By Lindie Naughton
CLOSE to 200 packed into Dublin’s City Hall on Saturday night for the launch of “The Liffey Descent – 60 Years of Ireland’s Toughest Canoe Challenge”, written by Iain Maclean, on Saturday evening.
Among them were the winners of the first seven races, and five who paddled in the very first Liffey race of 1960.
As well as his kayak, An Mhurchú III, Roger Greene, the first winner, brought the original Coca Cola Trophy that he won outright in 1962.
“Of course, there wasn’t a lot of canoeing around then and the first race was only a small one,” he said. After his wins in the three Liffey races from 1960 to 1962, Greene became a prominent figure in the sailing community.
Derek Martin, with a gift for promotion, was one of the men behind that first race which went from Grattan Bridge to Butt Bridge in the city centre.
“It was only a small race organised as part of the first Dublin Boat Show held at Busáras around Easter,” he says, showing a framed poster advertising the Boat Show.
Helping round up the canoeists for the race was the late Ernest Lawrence, who would compete with his sister Elizabeth in a double. A year later, Lawrence came up with the idea of a two-day, long-distance race starting at Straffan with an overnight camp at Leixlip Lake. While that format lasted for one year only, the idea of a long-distance race on the Liffey was firmly established.
When the race, now called the Liffey Descent, was held in 1964, Neil Alexander from Belfast Canoe Club finished first in the men’s singles class and would win again a year later.
“There weren’t a lot of canoeing races around, so I don’t know why I hadn’t heard of the Liffey race before then. We had long distance races in the north, on rivers like the Blackwater, with the Belfast club founded in 1960 and quite a lot of canoeing going on,” he said.
Jim Sweeney, now living in Celbridge, was one of the seven to compete in the first race.
“There was only one club in Dublin at the time, based in Dun Laoghaire; most of the races were up north. I was only a young lad at the time, living just off the Stillorgan road, and along with my cousin, Frank Burgess who lived in Nutley Road, we joined up.
“We were brought everywhere by people like Roger Greene, Derek Martin, and Ernie and Leslie Lawrence. We would go to a river bank, put our boats on the water and paddle off. You couldn’t do that now!”
When the two young lads decided to build their own kayak, the gardens of both their houses were turned into workshops.
“We bought a book by Percy Blandford on building your own boat and thought we’d give it a go. The plans came to us by post on large sheets and after a trip to Noyeks in town to buy what we needed we got to work.”
A few years later, kayak building kits became available. “The Moonrakers were brilliant and you didn’t have to paint them. The only problem I found was that I kept falling out of the boat at first!”
Iain Maclean’s comprehensive history recalls those pioneering days. The changes both to the sport and to the Liffey Descent itself over the years, with the start moving to Straffan in 1970, where it has remained ever since. The finish has also changed a few times, and after a number of years in Memorial Park on the opposite side of the river, is now at the Garda Boat Club in Islandbridge.
This year’s 60th race will finish at the Garda Club on Saturday September 14, with spectators welcome to cheer on an expected entry of over 500.
Copies of “The Liffey Descent – 60 years of Ireland’s toughest Canoe Challenge” by Iain Maclean are available from Canoeing Ireland at Irish Sport HQ, National Sports Campus, Blanchardstown; phone 01-6251105; email email@example.com.