‘Sion Abhainn’ or wise river is the longest in the country, along the 360km of riverbanks and callows people have lived, boated, fished and farmed, for centuries. In the 1960’s a new town was built on reclaimed marshland along the estuary below Limerick city. The former Rineanna became Shannon town, and this new town focused on its airport and growing industrial estate. The planned layout of the town turned its back to the river, protected by embankments built to counter the threat of flooding. No fishing or pleasure boating here, the estuary is wide, tidal and very muddy.
The children of the young families who came to live and work in the town explored and played beyond the developers paths. Soon tracks emerged leading to the ‘points’ as small feet wandered amongst the tall grasses, bulrushes and reeds that grew along the river. Games of ‘tracking’ were played and forts built, buckets of frogs collected. On summer nights the call of corncrakes lulled the tired explorers to sleep. On hot summer days there were picnics at the point, miwadi orange and buttered marietta biscuits, with an occasional swimming lesson, the swimmers soon up to their knees in the blue grey mud of the river bed. You learned quickly to move in a skating motion rather than try to step on the sinking river mud.
The town and the children grew, new industries, new housing estates and a welcome leisure centre and swimming pool. Although paths were laid along the riverbank and picnic tables installed, the points got quieter and with habitat loss, the corncrake silenced altogether.
As the town grew so did the inhabitants interest in the history of this marshy place. A stone age axe found at Tullyglass point, manufactured in Antrim, points to river travel in the long ago. At the end of Slí na Mara, a few hundred metres from the river, sits Hastings farmhouse. This farmhouse links the new town with the early days of the state. Scene of a major IRA coup, it imprisoned Brigadier Lucas during the War of Independence. More recently a new initiative has started; a wetlands restoration project, on a green site in the heart of the town. Alien species are being cleared, and ponds formed to attract some of the flora and fauna that are the natural heritage of the town.
Spring and summer 2020, Covid 19 arrived, aircraft grounded, industry suspended, leisure centre closed. The town turns back to its river, the riverbank paths are busy with walkers, joggers, and cyclists. The 21st century ‘digital natives’ are now roaming amongst the clover and buttercups, grasses and reeds as their parents and grandparents did. They won’t hear the corncrake but can see a new arrival to this shoreline, the little egret. There are family picnics on the points again and on a warm evening this week some muddy teenagers skating to a swim on the incoming tide.
Interest is also growing in the fledgling wetland, kids watch the pond insect life, and swallows dip to drink from the shallow pools. A mallard family have inspected the site as a prospective home. Bats chase insects as night falls and an owl roosts in the tall trees of the perimeter, his hoot can be heard from nearby houses.
This planned town now shares with other waterside communities an appreciation of the benefits to its inhabitants of a river and wetland resource. The new town is learning of its history and planning for its future in its own unique way, as the wise river flows on by.