New plans to attract adventure tourism to the Liffey Valley west of the city centre have raised hopes that shelved plans for a river park could rise again.
Earlier this month, staff and councillors from Fingal and South Dublin met to discuss, in broad terms, the Liffey Valley, which has long been low on their lists for tourism promotion.
The two councils’ tourism sections have agreed to set up a new scheme to develop a blueway along the river, as part of the blueways initiative that has seen canoe and bike trails developed on the Shannon and Erne rivers, and along the Royal Canal.
Two local authorities are currently preparing tender documents for a consultation process to decide what the exact scope of the Liffey Valley blueway and will seek bids in July.
For now, though, it seems that this new blueway will be limited to the water, as land acquisition makes the development of new paths difficult.
It could see the revival of an ambitious 2007 greenbelt plan, which promised big things.
A 20km park along the banks of the Liffey, modelled on the Lagan Valley park between Belfast and Lisburn, was to link Islandbridge to Leixlip. The plan also promised new bridges, restoration funds, and pedestrian and cycle routes connecting over a dozen parks and heritage sites.
It would have been the culmination of decades of work by local residents and environmental campaigners. Protests by the Liffey Valley Defence Alliance against Dublin Corporation plans for a landfill in the early 1980s ended with Environment Minister Pádraig Flynn establishing the first special amenity area order for the valley.
“The essence of the park is already in existence but linking it all together will create a far greater appreciation of what is effectively a green lung reaching into Dublin,” Office of Public Works official Eugene Keane told the Irish Independent at the time.
“By linking all these projects together, we can create an entity that defies administrative boundaries and would be the envy of other European cities,” he said.
It was the spirit of what town planner Myles Wright had in mind when he planned out new suburbs to the west of Dublin in the late 1960s.
“Green wedges will provide for many of the open space recreational needs of the existing city as well as the new Western Towns, and at the same time guide the outward spread of the city, channelling, and defining urban development,” he wrote.
But the timing was all wrong.
“The recession hit as soon as the plan was completed,” said Tony Shanahan of the South Dublin County Promotion Unit. “Terribly bad timing. Fáilte Ireland’s capital funding has been closed down until this year, and it has to be acknowledged that local authority funding has been cut back an awful lot too.
“We’re only kind of emerging into this space again now, and I suppose the blueway is – if you’ll excuse the pun – us dipping our toe in the water and get going again in terms of this sort of project,” said Shanahan.
But even with loosening budgets for tourism promotion and amenity development, the Liffey Valley is still second fiddle to other spots – for both Fingal and South Dublin.
“In the hierarchy of tourism products for our county, we’d definitely be leading with the Dublin Mountains, supplemented by the Liffey and the [Clondalkin] Round Tower as well,” Shanahan said.
Fingal County Council seems to feel the same way. Its spokesman said that their counterparts across the water were “taking the lead and currently developing the brief”.
“In Fingal’s situation, there’s not a lot of interest in the Liffey Valley,” said Roderic O’Gorman, a Green Party councillor for the Castleknock ward in Fingal.
He pointed to the council’s latest tourism-promotion plan, saying that attractions had been concentrated in the coastal towns in the east of the county in an initial draft. Extra heritage sites in the west of the county were added following pressure from Blanchardstown councillors, O’Gorman said.
The Fingal and South Dublin county councils’ tourism sections have agreed to re-establish the special amenity area committee, which has met just six times since 1992.
In theory, the committee is supposed to have a budget of €10,000 a year from Fingal. “This never gets spent as far as I know,” said O’Gorman.
“It really has fallen into abeyance,” said independent South Dublin County Councillor Guss O’Connell, one of a number of councillors north and south of the Liffey agitating to get the committee back up and running.
“Everyone who wants to come to Ireland comes to Dublin. And everyone who comes to Dublin walks down Grafton Street,” said O’Connell. “We’re saying, ‘Hold it now, we have the Dublin Mountains on one side and the Liffey Valley on the other. How can we attract them out?’”
“When we asked for the resuscitation of the Liffey Valley Special Amenity Order Management Committee – there’s a mouthful for you – they said, ‘Okay, let’s have a workshop.’ At that workshop, thrown into the mix was this concept of the ‘blueway’ for the River Liffey.
“What we’re saying is that we need to open up some walkways, and that may involve criss-crossing the River Liffey in a number of places, because the lower road through the Strawberry Beds is a motorised way of getting to it. Because of the way in which some of the land is in public ownership and some is on the side of the road.
“You might do that by a series of small bridges – or you might do that in the traditional way it was done, and that was by having a ferry. The last ferry was at Palmerstown and it used to take you across to the Strawberry Beds. That was there up to 50 years ago. There’s also what we call the Silver Bridge, or the Guinness Bridge.”
The rusting steel lattice structure crosses the river east of Waterstown Park and the West-Link toll bridge, held up by two massive stone piers. It once linked the low flood plain on the south bank at Palmerstown to a steep path on the north side that led through woodlands up towards the Farmleigh Estate.
The bridge has become a touchstone for local nostalgia. Palmerstown local Paul Corcoran has set up a Facebook page to campaign for the bridge’s restoration.
An engineer’s report in 2006 found that despite heavy surface corrosion, the structure was not in immediate danger of collapsing into the river.
The engineer did recommend a more detailed investigation of hidden parts of the bridge, as well as immediate works to repair the security fencing on the south side of the bridge in order to keep children from playing on it.
Earlier this week, the steel barrier shown in the engineer’s report did not appear to have been changed, and a hole large enough to climb through was open at the bottom.
So far Corcoran’s petition has collected 1,567 signatures, but hasn’t quite won the hearts of council officials in Swords.
Fingal owns the bridge, along with a lodge and a small patch of land on the north side, but said there were impediments to restoring the bridge to working order – not least the cost.
The last estimate for restoration works was €350,000, and that’s before the cost of land acquisition and rebuilding paths.
“The bridge is effectively in no man’s land [as] it does not link to any walking route either on the north or south side of the river,” Fingal County Council management told the Castleknock-Mulhuddart area meeting in May.
“Until pedestrian safety issues are resolved on the Strawberry Beds Road it is not safe to open up the bridge for access. No capital funding has been identified for the repair of the bridge.”
The bridge has the same problem that the rest of the valley has: private land. Although the special amenity order stopped development in the valley, any effort to join the dots for public access runs into the headache of land acquisition.
Fields that Farmleigh Estate workers crossed on their way up from the valley are owned by development firm Menolly Homes, which was controlled by developer Seamus Ross until it went into liquidation in February.
Would either council be ready to swoop if there was an opportunity to buy the land out of liquidation? Guss O’Connell says that opportunities have already been missed, pointing to the sale of lands owned by the Coates ink factory in Palmerstown, which he wanted the council to buy.
“At the time the price tag was mentioned to be a million and a half. Eventually it got sold for two hundred thousand. It was a steal,” he said.
“We want to have that bridge restored, because it’s very historic in its own way, but it would also give a crossing of the Liffey there for cyclists and pedestrians,” said Guss O’Connell
“We’re now pushing an open door. Ten years ago, the only door that would have been ready would have been for housing or industry or something like that. Now it’s recognised that this is a very worthwhile and interesting landscape,” he said.
“We will get definite movement on it.”