Saturday 22 October 2016

Crazy river

Con Houlihan

Published 29/05/2008 | 07:00

Con Houlihan
Con Houlihan

I suppose it is fair to say that The Boyne is our most famous river: a battle of great importance was fought there; Fionn McCool lived on its banks; so does Sean Boylan.

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Some people think of Sean as a witch doctor: that is unfair, he is a herbalist, even if occasionally he is seen flying on a broomstick on All Souls' Night. Fionn was a wise man too but his wisdom came by accident rather than from herbs. One day while cooking a salmon that he had caught in that famous river, he burned the thumb of his right hand; he put it to his lips to cool it -- a miracle occurred.

Suddenly some things that had been puzzling him became clear -- that gift never left him. It served him well on one occasion when otherwise he might have done his right-hand man a grave injustice. His warriors, The Fianna, had been down the country hunting; on their way back they had to cross The Blackwater near Mallow. It was wide and deep. A little old lady was in distress on the bank wondering how she would get across. All but one of the warriors ignored her and used their spears to vault the river. Oisin put her on his back and swam across.


His comrades were back in Dunboyne about 20 minutes before him -- and Fionn accused him of not being as fit as he should be. Oisin hung his head and said nothing. Fionn was perplexed and so he put his thumb to his lips -- and suddenly he got a vivid action replay. What he said to the rest of the warriors cannot be repeated in a family newspaper or in any kind of paper.

The Blackwater has its origin near the border between Kerry and Cork -- but on which side is open to debate. One evening, after a big game in Killarney, I found myself deep in this debate with my old friend Oliver Barry, icon in show business. Oliver was adamant that the great river is a native of Cork. I stood up for my county, the debate went on and on. At last an innocent man sitting near us said: "You're both wrong. The Blackwater doesn't rise anywhere." Oliver and I looked amazed. I said "Go on." And the man said: "It flows down from a hill above Ballydesmond. It doesn't rise anywhere." Maybe he is right.

My own favourite river, apart from our beloved Maine and its tributaries, is The Seine. One of Emile Zola's novels is entitled Cruel Paris -- but The Seine is a friendly river. I love to see men fishing on its banks -- and I love the sand barges with their yellow cargoes. The crews on the barges wear the blue overalls that at least to me are more typical of Paris than Charvet shirts or designer dresses.

Whenever I walk by that gentle river, all my troubles seem to fall away from me. Logic and emotion are suspended. I live in a kind of dream state. I have friends who know that same experience. They call it "General Paralysis Of The Seine".

I cannot say that The Liffey affects me in the same way -- but I have a wry affection for it. Anna Livia Plurabelle, as James Joyce calls it, is a crazy river. It rises about a mile from the sea but takes a very long time to reach it. To me it is like a man who threatens to make a long story short -- and in fact makes a short story long. In its wandering it helps to create a reservoir, torments players on a prestigious golf course -- and meets Dublin's fair city at Islandbridge, one of its loveliest parts.

You won't see men fishing on its banks in the inner city: it runs too straight to afford cover for trout. Mullet come but they are non-residents. Cormorants dive for eels between Capel Street Bridge and The Irish Press, even though that institution isn't there anymore.


Malta hasn't any river at all. The foundation of the island is so porous that every drop of rain goes through it. The Maltese do not lack resources: by desalinating they manage to have a brewery and a vinery. Their beer, Hopleaf, is pleasant. Their wine, Marsovin Reserve, has such an individual taste that you say to yourself: "What must their unreserved wine be like?"

The French love their rivers, especially The Loire. They say it is their last wild river. They go on pilgrimages to its birthplace: it can first be seen as it emerges from a pipe into a farmer's yard in the east of the country. I do not know how they feel about The Rhone: it is a grand bold river but it doesn't reach the sea. It gets lost in the great salt marshes of The Camargue.

A certain river is famous in the folklore of The American Old West. It was a very formidable river: it had to be crossed by the cowboys driving cattle to the stockyards in Chicago.

In fact it was a very friendly river: it was very wide but very shallow. It gave rise to a popular saying in the language of The West: "Powder River -- a mile wide and a foot deep."

Once upon a time when reviewing a book, I told this little story in the first few paragraphs. The book was large and pretentious. I couldn't give it a favourable review. I ended by saying: "This book is like Powder River, a mile wide and a foot deep". When next I met the author, she looked the other way. Seemingly she wasn't pleased.

When we talk about The Niagara Falls, we tend to forget that it is part of The Saint Lawrence River. When a Cork girl brought her father out for a holiday, she made sure he saw Niagara. "Well, Dad, what do you think?"

"'Tis wonderful, 'tis wonderful surely. It reminds me of a wet day in Macroom."

Fogra: Farewell Declan Kidney and well done

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