we bathed and changed.
The prize giving was always at the dinner dance which was held in
the evening, (not that we were due for any prize). I cannot remember
where it was held but think it was in the Central Hotel in Exchequer
St. We did not attend as we could not afford the tickets and simply
spent the night back in our tents, which I think were in the grounds of
Castletown House, close to the main gate at Celbridge.
The following day we all avidly looked for reports of the race in
the papers. This was in days before Andy Warhol’s “15 Minutes of Fame”
and it was really rather special to be associated with anything that
was in the papers. The papers gave me my abiding memory of this race
which was Gerry Nevin at Wren’s Nest weir. He and George Glasgow had
shot the weir and their K2 snapped clean in half and Gerry was pictured
clinging to the stern section with the jagged edge pointing vertically
to the sky. There were no rescue boats at that time.
My memories of 1968 are not as clear
as nothing imprints like the first experience. I again paddled with
Raymond, but this time in the glassfibre hulled Moonraker K2 that we
had bought. We had returned from doing the Spanish series for the first
time and as a result were fitter than we had been the previous year. We
paddled uneventfully until we reached Palmerstown where we fell out.
(St. Wolstan’s weir was not in sight and as I recall never since has
been in sight the way in which it was in 1967). I managed to ground the
boat at the end of the wall on the south bank of the river. I emptied
and got back in with no sign of Raymond. I paddled back up and found
him clinging to the wall and holding a small puppy which he feared
would drown and had lost his paddles. I told him to sort out the dog
while I tried to find some paddles. Please remember I was young and had
been brought up on stories from the senior paddlers in Belfast on the
retrieval of paddles from stoppers. I simply paddled to the foot of the
weir and grabbed the first paddles I found and returned to Raymond who
had by this time saved the dog. We duly finished and as we climbed the
steps at Butt Bridge when a plaintive cry of “Can I have my paddles
back please” was heard. I said “Raymond give the man his paddles!” I am
ashamed to say to this day I do not know whose paddles they were.
The 1968 Race was notable for the first shoot of the “high drop” at
Lucan. This was performed by Martin Bosher and Mark Whitby from
England. (I confess to having dragged out a couple of programmes and
paddler magazine recently from the attic and have now left them with
Shay Cassidy). Martin was a good paddler but a little arrogant as all
good paddlers must be. Mark was a junior and UK hopeful for the 1972
As a post-script, I can remember a row as to who had authorised the
hiring of the Celbridge Pipe Band in 1967. Jim McIntyre was treasurer
at the time, and I believe Derek Martin may have been involved. I seem
to remember the bill being paid a year late, shortly before I took over
As a second post-script Jim McIntyre retains, the Chiver’s Trophy,
the only solid sliver perpetual trophy in the Canoe Union. It is
technically the property of Espoir Canoe Club and Jim has always said
that he will return it when asked.
This was the last race from
Celbridge. I remember nothing except we got a prize and had to attend
the dinner dance for the first time. I think it was for 2nd
in the Junior K2, a class which was held for the first time that year.
As this was the last year the race was sponsored by Coca-Cola the prize
was a now rare Coca-Cola plaque even if it was in the shape of a shield
rather than the previously square cut one.
This race was also notable in my mind as the prize for the fastest
Irish K1, which was an important category was taken by Geoffrey Long a
junior from Belfast.
This was the first from Straffan. It was notable for me in that we again took 2nd
place in the Junior K2. However both we and the winners (obviously says
you!) were faster than the Senior K2 and thus we got the fastest Irish
K2. I believe that this is the only occasion on which the juniors were
faster than the seniors. This proved to be my last K2 descent for a
I remember little of these years. I
still lived in Belfast and was at college. I remember paddling K1 but
with little distinction. In 1973, I moved to Dublin and in 1974, I
believe Mick Keating and myself paddled together for the first time.
1975, I was involved in a motor bike accident in which two Americans
looked the wrong way and drove out straight in front of me. I
dislocated my hip and was placed in traction for a six week period. My
first question to the doctor was would I be alright to paddle again and
the second was how long would I be in bed? The reply to the first was
that there would be no problem and the second confirmed the six week
period. I never mentioned canoeing to the doctor again and I calculated
that I should be out on the Friday a full 8 days before the Liffey.
The days went by and I was visited by all my canoeing friends who
thought I was faking because I developed a lovely tan as the nurses
wheeled into the sun each day for what was one of the best summers we
The Friday before the Liffey came and went and the doctor did not
release me until the Monday, and telling me I had to spend a further
six weeks on crutches. I made my way to the Salmon Leap clubhouse and
managed one lap of the lake. I then walked back to Liexlip using my
crutches and was passed by a prominent member of Salmon Leap in a car.
His later explanation was that he thought I was looking for exercise!
The following night I managed two laps of the lake and on the Wednesday
two gallant paddlers gave me a wash for three laps of the lake. To this
day I remember the bridge inverting before my eyes as we returned to
the club. I do not remember who gave me the tow round the lake.
