As of this week I hadn’t been in a canoe for, oh, about 25 years. That all changed on Thursday when my friend Jack O’Keeffe invited me along on a CORKumnavigation! I was a bit apprehensive but I needn’t have been – the trip was easy, my paddling skills were still intact and I felt very safe. Most of all, though, this was a terrific experience.
There are, in fact, very few cities in the world where you could do something like this. That’s because Cork was built on a marsh, with the the rivers that formed it gradually flowing around the reclaimed land, and joined to the land on either side by a series of bridges. The traces of that former city (above) are all still there, as both Brian Lalor and Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin pointed out in this post and this one.
There are complications for anyone wanting to navigate this river using the two channels as seen in the map above – the flow of the river is one and the tide is the other. There’s a hydro-electric dam upstream at Inniscarra and it can control the release of water that raises or drops the level of the river. And then there’s the tide – since the river here is tidal the water level rises and falls on every tide.
Why is this important? Because there are weirs and bridges along the CORKumnavigation route. The water has to be high enough to cover the weirs (which are a real hazard to small craft) but at the same time low enough to allow passage under the bridges. There are windows of opportunity in which the tidal level is just right, and the Inniscarra Dam isn’t affecting the river unduly. Several years ago, under an initiative managed by Meitheal Mara, all the weirs and bridges were surveyed and measured and thus it is now possible to work out the times in each month when it is possible to travel safely around Cork by water.
Jack takes all this information, calculates optimum times for the voyage, and spreads the word when those windows open. And magically, people gather in an astonishing variety of small craft – curraghs, skiffs, one and two-person kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, inflatable sit-upons. My partner in the canoe was the genial Cathy Buchanan who is the Manager of Meitheal Mara and a former National Rowing Champion. We proved to be a wonderfully compatible team, able to keep the canoe going in the direction we wanted, and chatting companionably throughout (first photograph in the post).
On this occasion, the trip was anti-clockwise. We launched at Crosse’s Green, right by the new half-built convention centre and under the looming walls of the 17th century Elizabeth Fort, and paddled downstream, passing first under the South Gate Bridge, the site of one of Cork’s original historic bridges, and from there down to the docks, past City Hall and the mid-century building where my father worked in the 60s. In the photo above the paddlers are passing the intersection of the South Mall and the Grand Parade.
Once around the Port of Cork wedge, we started upstream along the quays – Merchant’s Quay, Patrick’s Quay, Camden Place and under all the patriotic bridges – Brian Boru, St Patrick, Michael Collins and Christy Ring (legendary hurler). There’s a new one, a pedestrian bridge (below), that finally breaks the macho bridge-naming stranglehold to honour Mary Elmes, the modest self-effacing Cork woman who worked heroically to save Jewish children in France and Spain during WWII. The bridge has become a favourite strolling and sitting place for Corkonians and visitors and we were greeted with waving and cheering as we passed underneath.
Viewed from the water, with the docks (below) behind us, the quays are very fine examples of Victorian Commerce, with the most imposing edifice of all being the neo-classical St Mary’s Church, a monument to the rising power of a Catholic middle-class. Rounding a bed you come to the Lee Maltings where UCC students, including me, played raquetball in the early 70s.
Once past the Maltings, everything changes. The river seems to slow, the headwind stops, greenery appears and you float past lovely old Edwardian houses with their gardens sloping down to the river on the right, while the landscaped lawns of Fitzgerald Park and the Mardyke sports grounds stretch along the left bank.
This brings us finally under the fabled Shaky Bridge and on to the portage, a rather grand name for the act of hauling our boats over the Split Weir and an opportunity for a rest and a drink.
Then came my favourite part of the whole trip, as this smaller, south stretch of river meanders through the treed banks along which you are hardly conscious that you are in a city. The noise falls aways, green branches arch down to the water, Water-crowfoot provides a sparkling carpet to paddle through, a duck family swims leisurely aside and overhead in the canopy of leaves birds are singing their hearts out. You could be deep in the country, totally unconscious of the urban life all around you, until you emerge once again beside the River Lee Hotel. It especially astounds me as I attended UCC for five years, often walking in and around this part of the campus but unaware of the green and beautiful waterway below.
From there it’s a short paddle to the pull-out, and you’re done. The whole thing took about two hours or a little more but it felt like longer, I think because we had experienced so much in that time. We were lucky with the weather, as it was a warm and sunny evening. We were expertly guided by Jack, who quietly and unflappably sorted out any issues as we went along. It was, in fact, ideal. It felt privileged, too, to be along with a small group on such a unique trip.
My heartfelt gratitude to Jack, and to all the people at Meitheal Mara who worked so hard to establish how this route could be safely undertaken. Given that there are so few cities where this is possible, this is a world-class experience and deserves to be far better known than it is.
A word about the photographs – although I had my camera with me, I took no photos of my own, and am therefore relying on images captured by other participants in this and previous CORKumnavigations – thank you so much to Fabian Murphy, Brice Pvllnd, Ivan Cruseido and especially to Jack.