Wicklow Rivers

The Vartry River flowing through Devils Glen waterfall
Image: Deirdre Burns

Five principal streams drain the Wicklow Mountains, the largest area of upland in Ireland: Dargle, Vartry and Avoca on the east; Liffey and Slaney to the west.

The Dargle

The first, as one makes one’s way south from Dublin, is Dargle. It features Ireland’s second highest waterfall, and tallest tree, in Powerscourt Demesne. Thereafter, it flows through a deep gorge.

Next is Vartry

Next is Vartry. It drains Calary Bog, just to the south of Great Sugarloaf, one of Ireland’s most distinctive mountains. It then flows roughly parallel to the road south to Roundwood, Ireland’s highest vidllage. Here it has been damme to form the Vartry Reservoirs, the original source of clean water for Dublin. From the reservoirs the river flows slowly southeast. Here there is no hint of what is to come. Then suddenly the waters of the catchment are gathered together, and hurled over a high cliff. Below this waterfall there is still no rest for the stream. In a deep gorge clothed in oak woods it crashes and hurtles over huge rocks, and speeds down its valley. The impression given by this is simply stupendous. I had not seen its like since British Columbia. You stand in the woods looking over a precipice, toward the stream far below. Mostly you cannot see it for the forest. But you can hear it. The name of this place was given before the river was impounded by the dam above. The sheer noise which ascended from the valley floor was so affecting it was thought to be satanic in origin. And so, it was called the Devil’s Glen.


Go there at Hallowe’en
On a dark e’en.
You’ll be left in no doubt
How this name came about.

Below the glen the stream flows under rustic Nun’s Cross Bridge, dark and wooded, and on to Ashford, where it passes Mount Usher, one of the world’s finest gardens. Below this is Newrath Bridge, then immediately Hunter’s Hotel, Ireland’s oldest coaching inn. The river is at the end of its garden. Within sound of the waves it finds Broad Lough, then the sea itself in Wicklow Harbour.

The Avoca

So far, we have discussed the small Dargle, and tiny Vartry. Next is the large Avoca. Its catchment includes some of the country’s finest hill scenery. Parts of it are famed for their beauty and history. I call its mountainous sub-catchments ‘The Avoca Glens’: ‘Glen Cloghoge’, with Loughs Tay and Dan; Glenmacnass of the famous waterfall; Glendalough with its own lakes, and the historic religious settlement of St Kevin; and Glenmalure, with Lugnaquillia, one of Ireland’s highest hills. At Clara Vale the river is really itself, and at its best. The valley looks utterly pristine. You may ask yourself whether this might not be the most beautiful in all the world. The character of the river is in the manner of the perfect Scottish Highland stream: boisterous, with peaty falls and steep gradient.

The Liffey

Close to the birthplace of Avoca, a mere 12 miles south of Dublin, Liffey rises. Its peat-dark headwaters course through Coronation Plantation, again recalling the Scottish Highlands, past delightfully wooded Clochlea (where the Shankill mountain burn enters), past Cill Bhríde (‘Church of Brigid’) and into huge Poulaphouca reservoir, before flowing in a long semicircle through the rich plains of Kildare. At Leixlip (Léim an Bhradáin – ‘Salmon Leap’) there is a further dam, below which is the ‘Lower Liffey’, which flows through Dublin city.

River Slaney

Slaney rises in the Glen of Imaal, then flows mainly south through Baltinglass, Tullow, Bunclody and Enniscorthy, to the tide in Wexford Harbour.

For an angler, Wicklow is paradise, if one appreciates small, jewel-like brown trout. For migratory salmonids (sea trout and salmon) there are problems. Dargle is plagued by poaching, Vartry by abstraction, Avoca by mine poisoning in its lower reaches, Liffey by damming and pollution. Slaney too (formerly the “Queen of Irish salmon rivers”) has suffered a major falling off in salmon stocks.

I (and others) have campaigned for the Avoca mine to be capped (sealed). So far, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the newly-formed East Wicklow Rivers Trust will eventually take the matter in hand. The project has been previously appraised and costed, without any real action forthcoming. The watershed is otherwise virtually pristine, with mile upon mile of ideal spawning ground. With help, it could become one of the finest salmon and sea trout systems on earth.

In 2021, I was invited to join the committee of the newly-formed Liffey Salmon Project, which aimed to save these fish from imminent extinction. In conjunction with ESB and IFI (Inland Fisheries Ireland) we have altered smolt protocols at Leixlip Dam, so that these juveniles have a better chance of reaching the sea, and returning as adults. We have added gravel to the river for spawning. So far, there is evidence of modest success. Salmon were recently seen using the new gravel, and fry (juvenile) counts above and below the dam have improved.

Hope returns to the river.

I heard your sigh
It trembled on the sultry air, fell into my soul
The tantalising tulips in their Chinese bowl
Held their proud heads high
But the bluebells inverted with their weight of tears
Trembled in sympathy
I rue but cannot help that you are my choice
For your beauty has torn my heart, dark head
And the sound of your voice.

Ann Foley. January 1934

©Andreas Buttimer 2024

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