Cruising the heart of Ireland
“Congratulations on your 50th trip on the River Shannon!” read a banner over the desk in the boat office as we arrived. The congratulations were not for us. This was our first.
Having circled Ireland’s outer edges two years ago, we were heading for a passage through the midlands, along the Shannon River, which divides the country in half. We were in Carrick-on-Shannon to rent a boat and cruise downstream on current which was running high and fast from recent storms. Happily it was early October; many of the boats were already moored and stored for colder months to come.
There are no requirements for renting a boat — a fact which became obvious once we watched a few boats maneuver at the docks. A young fellow instructed us for ten quick minutes and then set us loose. I’m a novice. Fortunately Jake’s an expert. Ten minutes was enough for him, although at the end of our allotted time, he was still looking for the compass (there’s none) and searching for the engine (under the rented bikes). Happily, he had his own binoculars, since the navigation markers are sometimes hard to spot.
We spent a day and night in Carrick-on-Shannon, getting used to the boat while tied at the dock on shore power. Then we were off, under a bridge and down the river, with Connacht Province to our right, Leinster to our left, fields, water, and sky all around.
A very few fishermen sat in stands along the shore. Many more cows than people. Some sheep, a horse here and there. A house or farm in the distance, not a one of them close to the river. Occasionally we passed a fishing skiff, or another cruiser passed us by. Out there it’s green: green fields, green weeds, green shrubs and trees.
Green and red markers guided us through the navigable channel.
Bridges with multiple arches — like this railroad bridge — are marked with red and green as well, having only one channel deep enough for passage.
Some bridges had to be lifted for a taller boat like ours. You call to let them know you’re there, and then you wait for them to lift the bridge… sometimes through their lunch hour. It’s the same when you meet a lock. We met eight in all, round-trip.
Towns are tiny and scarce. Maybe there’s a grocery store, maybe a restaurant. We cooked breakfast, lunch, and some of our dinners on board.
Cruising boats for rent have wrap-around bumpers — a good thing, given the low bar for rental and the scant instruction. Novices trying to dock against a fast current can get in quite a twist, coming into the docks like bumper boats at a county fair. The least experienced among them tended to have a fishing skiff tied to their stern, crashing along behind them. After watching them bang and slam from the harbor back into the river, we were grateful every time they turned a direction we weren’t going.
Ah, but the swans are smooth… and it’s easy to see why so many towns have a pub named The Swan Inn.
The Shannon has mute swans, their beaks black and orange. Males have the large black knobs at their foreheads. Swans are in pairs or families, rarely alone. They live in the wet lands at river’s edge, diving deep for their weedy delicacies, but not averse to begging from boats.
Our path intertwined with humans as well, paralleling our progress south. There was John, who kindly grabbed a line to help us dock in Dromod Harbor, near his boat the Lady Ruth. Come morning, we had coffee with John and namesake Ruth. We crossed their path again in the town of Athlone, where they brought pizza and we supplied gin. John and Ruth were on their way home to Kildare after summering on the Shannon.
Another pair, from Cork, passed us while we waited for a bridge to lift, and then we accidentally stole their place while moving into the Roosky Lock. We apologized when we met on the dock in Ballyleague.
“We’re on holiday, no worries!” said Richie, with a nod and a sweep of his hand to include his wife Mary. When we met them again on the dock at Athlone, they showed us Sean’s Pub, Ireland’s oldest. Stories were traded back and forth, requiring another round and then a move to dinner.
And as we wandered in Richmond Harbor, while waiting for the locks man to arrive, a man invited us into his camper for some tea and talk: Ian from the town of Howth near Dublin. When the locks man finally came, we ran back to handle the boat, while Ian came to help the locks man open and close the manual gates. During our final week in Ireland, when we were in Dublin, Ian took us on a tour of his favorite haunts in Howth.
One day, on our way back north, we stopped and bought a bag of ice from a convenience store. The girl behind the counter smiled.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“From the States,” Jake said, pulling change from his pocket. “Seattle.”
I jumped in. “If you don’t mind, could I take your picture? Your smile is the same smile we see wherever we go, here in Ireland. So friendly.”
“Well, here,” she said. “I’ll take a selfie of the three of us.” I laughed, passed her my phone, and said, “Exactly! Just like that.”
Traveing on the Shannon, it’s easy to lose a sense of time and distance. And what are you really after? How many miles? How many stops? How far, how fast, how slow, how easy?
We got as far as Athlone and spent 3 nights, visiting its castle museum and reading stories of the battles fought and lost.
Rather than going further south, we let our return trip take another week. We detoured to Richmond Harbor for a glimpse of the Royal Canal, which goes all the way to Dublin. From Richmond Harbor we rode our bikes to Tarmonbarry for lunch. It took 10 minutes. Had we gone by boat, we would have traversed two locks and gone under a lifting bridge: an hour or two, depending on how quick the locks men were.
That was when we realized how much ground we were really covering, slowed down. In a week, we’d cruised what could have taken an hour to drive: 57 miles, 114 round-trip.
It was green in the midlands, with blue sky overhead. A squall or two, a lot of swans — precisely what we were after. Congratulations to us for our first trip on the Shannon River, 49 to go. But it turned out it wasn’t at all about keeping count.