Liffey Descent by Iain Maclean

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 1967.     

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 Martin.  

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.

It 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 predecessors.

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 year.

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 the race.

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 weekend.

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.

1967 Liffey
The 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.

1968 Liffey
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 Olympics.

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 treasurer.  

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. 

1969 Liffey
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.  

1970 Liffey
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 while.

Early 1970s
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 Liffey
In 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 ever had.

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 with me.  

1976 Liffey
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.

1980 Liffey
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. 

1981-1985 Liffeys
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 of years!     

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 estimated.

What 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.

Iain Maclean

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