Brian and Cassandra paddle the river Liffey

Paddling the River Liffey with City Kayak Dublin

On a December day, we lowered ourselves into the River Liffey, right next to the historic Jeannie Johnston tall ship – the only emigration vessel used during the famine said to have never lost the life of a passenger. In a similar vein, our guide Lee assured us that he’d never seen anyone tip in the tandem kayak we were to pilot through the city’s downtown core. I’m sure it’s true, but part of me was wondering about the Irish penchant for telling tall tales.

Cassandra and I had booked an AirBnB for a 3-day stay in Dublin. Likewise, Cassandra found City Kayaking through the AirBnB experiences section. You might think the fact we were visiting the city in early December might deter us, but then we’re the urban paddlers. It was the first thing we booked.

Jeannie Johnston tall ship on River Liffey
Jeannie Johnston tall ship on River Liffey

After a breakfast at a hipster restaurant called Two Pups (thankfully the famine is long over) that did include a brief pooch sighting, we took a taxi to the EPIC Emigration Museum to spend an hour. Then it was right across the street to meet our paddling guide, at the pier immediately next to the Sean O’Casey Bridge on the river’s north side.

Liffey means “life” but the river looked mostly dead to us on this brisk December day, devoid of activity except for a lone swan that we passed. The river’s ancient Irish name, An Ruirthech, translates to “the stampeding one” and references its fast flow and propensity to dramatically rise and fall with the nearby ocean’s tide. That name seemed more apt on this day, as we started paddling upstream towards the city centre. The current was swift, and we were keeping our arms moving to maintain forward momentum. If we were to rest, the current would quickly sweep us backwards and we’d lose our progress.

Swan on the River Liffey
Swan on the River Liffey

It was swift enough that I didn’t want to stop to take many pictures, as that would leave Cassandra fighting the current alone. Even though the wind was blowing the water off of her paddle and into my face throughout the journey, I elected not to plot any minor acts of revenge.

Thankfully Lee was moving up the river in a small dinghy with a 10 HP motor. He encouraged us to grab on and be transported if we found ourselves too tired. Our pride in our paddling motivated us to push forward, but there were still several planned stops along the way for rafting up with Lee. Then he’d point to the buildings visible along the riverside and tell us about their history.

Sean O'Casey bridge on the Liffey River
Sean O’Casey bridge on the Liffey River

The Liffey’s bridges are some of the most interesting features. We paddled under many bridges, some with notable historical context. The very first bridge we viewed was the Samuel Beckett bridge, with a design evoking Ireland’s national symbol, the harp. The national symbol is very similar to the logo used by Guinness on its beer cans, but a mirror image of it. From our kayaks, we saw both emblems in signage and in stone. Harps have long been associated with the royal class in Ireland, including its most famous medieval King, Brian Boru, who died in a battle in 1014. Later in the day, we’d also see the harp that is often said to have belonged to him, but was really crafted hundreds of years after his death, and now sits on display in Trinity College.

Other notable bridges include the Ha’penny Bridge, so named because of the private lease owner that controlled it for 100 years and collected a half-penny from every pedestrian that wanted to cross. Then there’s the more modern Millennium pedestrian bridge, which lights up in the night as a symbol of Ireland’s launching into the 21st century. It has no toll.

Brian and Cassandra paddle the river Liffey
Brian and Cassandra paddle the river Liffey, with Ha’penny bridge seen in the background

Landmarks along the Liffey had us rotating our heads to view both sides as we paddled against the current. On the way back we barely had to paddle at all, leaving more opportunity for photo taking of the various sites. We saw City Hall, the courthouse, the Bank of Ireland, and many shops and hotels, including the Arlington Hotel where we’d taken in an Irish music and dance evening over a 3-course dinner on a previous night. At the end of the paddle we were able to see the Guinness Brewery and we spotted many trucks delivering it out into the city from there, in metal cylinders. As we approached the distillery district, I could smell the barley on the wind as we paddled against it.

Guinness Brewery seen from River Liffey
Guinness Brewery seen from River Liffey

There was plenty of action along the river too. We were paddling in the middle of the day on Thursday, and there was a protest taking place on one of the bridges. Citizens are upset about a 3% water tax that’s recently been introduced. Many passersby stopped to look at us as we paddled by, and more than a couple took out their phones to snap a photo. At one point, a group of men drinking beer out of cans by the riverside took a special interest at us, shouting advice as we paddled by (one gentleman suggested it might be easier to travel downstream) and attempting to count the rhythm to our strokes. I was thankful they didn’t throw any rocks.

The whole experience on the river lasted about 90 minutes. For Cassandra and I, it was our first time tandem kayaking together. As with tandem canoeing, our usual, she took the front and I took the back. I found the seat comfortable enough, which surprised me as it was just a soft harness. My first instinct was to synchronize with Cassandra’s stroke, matching her on each side. I found that led to difficulty keeping a straight line and later paddled on the opposite side as her stroke. I asked Cassandra to focus on paddling forward and not trying to steer, as that resulted in over-corrections. Really it wasn’t very difficult at all and we didn’t have to put too much effort into going where we wanted to go, direction wise. Paddling against the current and the stiff wind was another story.

The Custom House, as seen from the River Liffey
The Custom House, as seen from the River Liffey

It was easy to rate the experience 5 stars on the AirBnB website. I’d actually advise booking directly with the business via http://citykayaking.com/ as it looks like you might save a bit of money that way. Lee was a great facilitator and it was a bonus that we were the only paddlers and had the river to ourselves. City Kayak provides you with everything you need for the paddle, even including waterproof paddling pants and jacket if you wish. There’s a change-room on site too.

I bet even most residents of Dublin have only ever walked across the River Liffey. Now we can say we’ve touched its storied waters.

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Brian has been canoeing his entire life, going on his first multi-day backcountry out trip when he was 13. Brian worked at summer camps as an out trip leader and canoe instructor, and now lives in Toronto and works full time as the editorial director of a technology news firm. He escapes to go paddling whenever possible.

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