Tommy Keogh grew up around Camac River, and he worked in one of the paper mills alongside it for more than 25 years, until it closed in 1987.
You used to be able to tell the quality of the water in Clondalkin by the colour of the paper that week, Keogh says.
Now, he’s part of Friends of the Camac, a local volunteer group in Clondalkin set up to preserve the river, and protect its ecosystem.
“We’re trying to take it back for the community,” he says. “Since the paper mill closed, the water went idle, stale, static.”
Keogh was one of several speakers at an event last Monday at the Inchicore library, organised by Dublin City Council and its Water Framework Directive Office.
As part of the EU’s Water Framework Directive, all water bodies in the EU must achieve “good ecological status” by a certain date. For the Camac, that date is 2027.
Mary-Liz Walshe, an engineer and planner for the council, is charged with the rehabilitation of the river. And Monday “reminiscence evening” was part of her preparations for that.
“This familiarity, these memories and attachments, along with an appreciation of the river’s past, will be critical for its successful restoration and rehabilitation in the future,” Walshe says.
There were about 15 people sitting in a circle in Inchicore library on the Monday evening.
There’s a catering table, laid with catering-white cups, saucers and biscuits, and library staff are hustling around, trying to find more chairs to fit around the wooden car in the kids’ section.
Residents of Inchicore and surrounding areas had been invited to come, “remember the Camac of old” and share their stories and photographs of the river, its mills and its millraces – the channels that carried swiftly moving water to turn the mill wheels.
Historian Pat Liddy kicks things off with a history of the Camac, right back to the early days. Listeners lean in as he tells how, as the city grew, its smaller rivers got in the way of development and were covered up, hidden underground.
“In my mind, the Camac has always been associated with Inchicore,” says Liddy. In response, there’s a chorus of reminders that it still flows openly in Clondalkin.
“It’s totally inglorious at the moment,” Liddy says. There’s talk among those present that in some places the river has become invisible, and in others it is now urbanised – even ugly.
You can only see it in some places, under some bridges, Liddy says. “The old mills and buildings were built too close [to the banks, and] don’t let you put nature back into it.”
Most of the mills and millraces along the Camac are closed now, says Gerard O’Connell, of the council’s drainage division, but that means there’s a lot of opportunity for development.
It’s possible to walk along the river, but it’s tricky in places, and a lot of the river has been routed through culverts, under roads or railways, O’Connell says. Still, it can be violent, in terms of flooding, he says.
Ultimately, it’s a “heavily industrialised, urban river”, says O’Connell, and “it’s a challenge to bring it back.”
What’s surprising, O’Connell says, is that fish can still live in it, which the council’s historian in residence for the South-Central area, Cathy Scuffil, says speaks of the enduring quality of the water.
Memories of the River
There’s a steady trickle of people joining the group. As Keogh is finishing his story about working in the mill, an older man in a neat, tweed jacket joins the circle, and waits for his turn.
Seosamh Ó Broin says he knows the area well. A historian, and author of the book Inchicore, Kilmainham and District, he, like many here, has contributed to the documentation of this historic corner of Dublin.
He begins, in a low, husky voice. “There’s many different things that could be spoken about regarding the river,” he says. But his focus this evening is the “ancient bridge” across the river, in Goldenbridge.
One side has been reconstructed, and the other is still ancient-looking, he says, “so the two sides work in harmony”. A plaque would be in order, after some research into its history, he suggests. His belief is that this is the original Golden Bridge.
Ó Broin says he is the fourth generation of his family living in the area. “My forebears worked mostly on the railway, and they lived in the railway houses,” he says. He remembers Inchicore during the Second World War, when people were suffering in the area because there was no fuel to keep them warm, and the turf was usually damp.
“The big thing was the huge amount of men employed on the railway works in Inchicore. They were skilled men,” he says, but those jobs faded away in modern times.
What he remembers most is the vast number of children playing out on the streets in those days, he says, “making their own amusement”, and learning to swim in the Grand Canal.
“We were out robbing birds’ nests down the Liffey, which we shouldn’t have done,” he says, smiling.
Learning about the River
Walshe wanted to set up the event to learn about the river, “from the people who know it best”, she says, and she’s happy with how it went.
“I’ve been studying old maps, reading about the Camac, and old area plans,” she says. The river ties in so many different things, she says, and its role in history is vital to the area.
“It struck me that the condition of the river is in contrast to its importance in the past,” she says. “Now, so much of it is underground, and largely forgotten about in industrial areas.”
Much of the physical heritage of the river has been documented, Walshe says, but what has been less well recorded are the stories of the people, still living, whose livelihoods depended on the Camac, or who grew up beside it.
The next reminiscences event to share stories of the Camac is scheduled for Walkinstown Library on Wednesday 6 June, from 6pm to 7.30pm.