All great cities have their great river, and Dublin has the Liffey.
Throughout history, rivers have been important for trade, transport and water supply. This is why cities cluster around them and why our ancestors built some of the grandest buildings right next to them. Even in these days, when our food and furniture arrives by means other than ship, we still gravitate to rivers for recreation and respite.
One of the best ways to get to know Dublin is to take a river boat cruise along the Liffey. They leave regularly from Bachelors Walk, also known as The Boardwalk, an area of regenerated docklands with housing and lovely for strolling on the north bank of the river. You’ll see the buildings and bridges of Dublin as people have for centuries.
The Vikings arrived to settle Dublin around 840 AD. They were a nation famed for their boats, and the Liffey seemed to them the perfect place to settle and trade. It also attracted another controversial invader in 1649 when the anti-royalist Oliver Cromwell came to visit.
As the city grew wealthy thanks to trading, land was reclaimed to build Trinity College and other important areas of Dublin, and many bridges began to span the Liffey. Dating back to 1816, the first iron bridge was the Ha’penny Bridge, while the newest is the Samuel Beckett Bridge which opened in 2009. This suspension bridge carries both road and foot traffic swivels to let river traffic through.
Along the banks of the Liffey are grand old buildings, such as the neoclassical 18th-century Custom House, which these days houses government departments, and the late 18th-century Four Courts, still Dublin’s main court building.
Though trade on the river may have lessened, recreational uses have not. The river is popular with canoeing and rowing clubs. And during late summer there is the Liffey Swim. Don’t think that you can just jump in and join the race: this is a serious affair exclusive to swimmers who are members of a club and have already swam five races of the season. Nevertheless there are usually around 300 competitors, no wetsuits allowed. The course begins near the Guinness Brewery, passes under Ha’penny and O’Connell Bridges and ends at The Custom House.
The Liffey still provides about 60% of Dublin’s water supply. You might have even heard that Liffey water is used to make Guinness, but this isn’t true – they get their water from the pristine Wicklow Mountains.