When a group of friends organised the first Liffey canoe race in 1960 to coincide with the Dublin Boat Show, little did they know what they were starting.
Half a century on, the Liffey Descent, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday, remains the biggest, toughest and most challenging river marathon in the world.
On Saturday (12.30), close to a thousand boats will take to the river just above the mighty weir at Straffan. Most are aiming simply to get to the finish 17 miles away at Islandsbridge with body and boat intact.
“It’s a hard, hard race because there are so many variables. You have the 10 weirs, the rapids and stretches where you think you’re paddling uphill. Then there’s the portage at Leixlip — carrying your boat for 500 metres,” says Tom Egan, who has over 20 ‘Liffeys’ to his credit.
Long-time Liffey hands, Mick Feeney, Tony Martin and Robin Love, as well as Egan, admit that the first canoe race on the Liffey was more of an ascent than a descent, with the course running from Butt Bridge to O’Connell Bridge.
Canoeing as a sport was in its infancy. In 1960, if you wanted a kayak or canoe, you bought a kit and assembled it yourself from sheets of plywood covered with canvas. Once you had your canoe or kayak you wanted to race it, and most Dublin paddlers headed for the river Liffey — the flat bits, that is.
After that first short race, the late Ernie Lawrence with his great rival Derek Martin came up with the idea of a proper long-distance race on the Liffey. “Ernie was the great innovator — he was to first to travel abroad for races and I remember him bringing in an English coach for a training weekend with us,” says Tom Egan.
Their idea for a two-day race from Straffan to the Garda Boat Club in Islandsbridge didn’t attract a huge amount of interest with only eight showing up. Roger Green was the winner, followed by Derek Martin, and the two-day format was abandoned.
The following year, the race was sponsored by Coca-Cola and got lots of newspaper coverage, with Green winning again. He was to make it a hat-trick in 1963 and after that was never seen again. “He told us that he was only interested in winning and when he started getting beaten, he gave up,” says Tony Martin.
In 1964, the race organisers had a brainwave — they would call the race the ‘Liffey Descent’ copying the ‘Sella Descent’ which was the most renowned long-distance race in Spain. Starting in Celbridge and finishing at Butt Bridge, the race was 16 miles long.
Arriving to compete for the first time was a group of British paratroopers, led by Charles Nash. Although these were well-trained men, Nash and his partner got as far as Sluice when they hit the wall and their boat broke in half. When the English visitors travelled home with tales of big waters and even bigger weirs, a legend was born.
A year later, the ESB agreed to release a flood of water on race day from its reservoirs at Poolaphuca and Leixlip. “It nearly ended in disaster. The night before the race, it teemed rain and the water level went up by six inches. It was so bad that the organisers asked the women not to paddle — and they agreed!” says Tony Martin.
Only in 1970 did the race move to its present start above Straffan weir, finishing at the Trinity boat club.
When the anti-apartheid protests started in the early 1980s, South African sportspeople, who had been dominating competition in Europe since the 1960s, were banned from competing abroad under a United Nations directive. In the case of the paddlers, they signed up with the Richmond club in England. Everyone knew that ‘Richmond B’ was the South African team. “A few days before the 1981 race, I got a call from a reporter asking whether I could confirm that there was no South African team here. When we then got an entry from Richmond B, we decided we had better discuss it with Des O’Sullivan, the secretary of the Olympic Council of Ireland,” says Mick Feeney.
O’Sullivan confirmed that they had a big problem; the Irish Canoe Union would lose all its grants and become pariahs if they admitted a South African team. “We insisted that they could only race if they showed us their passports. They claimed to have left their passports in England, so we told them we couldn’t accept their entry.”
On the day, the miffed South Africans slipped into the water above Straffan. They passed unnoticed until they reached Leixlip. “We had RTE there making a film and the next thing, these boats appeared with the paddlers not wearing any bibs. That was all we needed!” Other problems occurred when Straffan House went through a series of owners. When it was decided to start the race above Straffan weir, Donald Cromer and Tony Martin were delegated to approach Kevin McClory, producer of the Bond films, who had bought Straffan House. “Our mission was to get permission to use the grounds. When the door opened we couldn’t believe it. McClory had a bar in the hall of the house. We left at about 2.0am paralytic.”
Among the succeeding owners was Nadar Djanbani, of the Iranian air force. When the shah was toppled, he returned to Iran and was executed. “We all signed a petition not to have him executed, for all the good it did,” says Martin. Paddy Gallagher later bought the house and went bankrupt. Finally, the Jefferson Smurfit group acquired it and successfully turned it into the K Club. During its long history, the race has produced many heroes, none more so than Iain McClean, who completed in his 40th ‘Liffey’ last year.
“No matter where he is in the world, Iain returns to Dublin for the race. Last year, he completed his 40th race after a flight home from Kosovo. This year, he’s in Greece,” says race director Michael Scanlon.
Then there’s ‘Jock’ Kelly from Kilcullen, who won a class in the 1963 Liffey race and is still going strong, and Paddy Moloney, also Kilcullen, the oldest paddler in the country.
One of the finest technical paddlers ever seen on the Liffey was Ian Pringle, who has over 20 wins to his credit in singles and doubles classes. Pringle often teamed up with his great rival Howard Watkins in a K2 boat. A paddler from that era who is still competing is the remarkable Malcolm Banks, who won the junior K1 title over 20 years ago. Banks has 10 senior ‘Liffey’ wins to his credit.
Other who have made huge contributions on the water and off include veterans Mick Keating and Gerry Collins, who picked up their tenth T2 class win last year. Of the women, Eileen Murphy accumulated a record number of Liffey titles and, with Breda Keating, won the Murray River Marathon in Australia.
More recently, Gary Mawer and Fergus Cooper were two who could be relied upon to put it up to a stream of British and South African invaders.
A key moment for the race came in 1988, the year of the Dublin Millennium, when Jameson signed up as sponsors and stayed on for 14 years. “They made a huge difference — the race was filmed for distribution all over the world and the helicopter over the river became the signal that the leaders were approaching,” says Tony Martin.
In the Jameson years, race numbers revived and soon reached over a thousand — they have stayed at that level since, though the nature of the race has changed.
“It’s now a mass participation event, although you have to be of a certain standard to take part. We have lots of people, like a trio of veterans from Malahide, who train religiously every year for the Liffey — it’s the only race they do all year,” says race director Michael Scanlon.
Because of its status as a race for the masses, the event gets sponsorship from the Irish Sports Council. “Quite simply, we couldn’t function without the help of the Sports Council. It’s an expensive race because of the huge numbers.”
Also supporting the race is the ESB which releases a huge flood of water every year, and the OPW, custodians of Memorial Park, where the race finishes. Why such a legendary event isn’t beating off the commercial sponsors — even in these straightened times — is an absolute mystery.
For locals, the race is one of the great free shows of Irish sport. In particular, places on the bridge at Straffan are at a premium; the first boats set off at 12.30pm and the bridge is heaving from about 12 noon.
Lucan, where you can almost touch the paddlers, is a good spot and easy to get at. Wren’s Nest, with its fearsome ‘V’, is one for the aficionados.
Leading the K2 entry for Saturday are Greg and Ryan Louw from South Africa, who beat local pair Malcolm Banks and Dermot Hudson last year.
This year, Banks has paired up with Barry Watkins. Gary Mawer will hope to add to his long list of titles in men’s K1, while wildwater specialist Liz Shouldice, who leads the women’s entry, has bought a new K1 boat especially for Saturday. As always the thrills and spills are guaranteed at an event dubbed the ‘Grand National’ of international canoeing.