Having lived in Dublin for 20 or so years, I’m always looking for fresh ways to see the city. The River Liffey is one of the metropolis’ defining features and major symbols and while I’ve seen sections of the river in the past, I’ve never seen it in its entirety. So armed with the desire to do just that, and also to see the province of Leinster from a different angle, I decided to trace the river from its mouth to its source – a 125km-long journey.
As many of you reading this will know, the river ends its journey at the Irish Sea, where it has wound its way past ferry terminals, oil tanks and cargo shipments.
It’s an industrial sprawl down by Tolka Quay Road where the Liffey’s life ends and the industrial nature of that part of the river is highly symbolic of Dublin’s nature and the fact that that the city is still a working port.
From there the river winds its way down through the city and passes the Anglo-Irish Bank headquarters building which was never completed and stands as a scar of the recession and bail-out which the Irish people stumped up for.
Further down the south side of the quays the Convention Centre is the next major building that stands out; big, brash and impressive, in many ways it’s symbolic of how far Ireland has come economically that we have such an impressive structure on the Liffey – although architecturally it certainly divides opinion.
A couple of kilometres further down, at Custom House Quay, another pivotal moment in Irish history is marked – the Great Potato Famine. The Famine Memorial marks that seminal period with statues of starved Irish men and women. It’s a poignant piece.
The river then runs on to the very centre of Dublin city where it passes under O’Connell Bridge; if you could say there was an epicenter of Dublin culturally then this is most definitely it.
Soon after the river flows by the Four Courts: Ireland’s main courts building with its tall pillars dominating Inns Quay, before the river goes on to pass the home of Guinness – St James’ Gate: one of Ireland’s most famous landmarks which produces the world-famous stout.
The river then sweeps past the Criminal Courts of Justice - one of the finest buildings in the country.
The green lung of the city is next to roll into view, as the city gently changes colour from grey to green and rowing clubs dot the shore of the river.
The Liffey then narrows as it passes through Chapelizod, the last town before you exit Dublin City and enter Fingal.
Hugging the river one passes through narrow lanes, with greenery on either side, as one makes one’s way west.
The next town on the route is Lucan, which has a lovely town centre lined with a series of bars, restaurants and shops. It’s a little visited part of Dublin, but it’s very chilled out and a good spot to grab a bite to eat at Kenny’s Bar before you follow the river onwards.
The Liffey then winds its way through Leixlip, where it bulges its banks to account for the Leixlip Reservoir before dipping southwards past Castletown House and through Celbridge, passing St Wolstan’s Abbey; one also passes the county border from Dublin to Kildare just after the Leixlip Reservoir.
At this point again the land becomes green and verdant on both sides as the towns become sparser and the fields of Kildare stretch out on the either side.
Clane breaks that rural nature briefly before the river heads on down to Sallins where the bite of the property bubble is in evidence, with a row of empty and unkempt houses lining the main road.
However, the town also displays a multicultural nature. I stop to ask where the Grand Canal and the Liffey cross each other and find that those I ask are a Pole and a Frenchman.
Between Sallins and Newbridge one takes in the sight of fields of rape lining the road. The beautiful yellow flower of the crop, basking in the Irish sun, is quite a sight, and would almost make you think you are driving through the south of France.
Hitting Newbridge the river is still a roaring size and a superbly designed wooden bridge and boardwalk lines the way as it passes the village and turns eastwards as it moves again through lush countryside past Kilcullen and numerous studs which highlight the prominent horse rearing that takes place in the county. Among others the New Abbey Stud, Ragusa Stud and Ardenode Stud Farm are along the route.
As one heads in towards Ballymore Eustace the Wicklow mountains loom into view ahead as the river connects to the Poulaphouca Reservoir. The point where it does is marked by a fascinating old art deco building, which was the security hut for the reservoir, but is no longer used. It’s located beside the old tram station right beside the head of the reservoir.
Russborough House follows the reservoir itself before Blessington bulges with the Liffey’s water and the river winds its way further east and deep into the Wicklow Mountains National Park.
Tributaries run off in several directions as the Liffey edges its way through the valley. The land is barren, the grass yellow and the area sparsely populated by trees as it edges its way high into the national park.
One passes the famous tourist spot the Sally Gap where you can look out over the valleys below. It’s a stunning vista and never fails to impress.
All the while the river and the route rise higher into the mountains on the Old Military Road, with peat bogs stretching out in vast swathes on either side.
It’s at this point that the Liffey passes under a small, unmarked stone bridge that runs under the R115 road. It’s an easy spot to miss and if you get to the access road for the Kippure communications mast then you’ve gone too far.
I know because I made that mistake myself and wasn’t sure at exactly what point the river had turned off. Thankfully a Garda Síochána pulled up in his squad car at that exact moment to ask if I needed a hand before escorting me down to the point where the river veers off into the bog.
From there one has to jump down the bank and make your way by foot across the bog, tracing the river as it winds its way south-east. About ten minutes later the river, which is really only a stream at this stage, swells out into a pool of water about 20 feet in diameter: the source of the Liffey.
I knelt down and tasted the Liffey water, and although you can taste the peat in it and see its brown colour, it tastes pretty good. And it’s quite a sight to see the birthplace of that famous Dublin landmark gently residing in the Wicklow hills.
By Tadhg Peavoy