One of the more memorable photographs of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach features him, grim-faced in his wellies, braving the flood waters of the Tolka River. Although Tolka derives from the Gaelic, An Tulca, meaning flood, the ill-omened name never quite deterred residential and industrial development along its hazardous banks.
The lesson of natural history is that you ignore portentous warnings at your peril: the Tolka’s flat catchment of 58 squares miles and a narrow drop of 460 feet in just under 20 miles, is a recipe for a long history of flooding of Dublin’s north side, with frequent calamitous costs: the deluge of November 2002 which Ahern braved up to his knees, resulted in E20 million spent on flood alleviation.
This is just one of many interesting asides in a newly revised edition of the late Clair L. Sweeney’s The Rivers of Dublin, a labour of love for the Dublin Corporation engineer who devoted most of his life to tracing and walking, above ground and under, the estimated 60 watercourses circumnavigating and penetrating the city.
As an engineer, the author had unparalleled access to tributaries, creeks, brooks and streams which thrived in isolation. As the city and its population expanded in the last century, they became hidden from view and were largely unknown to many, though not from the persistent explorations of Sweeney.
He wasn’t averse to getting his hands dirty or his feet wet in reconnoitring some of the network of 1,300 miles of sewers under Dublin, advanced in 1810 because the over flooding of rivers like the Poddle, used by the labouring poor of the Liberties, caused dysentery, typhoid and cholera. ‘Ten to sixteen people of all ages and both genders were in a room not 15 feet square, in filthy conditions, with thirty to fifty people to one house,’ writes Sweeney.
The Poddle was also known as the Sologh, meaning dirty, at a time when the putrefying effect of waterborne sewage of the Liffey was dreadful.
Hence the moniker, dirty old town.
Sweeney, raised in the Liffey Valley when Palmerstown was a village remote from the city centre, sought out tributaries incorporated into the claustrophobic subterranean channels and tunnels. Delving like Indiana Jones into murky depths, he made important discoveries, such as finding the site of St. Winifred’s Well, near the junction of Eustace and Essex Streets, lost since the Middle Ages.
Norman Maclean memorably concluded his famous fishing fable, A River Runs Through it, with an admission that he was ‘haunted by waters.’ So too was Sweeney. Though without Maclean’s poetic flair for description, he can be as evocative and perceptive with his industrious arsenal of words. In Sweeney’s company, it is a given that all running water, in its natural form and before it is spoiled by pollution, is beautiful.
Unlike Orpheus, he does succeed in bringing the dead to life from the underworld: he enters the stygian darkness under Kevin Street via a manhole, walks for three quarters of a mile through a maze of culverts, some as low as five feet, encountering history at every turn: he details the exact spot where Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison in 1591.
Sweeney believed that the long history of Dublin, like many of the old capital cities of Europe – Paris, London, Rome – was best understood through its rivers, and because many were hidden from view, he was motivated to breathe life into these alternate maps of Dublin. Imagine filling an abstruse crossword by candlelight and without the aid of clues: this is Sweeney’s achievement, and each paragraph liberates another watercourse from the hibernation of neglect.
Consider his investigation into the Bradoge river: it has had many variants – Bradok, Le Rughdich, Glascoynock, St. Michael’s streams – with each rooted in the colonisation of Dublin: the stream Michan is rechristened Glasmacanog by the early Christian Norse after they are persuaded to move to Oxmanstown, north of the Liffey, by the Anglo Normans. This could be the beginning of the recorded history of a stretch of water whose descent eastwards from its humble source, a ‘cow-drink pond’, is as adventurous and as colourful as the boat in Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre.
You can sense Sweeney’s excitement as the river, forever escaping the clutches of warring tribes and rerouting by monks, is both a witness to and a participant in the nascent city’s growth. He is the ideal chronicler of every nook and cranny lapped by the Bradoge which flows resiliently through the ages until it is, eventually and inevitably, tamed by the public drainage system.
Books about rivers are ten a penny, but I doubt if you will find one with a comparable plenitude of minutiae as Sweeney’s, who connects vital gobbets of folklore and enumerated facts to create layers of story and meaning.
Sweeney is both detective and pathologist, who segues what rivers and their etymology have in common, how form and meaning change over time.
This is his great gift and his legacy: The Rivers of Dublin not alone charts the history of these vital arteries into the city, but does so with scintillating storytelling and meticulous illustrations, excavating entire societies and resurrecting ancient conduits.
The five main rivers of the Ancient Greek myths were associated with death, but Sweeney’s myriad of arteries throughout Dublin, brim with life. The Dodder, he reminds us, down to the end of the 19th century, turned mill-wheels all along its course – corn mills, cloth mills, flour mills, tuck mills, saw mills, paper mills, iron mills, calico print factors – but were ‘erased and forgotten by the grandchildren of yesteryear’s generation.’
The history of Dublin is that of its rivers, but until the sheer passion and hard work of Sweeney, it was a history in danger of remaining underground.