A trip along Dublin’s Liffey that combines kayaking, sightseeing, live music and a proper Irish pub session? Sign me up!

The resulting article was the second of four I wrote about Ireland that will be published in the Escape section, and was published on 18 November 2018.


Craic in a kayak

by Megan Holbeck

Our convoy of bright plastic kayaks is strung along the empty Liffey, following a speedboat loaded with musicians and instruments. The sun is shining, the riverbanks busy with tourists and locals. Ahead, the elegant white arch of Ha’penny Bridge crosses the river, forming a finish line bustling with spectators. Someone yells: “Paddle faster: they’re going to catch you!” There’s more barracking and the pace quickens until it’s like dodgems on water, complete with dubious steering, low-speed collisions and a soundtrack of splashing, laughing and different accents.

There's not much more Irish than music, craic and the Liffey, but it takes a genius to combine them into a two-hour package. That genius is Darinka Montico, Office Manager of Dublin’s City Kayaking, who came up with the idea after mentioning the amazing acoustics under the bridges to a musician friend. “It’s not a normal kayak tour”, she says. “Everyone feels part of it. It combines music with paddling, scenery, poetry and the city to show off the creative Irish personality.”

I’m an hour intoMusic Under the Bridges, which is one of those special trips that give outsiders a glimpse of what it’s like to actually live in a city. And Dublin looks good: there’s happy paddling along the Liffey, admiring the famous bridges and beautiful streets. Instant friends are made as you ‘bump into’ people along the way: the double sit-on-top kayaks are stable and easy to use, but the steering (and paddlers!) can be slow to react.Then it’s culture time as we raft up and bob under old bridges as music echoes around, the musicians playing water-themed songs for the occasion.

The trips run weekly in the summer but each is unique, with the musicians, the paddlers, the weather and the tides determining the flavour. This Saturday afternoon we have two regulars: Fin Divilly and poet John Cummins are in a band called Shakalak (renamed Shakayak when afloat) and play us original numbers and Irish classics, with some spoken word thrown in. It’s Niamh Doolin’s first speedboat performance, and her voice echoes beautifully as she sings of loss, love and the water. It’s not just the music though: a big part of the magic is the banter, humour, warmth and stories, all flavoured with a love of Dublin. 

City Kayaking (http://citykayaking.com) sprung from this affection for the city and its most famous river. Six years ago two keen local paddlers, Jonathan O’Brien and Michael Byrne, began running kayak tours in an effort to build a community around the unloved Liffey. According to O’Brien, ‘Nobody really used the river – people thought the water was dirty. We wanted to change Dubliners’ perceptions.’

While I wouldn’t drink it, the water is fine, although surprisingly quiet – during our two-hour trip we don’t encounter another boat. This means there’s no stress with our haphazard steering, and no jostling for the best listening spots under the bridges. 

There are three sessions under three different bridges, each lasting around 15 minutes. Half the challenge is to stay in the right spot, especially under the low arches of O’Connell Bridge. Luckily we’ve got help, otherwise there would be bumps, bruises and no one within earshot of the music. O’Brien not only drives the speedboat, he keeps it (and the ten kayaks) in place during performances. With his long hair and beard, he looks like Thor from The Avengers, especially when bracing off a bridge to keep the fleet still. 

It’s not only Irish culture we absorb, but the country’s history as well. The location of City Kayaking’s jetty helps: looking upstream you can see the massive cruise liners in Dublin Port, part of the booming modern tourism industry. This contrasts with centuries past when the traffic was the other way, as millions of Irish left due to famine, war and the economy. Moored next door is theJeanie Johnston‘coffin ship’ replica, now operating asa museum. (http://jeaniejohnston.ie) It gives insight into the desperate conditions during the Potato Famine (1845-1849) when around a million emigrants left Ireland in similar boats heading for North America. (Another million people died, from a population of only eight million.) Just up the road is the huge, interactive EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum, which tells the story of the Irish diaspora and the huge effect it’s had. (https://epicchq.com)  

Then there’s the history along the route itself. The neoclassical Customs House stretches along the north bank, stately below its copper dome, with a turbulent past that includes being burnt down by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence. The seven bridges we paddle under each have their own story. O’Connell Bridge was named after ‘the Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell, who achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829, while the Rosie Hackett Bridge (named after a trade union activist) is the newest to cross the Liffey and the only bridge in the city centre named after a woman. 

After all the exercise, culture and history, it’s time for the other part of the Irish experience: a drink. Pub crawls after the paddle are par for the course, so keep your plans flexible and your afternoon free.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland.