I fell in love with the Liffey Descent over fifty years ago when I first encountered the event as a
young man. I had been regaled with stories from older paddlers of the excitement and dangers
of the race. Taken with the length of the race relative to other races of the time and an aura of
magic and uncertainty was established in my mind and I just had to take part as I have done
almost every year since. This attitude might seem naïve but bear in mind this was a time long
before the internet when car ownership was limited and every canoe in the country was known.
Since then I have rarely lived close to the river and have often travelled from afar to take part.
This has helped to maintain the magic for me, as Straffan Weir has usually been the first rough
water I encounter each year. I do not recommend this approach but it is one which I have been
unable to avoid.
For many such a level of magic may no longer exist, but uncertainty continues, especially for
those shooting Straffan Weir for the first time in the actual event. Such uncertainty remains a
big attraction especially for younger participants in the event.
In contrast world class paddlers avoid uncertainty in their quest to add their names to the Roll of
Winners. The Spanish K2 winners in 2017 were interviewed after the event asked, “Why did you
enter the race?” The reply was “to win”.
A wonderful aspect of the event is that that it caters for both these aspects, along with the wide
range of differing ambitions held by competitors. These may be as simple as not falling out or
finishing ahead of a colleague from the same club.
The event has changed with the passing years although the nature of the river remains
unaltered. The equipment used has advanced from the soft-skinned kayaks of the very earliest
days, through the era of fragile soft-topped fibreglass models to the Kevlar and plastic boats of
today. Paddles have evolved from the symmetrical un-feathered type, through asymmetric
blades, to today’s hollow shafted “wing paddles” and paddlers are generally much fitter. This
has resulted in less damage to boats and greatly improved times.
However real danger still exists as illustrated by the lucky escape, in 2015, of a UK pair who had
the misfortune to have their boat wrapped around the bridge pier in Leixlip, trapping the rear
paddler by his legs. The rapid response of the rescue team ensured that the paddler was
A much larger number of paddlers now take part from within Ireland and from abroad.
Participation has been encouraged with the widening of classes from the original three classes
of “doubles” “singles” and “ladies” to the wide variety of classes today.
I would now like to recall my earliest experiences as being indicative of earlier times and
attitudes. Having listened to the stories of senior paddlers which lost nothing in the telling with
the weirs and waves becoming ever higher and course longer, my partner and I began to realise
we faced a significant challenge. The challenge was enhanced by the fact our boat was of K2
dimensions but of plywood construction.
To address these issues, together with other less experienced colleagues, we decided to paddle
the course a week before the event, to see where weirs should be shot and portaged. Of course
the river was dry, but this was no deterrent. In those days the race started in Celbridge, so we
only had to paddle from there to the last weir at Islandbridge. Even so, this took more than four
hours and all of us were tired and intimidated by the length of the race.
The following week, the event started with boat inspection at Castletown House, after which the
paddlers lined up behind Celbridge Pipe Band and were piped to the river. At the start line, each
boat had been allotted a position along one of the river banks. When everyone was in position,
the start gun was fired, and the race was underway. As we were just paddling the event, we
were content to allow the faster boats make their way to the front of the field.
Celbridge Rapids was considered to be quite dangerous and was approached with caution.
Fortunately we experienced no difficulty and were looking forward to a steady paddle across the
Leixlip Lake to the dam. Everything was fine until we reached the start of the lake where St.
Wolstan’s Weir made an appearance for the first time. The scene of carnage had to be seen to
be believed as there were capsized boats, paddlers and paddles everywhere. The fastest
paddlers had simply hit an unknown weir and didn’t know how to react. By the time we arrived,
some degree of order was in place and we were directed down the fish shoot.
At that time, Sluice and Lucan were considered too dangerous to shoot and were portaged. On
to Wrens Nest, where we were in time to see our senior colleagues, the tellers of many stories,
removing their K2 which was snapped clean in two between the cockpits.
At Palmerstown we made the elementary error of hitting the left hand stopper and swam. There
was no rescue in those days. We made it to the end of the wall at the other side, emptied and
were ready to go but my partner had rescued a puppy and had lost his paddles. I said, “get rid
of the dog and I will get paddles”.