Saturday came and found me on the bridge as usual looking at the
weir. I had a good run although I had to be helped at the portage and
fell in at Palmerstown. I am glad to say that Mick Keating finished
just 30 yards ahead of me, although he has sensibly declined to paddle
This was the year when Ian Pringle
and Howard Watkins returned from the Montreal Olympics. Mick Keating
had also been there as reserve for the team. On the Monday night the
two K2s were out on the lake warming up for the event. It turned into
quite a competitive training session with both boats going for the buoy
outside the clubhouse. Mick went for the inside and Ian went to cut him
off and the pair started at each other with paddles. I being in the
back quietly placed my paddle across Howard’s chest ( a good Spanish
racing tactic) and looked across at him and the pair of us just broke
our hearts laughing at the antics going on ahead of us.
Saturday came and three K2s made the portage together. Mick and I
were in the lead as we ran along the pipe at the bottom. We were just
dropping our boat in when the English pair, who had descended the steep
bank and wall and literally threw their boat under ours preventing us
from entering the water. In the ensuing melée, unfortunately the
English pair got the better of us, and duly went on to win the race,
with Mick and myself second and Ian and Howard third, having
experienced some rudder trouble.
1977 – 1979 Liffeys
These were the glory years
for Mick Keating and myself, with three back to back wins. There is
nothing like the experience of being the first boat down and to have
the entire bankside to yourselves, notwithstanding the spectators and
the organisers. Not many enjoy this experience but it combines a
mixture of pride, relief and tranquillity – the job well done.
1978 was nearly a disaster as Mick broke his paddles at the start -
yes we still used wooden shafts. There were no recalls, nor could there
be. We went to the bank and Mick ran off to get his spare set. I
proceeded towards the weir and waited. Mick jumped back in, we shot the
weir and were off. We passed boat after boat and eventually caught up
with Martin and Pete at Wrens Nest. We passed them and that was that.
I was not as fit and it was becoming
more difficult to travel each night from Mullingar where I lived for
training in Liexlip. I made a real mistake when we were in third place
alongside Brendan O’Connell and Oisin Cahill and caught my paddles
against a tree between Shackleton’s and the Nest and we fell in flat
water! Not a very distinguished race for us and I think this was the
last time I paddle with Mick, for this and less obvious reasons such as
I got married late that year. I recall that Declan O’Donovan and Paul
Murphy won the race this year and I think it was the first time that
the 2 hour barrier was broken.
These I paddled in K1 with
varying degrees of success. By this time I had moved to Cork and was in
reasonably good shape now that I was training with the Argonauts. These
included John and Declan O’Donovan, Shiela O’Byrne, Eileen O’Sullivan,
Eoin Hurley and Brian McCarthy in particular. In the latter years these
were supplemented with Tim “The Fox” Healy who is still regularly
paddling with distinction n in the K2.
I was lucky in 1985 and achieved second place, having watched Pete
Connors fall out at Chapelizod. This was the highpoint of my K1 career
as I retired from serious paddling at the end of that season.
1986 to date (2005)
I have managed to attend
each of these races with seriously varying degrees of success. I failed
to finish the 1989 race much to my annoyance having broken what was an
already weak boat on the shoot at Straffan. My only excuse was that I
had been in the States for the previous two weeks on business and only
made it home the night before the race.
I almost failed again about five years ago when I damaged my rudder
badly on Temple Mills. I struggled to the Clubhouse at the New Bridge
and surveyed the damage wondering whether it was worth the effort of
going on. There came a cry of “Hi Haggis” as I used to be called, and
there was Mylie Lennon who I had not seen for about 20 years. I
explained what was wrong and he went to his boot and produced a
cordless drill and pop riveter which he was just on the way home from
buying. Five minutes later my rudder was restored and I finished the
race with a stronger than when I started.
On the plus side, I managed a third place in the Veterans (sorry I
meant Masters in these politically correct days) K1 at some stage in
the 90s and then to my great surprise again in both 2004 and 2005.
There might have been some slight merit in the case of 2004, as I had
retired from the Environmental Protection Agency the previous year and
had managed to spend a much greater time on the lake. Since then
however I have spent more time than ever in consultancy with more and
more of it abroad, hence this being written in Macedonia which will be
my home for the next two years. I will try to keep reasonably fit and
to return again to the waters of the Liffey in 2006 whenever it might
be held. I am still trying to figure out why it was not the golf that
had to change date as the canoeing event predates it by quite a number
I am aware that this reads as a very
personal account, but it is done entirely from memory. I have done it
because I love the race, even if each race morning nowadays, I
seriously question my sanity, especially when I look around and see so
many young, fit and enthusiastic people, but then I also see Mick
Keating and Gerry Collins who are at least fit.
I fear that the standard of the competitors has declined somewhat in
the last two years. However I think that the Liffey experienced some
really halcyon days under the sponsorship of Jameson. The Liffey has
been in serious decline previously during the late 70s and early
eighties but bounced back thanks to the sterling work of Pat Blount in
the late 80s and latterly of Mick Scanlon, to pick but the leaders of
the teams. I think too that the work of Alan Miller (1969 Race), in
ensuring significant participation by UK paddlers, should not be under
the future holds in store for the race I don’t know, but as long as
there remain a dedicated team of organisers, there very fact that the
Liffey is there will ensure a great and continuing event which will be
attended by paddlers from all around the world.