If the Irish are “freshwater people”, we should start acting like them

The bright summer opener lifted the wild grass to their knees and took the first runners of the Wild Atlantic Way from the boreen to the sea.

The car park was waiting for them, a discouragement to barbecues on the protected machair or to 4×4 intrusions on the dunes. Building it meant filling in and digging out a mountain stream and so clearing the dip of the boreen across a ford, made for tractors, carts and horses.

Approached in winter, the dog and I were able to find the creek in spate, jumping over its low rocky waterfall and rolling through the boreen in a surge of waves and shifting pebbles. As the sentinel heron flew away in the wind, I waded into the ford while staring firmly ahead of me, the dog groping for a foot in the current.

Summer brought wildlife to the ford as a party spot. Bank swallows rushed to dig nests in the bank, a dipper dived and walked under the waterfall. There was a paddling sandpiper and once, in the grass above, a whole row of moth orchids, white and fragrant.

The Camlin has beauty along its meanders. It’s also remarkably healthy, with a full assemblage of river critters large and small.

This is how a hill stream could be on its way to shore and how for some years I knew and loved it. The waterfall is now a dry ledge, wildlife gone. For farmer and writer John Connell, however, two days on a river made for a book and his own bundle of wildlife memorabilia.

Connell was an emigrant who, on returning to Co Longford, wrote The Cow Book, about his immersion on the family farm. More recently in the Covid lockdown, with ‘the world gone silent’, he recognized a chance to fulfill a long-held promise as ‘a journey from the heart’. Finding an old friend at home, he recruited him to help paddle a canoe on the nearby River Camlin from Ballinalee to Longford to the Shannon.

My God indeed

The canoe, in fire engine red, with large upturned tips fore and aft, needed right and left paddlers, so an oar was taken by Pete Geoghegan, a journalist, geographer and kind partner who enabled encouragement such as “Gosh, it’s beautiful”.

The Camlin has beauty along its meanders. It’s also remarkably healthy, with a full assembly of river creatures large and small. Mayflies, dragonflies, swallows and kingfishers weave their way around the bow. Roach and trout swim below. There is even a surprising colony of freshwater mussels. Each gets their factual exposition, as well as the local history and myth that help make Camlin “The Stream of Everything,” the title of Connell’s new book, published by Gill.

Its author, in his thirties, returns from a traveling and eventful youth, marked by a dark depression. It made the good philosophical thoughts interesting, and Connell delivers plenty of that, along with the simple conversation and moving storytelling that helps give the book its warmth.

Some of the events belong to novice sailors, like dealing with gusty winds that slam the canoe into lacerated, overhanging branches, or learning to overturn the boat and spin it around. There are forbidden passages between high, unscalable forest banks and sudden, unexplored obstacles in fallen thorn trees.

“We are the freshwater people,” Connell writes of the Irish. “It’s our culture and our lifeblood.” And there are signs that could one day be true. Almost half of the Republic’s roughly 3,000 rivers may still be ecologically poor, but the rest have declined quite rapidly over the past worrying decade.

Raw sewage

Among the most intractable are the rivers that 34 cities and towns pollute every day with raw sewage, a problem the Environmental Protection Authority says will take another decade to resolve. To accelerate it, communities will have to become, in effect, “freshwater people”, mobilizing and getting involved in the improvement of their rivers.

River trusts are community-driven charitable organizations set up by local people. There are now 10 in the Republic and seven more in the North

The EPA’s Catchment Unit and local authority water program have provided strong support to the very energetic Rivers Trust, a cultural and expert import from the UK environmental movement.

River trusts are community-driven charitable organizations set up by local people. There are now 10 in the Republic and seven others in the North, the rivers and their watersheds covering almost a quarter of the island. A cross-border partnership aims to better protect the land and waterways supplying the Derg and the Erne.

In a new appointment at the Rivers Trust, developments in Ireland are being served by Dr Constanze O’Toole, a German-born freshwater ecologist who studied at TCD. She will work with local community groups to form new trusts. For a map of existing sites, go to catchments.ie.

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