Among the many stories I had been told was “go to the stopper and grab the first set of paddles
you find” This was duly accomplished, my partner collected and off we headed to Butt Bridge.
Never have the Quays seemed as long and it was one tired pair that crawled of the steps in
search of Tara St. baths. On the way up, there was a cry “those are my paddles!” and I said
“give the man his paddles” and so ended my first experience with the Liffey.
I suspect, that many younger paddlers have shared similar experiences down through the years
but with the “hanging arms” now setting in on the long calm stretch below Wrens Nest with the
thought of Palmerstown ahead followed by the seemingly interminable stretch between
Chapelizod Weir and the finish.
Winning the event calls for a different mind set. World class paddlers have trained continually
for many years and are in top physical condition, having no concern for the distance. Such
paddlers ensure their equipment is in perfect condition and know exactly where to shoot each
weir. A major concern for them is when and where to maximise their efforts to place to
maximum pressure on fellow competitors.
Top paddlers choose carefully where to join the line at the start. Their most serious competitors
will be watched, and the behaviour of the starter noted. A game is then played between the
paddlers and the starter. This is a game normally won by the paddlers who start the race as
soon as they sense the starter can no longer hold the line.
It is then flat out to Straffan Weir as getting to the weir first is vital as only the shoot beside the
steps is considered by top paddlers. Arriving first provides an opportunity for a clean shoot and
the possibility of a break from the field immediately below the weir, though in an evenly matched
field such a break is unlikely as a long way remains to the finish.
Top paddlers tend stay close together keeping an eye on each other and watching for possible
mistakes or other opportunities presented by the opposition. Weirs and the portage provide
natural points to attempt to make a winning move but if the boats remain close together until the
finish, it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Is it more advantageous to be in front or to sit
slightly behind on the wash and doing less work? Either way, the moment to strike for the line is
vital, timing the effort is everything and you only have to hit the front at the line to win.
The greatest feeling of success falls to the first K2 who arrive to see no other boat on the bank
at the finish. Watching others arrive and seeing the bank gradually fill up with other boats is a
unique feeling which very few get to experience.
Whilst competing provides the ultimate challenge, excitement starts to build with the collection
of numbers the evening before the event. Excitement heightens the following morning as
competitors arrive at the car park in Straffan. The nervous energy is palpable as everyone gets
changed and puts the last minute touches to the boats and other equipment to make sure boat
inspection is passed. Many use the opportunity to have a last look at Straffan Weir, how high is
the flood? Will I get down safely?
The tension continues to build as paddlers move up to the start. Traffic on the river is busy with
boats bumping and it can be difficult to find a secure anchor point above the start lines. Nervous
stories are exchanged and “good luck” is wished. The minutes tick slowly by until the K2s are
called to the line and the race starts. As soon as the race is underway, tension disappears and
is replaced either by concerns of winning, if you are a leading paddler, or of surviving safely to
Crowds of spectators throng the main viewing points, Straffan Bridge, Celbridge, Lucan, Wrens
Nest and Palmerstown. A surprising number watch from many other points down the length of
the course. Generally, spectators are keen to encourage the paddlers, although undoubtedly
some enjoy watching the misfortunes of those who swim.
What competitors fail to appreciate, is the scale of the organisation required for the event
particularly on the day itself. The organisation includes stewards, starters and finishers together
with the huge rescue team that ensures no serious harm befalls any competitor. The sense of
occasion for the event is provided by the commentator at Straffan and later in the event.
What is the magic of the event? It is partly tradition as the event has stood the test of time for
almost 60 years with undiminished enthusiasm of the competitors notwithstanding development
of many newer sports. It is partly the setting of the event starting as it does in the still largely
rural Kildare and arriving in the increasingly urbanised Dublin City. It is partly the contrasting
challenge of each weir changing with the volume of water realised by the ESB every year. It is
partly because the event is recognised as a World Classic event alongside those held each year
in Spain, Denmark and South Africa. It is partly because the event provides a stern test for elite
and also for not so elite paddlers. Finally it is because it is an annual opportunity for all paddlers
to come together to enjoy their sport and to reminisce.