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Opinion: Rivers are our last true wilderness in Ireland

Author John Connell writes about how a canoe trip in lockdown showed him the importance of the country’s waterways.

John Connell

THE SUMMER OF 2020 was a strange time, but then when has any other time not been strange? When has the world not been turned on its head?

Casting my mind back to that time when the world had stopped and we did not know when it would begin again I think now of the rivers and seas. They flowed and ebbed as they have always done, unperturbed by our machinations.

I had returned from a research trip in the American south and found myself in my native Longford for the first time in a long time with no work in front of me, no projects that needed to be completed to a deadline and it was then that I remembered a promise that I had made to myself on Sydney harbour a decade before.

A harbour that nearly took my life when I made a promise to myself that if I got out of danger, that I would venture down the river of my home, the river Camlin in County Longford. It would be a voyage, a journey that I would make to say thank you to life for bringing me home.

Ireland has over 3,000 rivers. Some large, some small, they are all to my mind sacred, all with their own lessons to teach us. Rivers are intimate things they tell us about ourselves, maybe they were the sight of boyhood adventure or first love they are natural memory capsules that hold the good and the bad. They are our wish fulfilling jewels.

Time stopped in that year of 2020. Gone were the so-called temporal markers of birthdays and christenings. What replaced them were long sunny days, days where despite the global tragedy, we could meet ourselves again if we had the eyes to see.

Finding myself like millions of others hemmed in with the virus, the idea of the Camlin river came to me. I decided that I would venture down the river in a Canadian canoe, but I needed a co-pilot. I needed a friend.

My co-pilot Peter was home to write a book from Scotland and we ventured upon the idea of exploring the last wildernesses of Ireland: our rivers. We would, it was agreed, paddle down the 30-mile stretch of the river over two days, camping out overnight, making a journey of the heart when all journeys it seemed were almost impossible things.

We ventured off from Ballinalee village in central Longford and make our way to the end of the river in Clondra where it met its mother, the Shannon. In being back in nature we agreed we could write a new journey, a new story of this time when the world was on its head.

Looking back now after two years, it’s clear to me that the world we discovered was a quiet symphony of nature, where the herons, the swan and the mayfly ruled. It was their world we entered. They were not tame creatures, they were the animals of the real wild world and they allowed us for those two days to enter their community. My life has never been quite the same since.

Early on the first day, I informed Peter that I was leaving a part of myself on this river. I was someone who had suffered a four-year dark night of the soul years before and I wanted to leave some of the hauntings and bad memories on that river.

I had an image of all those bad thoughts, those overhanging dark visions flowing down the river to the Shannon and then on out to the mighty Atlantic ocean where they could dwell away from me for once and all. It was a time where we could write a new epigraph of life. It was a journey of soul work.

What remains now in my mind is not just the adventure of it all, but the strong power of friendship. The river brought Peter and I closer and in our journeying, we came to know one another better. When I talked, Peter listened. When we met a rapid or work of nature, we were in awe together.

As we paddled over the two days, we talked at length of all things water from the flow of rivers to the great writers on water. There were others on that boat with us, from Saint Brendan and his immram voyages to Mark Twain and his riverboat days.

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I think now that rivers are like the ego. There is the below and the above. There is the soul work that tells us who we are and as we paddled, I thought of Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, who said; ‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’

When we made it to Clondra after our two days of journeying in the wilderness, in the quiet of the river, we were richer people and in some way, more whole people.

I try now to keep the river pace in my life. I try and keep that not hurrying nature in how I work and walk upon this earth. Ireland’s rivers taught me that. And life will quite never be the same again.

The pandemic took a lot from us, robbing us of family and friends, marooning us in our homes, but maybe in some ways outside the tragedy it gave us things, the appreciation of a slower pace. I found that on the river. I hope you can find it in your life too.

John Connell is the number bestselling author of The Cow Book, The Running Book and his latest bestseller The Stream of Everything is out now.

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John Connell

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