The Royal Canal flows lazily beneath Broome Bridge in Cabra last Wednesday, at lunchtime.
The sunshine shimmers on top of the water, where it will continue on to the Liffey by the Samuel Beckett Bridge. Along this canal there are wild green spaces that sustain a wide variety of plants, animals and insects.
“A space like this is crucially important for plants, animals and humans” says Kaethe Burt-O’Dea standing at the footbridge.
Burt-O’Dea is the creative director at Bí URBAN, a nature-based social enterprise and community space in Stoneybatter.
It’s also the home of an advocacy group that highlights the importance of nature, The Lifeline who have launched a new podcast series examining the ecosystems of wild urban spaces around Dublin.
The first episode of The Lifeline will explore the ecosystem of the historic Royal Canal.
A grey heron stands at the canal lock, his slim body is perched over the gushing water. Opposite, on the northern side of the canal, an ivy bush grows out from the industrial estate railings.
The pale green flowers on the bush bounce up and down as countless bees work to collect the pollen. “Ivy honey is actually delicious,” says Burt-O’Dea, as she stands to look at the honey bees working in the sunshine.
But this is not the only plant along the canal that catches her attention. After every couple of steps, Burt-O’Dea picks another flower and puts it into a plastic pouch which is filled with other seeds and flowers.
“We have learned that we can’t rely on other people or groups to protect it,” Burt-O’Dea says.
So the Lifeline team have decided to take matters into their own hands with the new podcast.
They hope to bring attention to the biodiversity of the north inner-city to encourage the preservation of these wild urban spaces, says Burt-O’Dea.
“This used to be looked at as hippy dippy shit but after lockdown that has changed,” she says. “People are starting to get a better appreciation of it”
All Along the Banks of the Royal Canal
The first episode opens with the sound of rushing water, chirping birds and the quick footsteps of a jogger along the banks of the Royal Canal.
“We hope to illustrate how understanding the natural heritage of water courses in Dublin can inspire creative solutions to urban problems,” says co-director and acting manager of Bí URBAN Sadhbh Burt-Fitzgerald in the podcast.
In the podcast, Burt-Fitzgerald, Burt-O’Dea and Dublin City FM presenter Valerie Vetter move along the canal to Blessington Basin and discuss biodiversity in urban areas, and methods of keeping the canal water clean.
“[The canal] has everything that a bee or an insect would need,” says Burt-O’Dea in the podcast.
“Now we are beginning to realise that we are all programmed for the natural environment as are all other living things,” she says.
The Value of the Royal Canal
Back in Cabra, the three women stand at the canal by Broom Bridge.
Burt-O’Dea wears a long denim shirt buttoned to the top. The other two wear long sleeve white tops in the midday sun.
Joining them is Django, a wheaten terrier who pants in the heat before plunging into the water.
“There are a couple of reasons that we decided to do a podcast on the canal,” says Burt-O’Dea.
For one, parks and other well maintained green spaces do not provide a diversified ecosystem for insects and animals, says Fitzgerald. “So when you look at somewhere like the Royal Canal, it’s one of the few places where you still have that wild kind of unruly part of the environment”.
Django climbs out of the canal with his hair wringing wet. The women turn their backs to him as he shakes his body dry causing water to fly in every direction.
“The value of these humble plants is amazing,” says Vetter moving towards meadowsweet flowers, as they walk further eastward along the canal from Broom Bridge.
Vetter and Burt-O’Dea point to plants that line the banks of the river and to other shrubs that grow beside the railing as they explain the benefits of these plants.
“This [meadowsweet] can be used as an aspirin because of the salicylic acid in it,” says Burt-O’Dea.
Meadowsweet flowers line the canal, a five minute walk from the Broombridge Luas. It’s a tall slim green plant with bunched up small white flower heads, which can be used for mead flavourings, and is a favourite among Scandanavians, says Burt-O’Dea.
Beside the meadowsweet are yarrow plants. It’s similar looking to the meadowsweet but with a bigger flower head on it.
“This is a great plant for the skin. It can be used to heal wounds,” she says.
“This other one is hawthorne. This is incredibly good for the heart. You can buy it in the pharmacy if you have heart complaints,” says Burt-O’Dea.
She plucks some of the flowers from the plant and puts it in a sandwich bag that is filled with other flowers that she has collected along the canal.
Vetter says: “As you can see you don’t need much space to provide a lot of habitat”.
There is also an economic benefit to a wild space like this, she says.
Many of the Bí URBAN products such as soaps, elixirs and balms are made with plants from the royal canal.
You can’t rely on the government to preserve a wild space like this, says Burt-O’Dea.
On the south side of the canal, just over the railings is the Broombridge Luas stop.
“That used to be a fantastic wild space,” says Burt-O’Dea looking over to where people are waiting for the Luas now.
A big part of this problem is that the land around the canal is owned by various groups and there is little cooperation between them to preserve the wild spaces, says Vetter.
Vetter points at different pieces of land behind the railings. Buildings or plots of concrete lay on the other side.
Making the Podcast
“It’s not that people want to do harm to the area but many people just don’t even know about the wild green spaces in their urban area,” says Vetter.
Burt-Fitzgerald recorded the natural sounds of the royal canal using a Zoom recorder.
Capturing the sounds of the canal was an interesting process, she says.
“[The sounds] go through many different phases depending on where you are along the canal,” she says.
Burt Fitzgerald noticed a lot of construction sounds when she was recording at Broome Bridge, she says.
“As you travel down industrial sounds phase out into beautiful lush sounds of nature and the environment,” she says.
The walk ends in an open field by the canal opposite the Batchelor’s factory.
Wild plants fill the field. Vetter bends down and stretches her hand out to the lady bird on one plant.
“I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” she says.
“These insects are like the canary in the mine for us humans. If the area is good for living in, they will be the first ones to know about it,” she says.