By NEIL KEARNEY
“Pull the chain
And in a jiffy
Your s… goes floating
Down the Liffey”
The Liffey in that colourful piece of prose is the river that meanders through the city of Dublin and ends up flowing into the Irish Sea. Writer and poet Brendan Behan evoked the language of the streets to describe the urban squalor of his time. In the 1940s, the River Liffey was pretty much a sewer.
The Liffey in Northern Tasmania is as far from Behan’s dirty drain as you can get, both geographically and aesthetically. Liffey reserve is a shrine to nature, blessed with a backdrop that’s simply awesome. Whatever way you look at the Great Western Tiers, they stare back. They have a power that almost speaks to you. The colours are ever changing. Sometimes they’re the inkiest of blues. On other days, they’re steely grey. On winter mornings they’re often cloaked in a brooding mist and dotted with snowcaps or blanketed by clouds that look tired of carrying their load. A friend’s farm cottage has a sweeping view of the Tiers. He sometimes feels the loneliness of his isolation and has thought of moving to a warmer place in a town, but he says he couldn’t face the morning without his view of the mountain.
It’s often said that the air and water at the Liffey are amongst the purest on the planet. That makes sense. The wild westerly winds carry the clouds across the vast Indian Ocean, they hit the mountainous West Coast of Tassie, then drop rain onto the cool temperate rainforest. Nature’s cycle continues as it has for millions of years. There are no cities or factories in the pathway to choke up the atmosphere or spew smoke and dust. Breathe in the Liffey air, or scoop up the water in cupped hands, and you feel enriched. The Liffey is that fresh.
Like many Tasmanians, I have a strong connection with the Liffey. I’ve lived on the mainland for most of my working life, but Liffey is still my ‘go to’ place. Whenever I need to rejuvenate or want to take family or friends on an escape I know they’ll enjoy, we head towards the mountain. John Williamson penned a song about the Liffey for Dr Bob Brown, who has a spiritual bond with the area. I’m sure there are many others who consider the giddy heights of Dry’s Bluff, the perennial waterfalls, the bubbling river and the vivid green valley to be their haven.
My earliest Liffey memory is going to the Longford Baptist youth club’s campsite. The camp every January was the highlight of our summer holidays. We had a ripping time. We slept in bunks, four or six to a hut, cooked and ate in a communal area, and tried to ‘tickle’ the brown trout in the stream whenever the adults weren’t keeping a close eye. On the final night, each group would attempt a musical act for a concert, which was so bad it was hilarious. Camp life sounds uncool by comparison with the technology-driven experiences of today’s children, but it was uncomplicated fun. Our leader, local storekeeper Roy Preece, spent much of his early life at the Liffey and he imparted on us a love of simple things like bushwalking, or yarning around campfires, or sing-alongs. Roy’s favourite song started “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning…” That tune probably had a religious meaning, which was lost on me, but I thought it was very appropriate for chilly evenings up the Liffey.
On days when the sun poked through, we’d take our togs and towels to a waterhole that Roy knew. The water was so bracingly cold that we’d all hang back and wait for Roy to plunge into the pool first. I can still see his milky white skin disappearing feet first into the drink and seconds later he’d come up coughing, spluttering, laughing and telling us all how good it felt. I’m sure Roy hated the freezing water as much as the rest of us, but he was just the man to break the ice. In my teenage years my brother Graham and I drove to the Liffey on Sunday mornings and we raced on foot from the lower car park to the Falls and back. Graham suffered severe asthma as a child and he loved to fill his lungs with the freshness of the wilderness. Galloping along the rough-hewn track and crisscrossing the creek between the sassafras, myrtle and leatherwood made our mornings all the more invigorating – even if the leeches usually hitched a ride.
Our mum, Annie, was born at nearby Bracknell. Her father was Norman Tasman Spencer and her mother was christened Ida Tasmania McQueen. They took their heritage seriously in the 19th century.
My mum grew up in the Bishopsbourne-Bracknell area and spent all her married life on Longford. She never strayed far from the nest, but she did reminisce about how – in the years between the wars – her parents would take their seven offspring on blackberry-picking expeditions towards the Liffey. It was an exotic location in those days. Mum died after a long battle with lung cancer when I was in my early twenties. On the day before she went into Longford’s Toosey memorial hospital for the final time, she asked me to drive her up through her beloved Bishopsbourne and Bracknell towards the mountain. When we stopped at the upper Liffey, she didn’t want to get out of the car. She wound down her window and took a few slow breaths as she watched the cool waters of the Liffey river bubble over the flat stones beneath the little wooden bridge. I reckon that was a lasting memory mum took with her.
In recent years I’ve taken my daughters, Annie and Jess, to the Liffey at least once or twice every year. Sometimes we hike in from the lower car park, but usually we follow the tourist route from the upper car park and read the interesting plaques created by children from Bracknell school. The walking tracks are well signposted – and that’s enough. You can’t enhance the Liffey experience beyond that. It’s a timeless paradise. I’ve always told Annie and Jess that the Falls are the best place to visit in the world, and they humour me with knowing grins. Over the years we’ve visited exotic places around the world, destinations that I’ll concede do try hard to come near the unique qualities of the Liffey. But whenever we visit a tourist attraction or natural wonder, my girls defer to their old man with a wink and a smile and they ask me the rhetorical question: “It’s not as good as Liffey Falls dad, is it?