Saturday, August 13, 2005

Where have all the swimmers gone?

People born too late to be children in the fifties often don't have a clue about how we passed the time.

No TV — not down our way, anyhow — and no Walkmans, let alone iPods. No rollerblades or skateboards. No big concert gigs. And that was just for us young people.

But the recent situation where a traditional swimming area has been made inaccessible prompted some memories of my own swimming childhood in and around Kilcullen.

There wasn't a county swimming pool then, although some of us did have occasional access to the Army swimming pool at the Curragh military camp. That probably came later, because I could actually swim then.

On the Liffey in the Kilcullen area, there were three main swimming spots: the bank just over the Jockey Stile on the opposite side of the river to what is now the Riverside Manor development; downstream of the bridge on the turn of the river just under Castlemartin House, now the home of Sir Anthony O'Reilly; and at the currently disputed spot at Carnalway Bridge.

The one closest to the village, on Ken Urquhart's land at the Jockey Stile, had two spots. The steep bank itself (above) was popular with the bigger kids and the adults because it was deeper and faster, while the bit further up where the Mill Stream entered the Liffey (below) had a pleasant high sitting area and access down to shallows which were great -- and relatively safe -- for toddlers. (The pictures here are recent, and taken when the flood was 'up', which I'll explain in a moment. And that fence wasn't there then, either.)

On any decent day in the summer, and on the sunny evenings, both places would be quite crowded with swimmers, families, and people just generally walking around and passing the time of day. They weren't fenced off as they are now, though the Mill Stream part had to be accessed through an area of reeds, which was very soggy except where some paths had been established through it.

There were always cattle in the fields around, but they either didn't bother coming near the crowds, or when the odd heifer did make its way to the water edge for cooling or drinking, nobody else bothered them either.

It was an indication of the relationship between the landowner and the villagers that he not only accepted their right to use the river bank parts of his land, but he even went to the expense of installing a proper diving board at the deep end close to the Valley (at the location above, but of course the board is long gone) so that the more adventurous of us could learn the pains of belly-flops as we tried to show off.

While swimming, all of us would keep an ear out for the siren at Poulaphuca Dam up near Ballymore, because that signalled the release of water from the reservoir to make electricity, usually twice a day. The 'flood' would begin maybe an hour or so later, and the benign river would become in relative terms a fast-flowing torrent, with the shallow parts getting far too deep and dangerous for the youngsters.

For experienced swimmers, the 'flood' provided a chance to move really fast in the water, especially if we got in up closer to the New Abbey end. It was important to make sure we got out before reaching the Valley, because it wasn't a park then, but fairly impenetrable scrubland with just a path of rock and mud used by the occasional fisherman. And there was a reputed 'hole' around the turn into the Valley proper which was supposed to have dangerous currents, so that was to be avoided.

The stretch between the Valley, under the bridge and then on to where the river turned left beyond Kellyville wasn't swimmable, because of too many rocks and remnants of the old weir. But by taking a route through Jim Byrne's land (now the Hillside development) we could access the next river turn under and opposite Castlemartin House, then still owned by the Blacker family. The land on 'our' side was Jim Byrne's, and there were pleasant banks where we could picnic and generally laze around, and put back the thought of a somewhat long walk home at the tired end of the day. Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of that spot.

That was where I nearly drowned once, as a small youngster. I'd just learned to float on my back during a recent trip to the seaside, and was happily repeating the exercise when some eejit roared from the bank that I was out of my depth.

Whatever about one's whole life flashing through the mind when drowning, I still, well over fifty years later, have a most vivid memory of panicking and sinking, watching the water and bubbles swirling above me as I struggled to get up. Fortunately, one of the older boys who could swim properly pulled me out. Fortunately also, I wasn't put off by the event and soon learned the rest of swimming skills myself.

There's another memory from that spot too, which has nothing to do with swimming: many years later, in the seventies, a small island in the river at that spot -- and Castlemartin House brooding above it -- became the locations for my first paid-for published short story, 'The Final Sin'. But that's a story in itself for another time.

The Carnalway swimming spot required transport to access, either on our bikes or by family car, though on occasion some of us did the walk along the river from the Jockey Stile through New Abbey Woods and on a fairly lengthy and winding route to get there.

It was very popular also with families from Newbridge and Naas, as a picnic and swimming area which again had the advantage of being a safe spot for toddlers as well as providing some decent swimming for us older ones and some adults.

Indeed, there was a point across from the paddling area to where we could swim and climb on a curved trunk of overhanging tree and then jump or dive back in. My earliest recollections are of being one of those toddlers brought there by my mum, squishing around in the sandy mud parts, but I have many subsequent ones of swimming and diving on the other side as a bigger boy.

The spot itself was then part of a very large open field, and the landowner of the time had no qualms about letting people use the area. And there was equally a respect for the land and the times when unharvested crops filled most of the field; the swimming/picnic area was left clear by the owner, and nobody ever damaged the crops, at least not in my memory.

Even on the hot days of recent years, I've not seen swimmers at the Jockey Stile or the Mill Stream sites. Maybe the fact that the bank is fenced off puts them off, or maybe people just don't swim in the river any more, given the availability of public and leisure centre pools. And I presume that nobody goes down to the site below Castlemartin, as that land is now also owned by Sir Anthony O'Reilly.

But I was very interested to hear one of my nieces saying she was going for an evening swim to Carnalway, after work. That was just a couple of days before the recent blockade of the access stile.

I suppose, if the weather pattern permits, the new and temporary dock for the Canoe Club at Riverside Manor could make a good base to swim from in one of the most traditional areas. But maybe also we've got rather too comfortable, requiring our heated and chlorinated and weather-free pools, and have now too many other distractions by which to pass the summer afternoons?

But it could also be that we're just not getting summers like I remember?

Whichever, despite the current furore over Carnalway towards maintaining the right to swim from the river bank, I suspect that such occasions as I've just related will not be in the memories of a generation looking back in another fifty years.

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