Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The changed view from Nugent's Field

The activities of man changes landscape, but nature does it much more, and more quickly too, writes Brian Byrne. Especially if we give it a chance.

That's the thought that I had while walking on the Bridge Camphill Farm and Nature Trail during the week, in a part of the year when everything is in full growth.

For quite some years now, the bluff across the river from what used to be Nugent's Field has been totally covered in bush and trees vegetation. Nothing of the face of what we called a cliff as kids can be seen, let alone the pathways down it from the fields above, and the one running along the river bank, that were absolutely passable then.

There were also key features, like the 'Table Rock' in the river, a flat-topped section of Ice Age agglomerate which had dislodged from the bluff, and another piece halfway up which gave us kids shelter if we were caught in the area in the rain. Maybe not such a safe shelter given the Table Rock below, but as far as I know it's still in place. Another piece of similar agglomerate is still very visible in the Valley Park.

Nothing of that whole view is as it was in the 1950s when I was growing up. And pretty well as it was too when it was one of the Kilcullen views photographed by one Robert French for the Lawrence Collection around the turn of the 19th century (above). The bluff then, and also when I was a child, was bare of vegetation, unlike the very lush, and probably quite impassable, overgrowth of today.

So what made the difference between the 60 years span that I'm remembering from when I regularly played there as a 10-year-old and today? Well, it probably means that recent activities of man changed a river that had been left to its own devices for thousands of years, or even millions.

I'm not an expert here, but since my schooldays I've been fascinated by the geologic elements of geography, or physical geography. Part of the Biodiversity Survey that Kilcullen Community Action commissioned some years ago reminded us that the post-Ice Age level of what became the Liffey was probably up at where the parish church is now, and was a much wider spread of water. Over the millennia, it cut lower, and ended up in the shape of the river as it now flows through the town.

But water is a mighty force — I've seen at first hand what it has done in the case of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in the USA. And left to its own seasonal devices, it will reshape where it goes through. So, even though it was down to close to current levels in 1900, and not that much different in my 1950s, it was still sculpting the landscape.

In the days when Robert French was photographing Ireland, and in our instance Kilcullen, the Liffey was still an untamed artist. Cutting, shaping, gouging, especially following winter rains in the Wicklow mountains where it originated. It meant that there were regular landslips on the bluff as it swirled around what is now the Camphill Bridge Community. Which is why we had the Table Rock of my youth. And a visible view of a very bare cliff in both mine and Robert French's time.

Pic courtesy Silverblaster on Wikipedia.
What changed? Well, the Poulaphuca Reservoir was formed when the Liffey was dammed in 1940 to provide a hydro-electric facility as part of the electrification of the nation. For the first time since the Ice Age, the flow of the river through Kilcullen was controlled. For the first time, the swelling rush of the winter waters no longer sliced unfettered through the lower part of the bluff, undercutting the cliff and regularly bringing large parts of it down into the river. Including agglomerates like the Table Rock. It also allowed Jim Collins's father to build a weir that shifted some of the regulated flow to power his flour mill — but that's another story in its own right.

When I was growing up, I remember that Nugent's Field was a much wetter place, subject still to flooding that it never gets today. Anyhow, back to the way the view from it is now. In the relatively very short time since the Phoulaphuca Dam was built, a much more benign flow of the Liffey has given nature a chance to do some artistry of its own. Underneath what's there now is a bald bluff that only my generation still living has seen. And what you see now as you walk along the Bridge Camphill Farm and Nature Trail has never been seen before.

It puts another perspective on making a difference.