“The Liffey is our connection to the world.”

Novelist Joseph O’Connor dropped into the studio to speak to Ryan Tubridy about what he’s been up to and to share a handshake for the first time since Covid. Joe has been busy writing the script for the new documentary series about the river Liffey, which can be seen on RTÉ One and on RTÉ Player. Joe talks about the people he encounterd in the making of the 6-part series TheLiffey, from tunnel-keepers to swimmers, from writers to first responders. Ryan and Joe also exchange stories about their shared love of books, the brilliant teachers who inspired them in their love of words and writing, and their admiration for children and teenagers coping with the challenges of learning in Covid times.

Joe says the new documentary series gives the river the credit it deserves for making Dublin city possible and for continuing to keep it alive:

“In the very literal sense, the Liffey is a life system. It supports the insects and the birds and the clean air and we wouldn’t have the city of Dublin without it.”

The Dublin writer and novelist joins a distinguished group of international artists who have celebrated the river in one form or another; from poets like Eavan Boland and Philip Larkin, to James Joyce, who cast the Liffey in a starring role in one of his greatest works by him, as Joe explains:

“There’s an old tradition of embodying rivers or characterizing rivers. James Joyce who we celebrate this month, of course the centenary of Ulysses; really the hero of his final book Finnegan’s Wake is Anna Livia, you know the personification of the Liffey. All Dubliners would know the phrase, Anna Livia made perhaps from the phrase Abhann na Life.”

The river is a character in this new documentary too, Joe says, and the series features some of the incredible people whose lives are dominated by the Liffey:

“There are moments in this documentary series where the Liffey speaks to us and then there are moments when it’s linking up a collection of stories from amazing people; a couple of dozen people who work on the river or who live by the river or who have an interest in it.”

The story of the Liffey is the story of people like Christopher Moriarty, a writer who has spent his life pondering the river and walking its banks, Joe says. He also mentions Gerry Reilly, a crane operator in Dublin Port, and is struck by how Gerry describes the sheer joy of his job, overlooking the Liffey every working day:

“It’s so touching and inspiring. He says ‘You know, I go to work every morning. I climb up into this crane. I’m 30 meters above the city of Dublin. I might see the sun coming up and making the water of the Liffey golden. Nobody has a job like me.’ And all of these people talking about the Liffey with great tenderness, like a kind of beloved relative.”

The documentary series covers parts of the river that are hidden to the eye, parts that are “uisce faoi thalamh”, as Joe calls them. He’s fascinated by the work of David Green, whose job it is to look after the tunnel guiding the River Poddle into the Liffey, via a special vaulted tunnel under the city:

“It’s through an entrance hatch on Dame Street, and he goes down into this tunnel, which is so kind of spooky and evocative; it’s a touch of Bram Stoker… He says, at one point, ‘You know, it’s great, it’s very well built and I find it beautiful, but it’s old and it’s getting on, and like a lot of us who are getting on, it needs a bit of love and tenderness.’ I was so struck all the way through, when I was writing The Liffey, by the great warmth and the love and affection that Dubliners have for the river.”

The award-winning writer modestly plays down his contribution in scripting the series, whilst simultaneously raving about what he says is stunning, never-before-seen footage of the Liffey in the documentary:

“The footage in The Liffey, it’s really beautiful. The drone footage that is available now. I can promise, I hope that the words are beautiful, but I can promise that the stories that people tell are beautiful. And the visuals of the Liffey ; you will never have seen a depiction of the Liffey like this.”

Joe thinks the importance of the iconic waterway cannot be underestimated, in the history of the city and in the life of the nation:

“The Liffey is our connection to the world. It’s part of our identity.”

The documentary series TheLiffeywritten by Joseph O’ Connor and narrated by Angeline Ball runs from Sunday May 15th for six weeks on RTÉ One and on RTÉ Player.

There’s lots more chat in Ryan’s interview with Joe O’Connor, as Joe talks about his grandfather’s reverence for rain and his pride in Dublin’s famous riverside brewery, Joe’s respect for the strength and resilience of teenagers in the pandemic and the nun who inspired him to write in the full interview with Ryan here.

Joe O’Connor is festival director of the University of Limerick Creative Writing Festival, which runs from Friday 20th May to Sunday 22nd May 2022 – more information is available here.

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