Cruising Ireland’s River Shannon
Outside in the snug, yellow-lit front bar of Kane’s Pub a sing-along was in full flow, despite the fact it was only four o’clock in the afternoon. Stories were being told, jokes whispered, and great guffaws of laughter were punctuated by sips taken from the black pints that dressed the mahogany.
At the bar a middle-aged woman leaned on the back of a cushioned stool, eyes closed, head back, spilling the words of ‘The Galway Shawl’ from her mouth like one drink too many as a knot of ruddy-faced country men stood in silence waiting for their noble call.
Beyond the bar’s fogged windows the streets of Lanesborough were deserted, as the rain continued to soften the earth and add vigour to the inky blackness of Ireland’s largest waterway, the River Shannon. Even the well-tooled anglers who travel from far and wide to fish the famous ‘hot water stretch’ beside the steaming turrets of the town’s power station had abandoned all hope and stowed their gear.
With the rain falling like a great grey sodden blanket, my colleagues and I had tied up our boat and raised the white flag of surrender for yet another day. Through the dripping windows of the other boats distorted faces peered out into the dampness. Bicycles remained tied firmly on the decks and plans to explore the beauty of the nearby forests and hills put on hold. It was a day to be inside for sure, and that, it appears, is what the entire population of the town had decided to do.
In Kane’s we were welcomed warmly by the girl behind the bar. “Are you off the boats?” she asked, serving our drinks with a considerate smile. We nodded wetly. There was a genuine friendliness in her voice and a willingness to engage in her eyes. “Even the ducks wouldn’t go out in that,” she laughed, breaking the ice.
It had been like this since we first tied off our lines and, like salmon, began our journey upstream four days earlier. In the towns of Portumna, Banagher, Athlone and Shannonbridge the rain and the heartwarming certainty of an engaging and enthusiastic Irish welcome were the two inseparable constants.
But the welcomes doled out along the banks of Ireland’s longest river were not always so friendly. Along its banks, in every town and village, castles, towers, forts and fortifications serve to illustrate the country’s long and troubled history. From Viking invasions, Anglo-Norman attacks and the subsequent British rule, each epoch of the country’s inhabitation is served in monument and stone.
Even the river appears to change around each new bend. Sometimes wide and slow, edged with low rolling fields that emerge directly from the lapping waters like some evolving creature; sometimes narrow and racing, where a tight hand on the helm is needed as you steer a course from marker to marker. The Shannon, like all living things, is engaged in a continuous cycle of change.
Rounding a sweeping bend near Athlone, in a rare moment of bright sunshine and azure skies, the ancient ruins of one of Ireland’s greatest relics, the monastic citadel of Clonmacnoise, appears like the set from some historic drama. Once a home of learning, spirituality and artistic pursuits – where some of Ireland’s most treasured and intricately decorated manuscripts were created – the site now welcomes all comers to explore its legacy of churches, round towers and famously carved high crosses.
Athlone with its imposing castle and long military history is another must for those cruising the river. From the town’s spacious marina the narrow medieval streets, bursting with life and commerce, are a mere stone’s throw. With an abundance of restaurants, theatres, galleries, museums and, of course, pubs – including Sean’s, reported to be the oldest bar in Europe – Athlone is always the boaters’ eagerly awaited favourite.
North of Athlone the river performs another great feat of change. Here it widens and becomes the vastness of Lough Ree (the Lake of Kings in Gaelic), with its myriad of islands, inlets and bays that anglers, sailors, waterskiers, divers and lovers of all things watery call their playground.
The river is a friendly place, where strangers piloting boats wave and salute each other like members of some cabalistic cult. After a long day of cruising, regardless of weather, there is always a welcoming hand waiting to take a thrown line and share in the day’s adventures. The river is a big place, but like a play with a limited cast the same faces appear again and again at each new mooring.
After two or three chance encounters along the voyage, handshakes are offered and names exchanged. After that it becomes inevitable that paths will cross again in some welcoming bar, while the strains of fiddles, banjos and accordions play the soundtrack to Ireland in the background, as another long day on the river becomes another long night on land.
In Carrick-on-Shannon, our final destination, the entire voyage seems
to culminate in the Oarsman Bar. One after another, people we had met along the way – at marinas, lock gates, bars and restaurants – appeared through the bar’s busy doors. In the corner musicians gathered, as they do throughout the country, to share a tune, learn from each other and revel in their shared musical traditions.
With creamy pints flowing like the Shannon’s dark water and the sound of song in the air, friendships are formed and degrees of separation realised. By now I am fully aware boating isn’t all about lines and charts, wind and weather, loughs and lakes. It’s about people and their willingness to come together in friendship, united by time shared on the flowing water. And they won’t let the weather get in the way of that.
Qatar flies from most destinations into to Dublin.
Le Boat offers the opportunity to captain a motor cruiser and enjoy a holiday with a difference on the lakes, rivers and waterways of Ireland’s heartland. The River Shannon and River Erne, along with the network of surrounding loughs, provide a fantastic mix of cruising experiences, easy navigation, excellent fishing, stunning scenery, outdoor pursuits and lively waterside villages to discover.
Words Brendon Harding
Photos Brendon Harding