All About Anna Livia

Once upon a time there was a river. It was called the Liffey, or An Life, or Anna Livia Plurabelle. They say that the Barrow, the Nore and the Suir are three sisters. The intention is poetical, misguidedly. Siblings don’t speak delicately to each other, they argue. Rivers don’t babble or sing, they run. They run hither and thither all over the centre of Ireland, round-tower rivers with scores of Ballys and Kills on their backs. Looking at a map, one river appears to curl downwards in the East of the country, almost unassuming in comparison. This is The Liffey, Ireland’s only Martello-tower river. On its banks people spoke Norse and Irish, then English, and now too many languages to name.
For a house, a river is water. For a city, a river is trade. On the Liffey’s quays stands the Customs House, built so the Crown could watch the comings and goings of ships and goods. Any merchant who stepped through its doors was watched also by eyes of Portland stone: Edward Smyth’s neoclassical “river god” sculptures, posted above the House’s doorways. There are sixteen of these faces, each carved to represent one of Ireland’s main rivers and the lands it runs through. Thus the Boyne has a crown of wheat, the Barrow a sheepskin hat. One face stands out amongst these bearded Olympians: Anna Livia, the only river depicted as a woman.
The Liffey finds its feet in the bogs of the Wicklow Mountains, before running through Kildare and finally coming to rest in Dublin. Here are her children, Poddle and Dodder, named like precocious toddlers. The Tolka stands apart, dignified as it saunters past the one million population of Glasnevin Cemetery and through the Botanic Gardens. The Tolka meets the Irish Sea independently, just north of where the Liffey does, in an estuary that was pocked by oysters and picked at by seabirds. Humans aren’t the only ones attracted to rivers.
The Liffey has inspired writers who have inspired Dubliners. Now the Liffey’s bridges bear their names. Samuel Beckett is the biggest and most beautiful, rising harp-like near the Liffey’s mouth. Like so much of Dublin it is a space for cars first, and walkers have to wait for Godot or the Green Man. Seán O’Casey zigzags by Beckett’s side, a bridge for pedestrians only, jostling up and down disconcertingly with the footsteps. Upriver, James Joyce stretches from Usher’s Island in a white bridge shaped like an open book. His characters in “The Dead” would walk it, if the story took place today. For a country, a river is a story. Words and water, stories build our cities as much as stone and brick.
Once upon a time there was a city. It was called Dublin, or Baile Átha Cliath, dear and dirty and a thousand things besides.