The port of Dublin is where the Liffey joins the Irish Sea. Dubliners consider it "their" river, and relate to it as Londoners relate to the Thames and Parisians to the Seine. But in fact, the river belongs much more to Co. Wicklow - where it rises high on the heathery slopes of the Wicklow mountains, a little trickle emerging from a peaty black pool just 10 miles from the sea, and turns its back to the sea, faces inland and sets out on a wandering 80-mile journey through three counties before becoming the calm and stately river of Dublin - and to Co. Kildare, where it spends most of its life before finally joining the sea in Dublin Bay. James Joyce, a Dubliner, made the river the idea and subject and heroine of his surrealistic masterpiece, "Finnegan's Wake."
Well over a thousand years ago a handful of Viking sea-rovers came to plunder and, as they say, stayed to trade. They built themself a settlement on the hill where Christ Church Cathedral now stands, above the wide and muddy river banks where their longships would nuzzle their anchor-chains or lie beached at low tide. That settlement owes its very existence to the Liffey.
Fairly near to Dublin, several great houses along the course of the Liffey were built by the Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Irish landed gentry in the 18th century on the fertile limestone plain of Kildare.
Tim M. Healy (1855-1931), first Governor General of the Irish Free State, and a natural cynic, stated - "No city neglects its river as Dublin does. There is not a pleasure-boat on the Liffey from Butt Bridge to Lucan. If the river and town were in England there would be water-gardens and boat-houses and people delighting themselves in the lovely amenities of the water. And drowning themselves."
First speaker, Oliver St. John Gogarty, who wrote his autobiography, "As I Was Going Down Sackville Street," had reason to value the Liffey. On a bitter winter's night in 1923, Gogarty was kidnapped by the I.R.A. and taken to a house near Islandbridge where he was to be held as a hostage. He escaped in the middle of the night by jumping into the Liffey in the darkness, and made his way half-frozen to the police barracks in Phoenix Park. As a mark of gratitude for his escape he resolved to present two swans to the Liffey, and this was done with due ceremony on March 24, 1924, after a champagne lunch in the Shelbourne. There is a famous photograph of Gogarty on the banks of the river with the empty box in his hands, accompanied by a group which included the President of the Irish Free State, Mr. W. T. Cosgrave, Mrs. Gogarty, poet William Butler Yeats, and Colonel J. O'Reilly, Mr. Cosgrave's aide-de-camp. Apparently the swans didn't come willingly out of their container, and when they were finally persuaded to do so with a good kick to the box, they took off at top speed up river. The tranquil swans in the background of the photo are pretty obviously introduced by an artist's hand. Folklore has it that there were no swans on the Liffey up to then. There are plenty now and Dubliners have learned to appreciate and enjoy their river since then. Sails and row-boats bob around the mouth of the Liffey, cleverly managing to avoid the shipping lanes.
-- "Excerpt, "Ireland of the Welcomes," Sept-Oct 1988 (contains article and above photo).