by Carol Cronin
Until very recently, all I knew about the River Shannon was that it was in Ireland. So when an opportunity came to idle down this famous river, which happens to bisect a country we’d always wanted to visit, my husband Paul and I jumped at the chance. Little did we know it would forever change our perception of rivers, cruising, and charter.
All our previous European adventures have been on the continent, where English is a second language. In Ireland we were able to communicate without feeling like we were imposing on everyone to speak “our” language. And since the Irish lilt is lovely and people are universally friendly, we quickly discovered the joyful winding paths of unexpected conversations.
We spent our first day on land, getting from Shannon airport to Carrick-on-Shannon where LeBoat has its the main base in Ireland. Along the way, we took in the visible signs of recent economic boom and bust: the highways are new and easy to navigate, but we found ourselves suddenly diverted back onto a two lane road, long before the map indicated the end of the new section.
Battling jetlag that first day, we still managed to appreciate the tidy town of Carrick-on-Shannon with its ancient buildings and friendly people. I loaded up on a few local novels at one of the town’s two bookstores, knowing that reading about the area while watching it pass before my eyes would only heighten the enjoyment.
Le Boat’s local agent is Emerald Star, and once we registered in their office we were introduced to our luxurious home for our one-way charter to Portumna: a very clean and spacious Elegance cruiser. Paul and I managed to use all three cabins; we each adopted one as a private changing and storage area. But even as space-hungry Americans, we couldn’t possibly fill up all the lockers. It was easy to envision sharing the well laid-out galley and saloon with one or two other couples on our next cruise.
We stayed at the dock in Carrick-on-Shannon the first night and followed the receptionist’s recommendation to eat at Cryan’s Hotel. We enjoyed our first introduction to local Saturday night dinning: local seafood and beef, fresh greens, Guinness—and a “hen” party, the local name for a bridal shower.
The next day we started down the river, entering a world where the Celtic Tiger’s roar and subsequent whimper seem like only a minor hiccup in the layered centuries of history. For most of the week, we enjoyed a similar view to what a visitor from a hundred years ago might have seen—though in the evenings, we tied up to well-maintained modern floating docks that offered freshwater hoses and easy access to the shore.
We came to our first manmade structure, the Jamestown Canal, after less than an hour of motoring. The original “Jamestown Cut” was built in 1775 to bypass a rocky and twisted section of the river near the town of Drumsna, but the bypass itself was still hazardous. In the early 1840s engineer Thomas Rhoades and over three hundred laborers blasted through a kilometer of rock to build a narrow, tree-lined waterway that ends at the Albert Lock. We admired the moss-covered stones that lined the second half of the canal (they hold back the peat soil and the trees growing out of the banks), while marveling at the manpower and careful planning required to build such a long-lasting structure.
We spent our first night in Tarmonbarry, where our lines were taken by a friendly fellow cruiser who had, until moving onto his riverboat, lived only a few miles from our home in the US. He and his wife suggested the Purple Onion for dinner, and later left the last two unreserved seats to us. With locally sourced food (the specific sources are listed on the back of the menu) and a very friendly staff, it turned out to be our best meal of the week. I also enjoyed my first (but far from last) local taste of Guinness, and agreed with Paul that it tasted much better than it did in the States. The Purple Onion’s proprietor told us (tongue in cheek, of course) that they shipped all the “bad Guinness” to America.
The next morning we cast off our lines and said goodbye to our new friends. After passing through the Tarmonbarry lock three hundred yards downriver from our overnight tie-up, we enjoyed a beautiful stretch of river grasses, cows, and very few people (either ashore or afloat).
After the Lanesborough bridge we entered Lough Ree, a stretch of open water that can be rough in strong winds. Luckily we had our faithful northerly tailwind, which helped our progress as we followed the well-marked channel. We were also beginning to really appreciate the inside steering station, which was much warmer and drier than the unprotected area on the top deck.
At the south end of Lough Ree is Quigley’s Marina, our first enclosed harbor with a nice dock and free tie-ups for “hire” boats. The office manager recommended a local pub (where she was also the bartender) and after the rain tapered off we wandered up a tree-lined dirt road to find a small pub with a view of the water. The talk around us was of fishing, and we admired the various photos of recent (and not so recent) special catches. Again the food was locally sourced and pleasantly served, with leftovers that supplemented our breakfast the next morning. They didn’t serve Guinness, so we tried Murphy’s instead.
The next morning we ambled out into a perfectly windless Lough Ree. It was easy to imagine sailing a regatta here, and motoring past the Lough Ree Yacht Club we noticed seven J/24s ready to go for the season.
The town of Athlone seemed like a metropolis after a few days enjoying the small villages along the Shannon. We passed under two bridges (highway and railway) before tying up at the Radisson hotel docks. We quickly jumped on our bikes (which we'd rented from LeBoat) and went off to explore the west bank, under the watchful eye of the thirteenth century castle that had been built by the English.
Athlone also provided our only internet access of the week. From the cozy lobby of the Radisson Hotel we checked in with friends, family, and clients—before we happily went back offline for another three days.
Since we’d stocked up on groceries at the local store, we invited our American friends (recently arrived in Athlone as well) to join us for a drink. They’d never been aboard a hire boat, and they were suitably impressed with the amount of room and thoughtful layout. With the diesel heater warming us, we shared stories about Rhode Island and learned about Irish culture, sport, and politics—the last of which are apparently so boring that everyone follows the American presidential races instead.
The next morning we woke to the forecasted steady rain, and we were glad to be going only a few hours down to Shannonbridge. This is a very remote stretch of the river, and all we saw were cows, white swans, sheep, small grassy islands, and a white chalky rock below the peat/top soil that marked a new geological region.
Just north of Shannonbridge was a big hillock and the ruins of Clonmachnoise. The original monastery was built in 548 at this pivotal crossroads: here, the Shannon’s north/south traffic meets the glacial esker ridge where travelers (now via trains and cars) can easily cross the country from east to west. With churches, ruins, and buildings from various centuries, the much-visited site has been a national monument since 1877.
Five kilometers farther south, we tied up at the Shannonbridge dock. Killeens Pub was just a short walk up the main road and we shared a few pints with the locals before heading back aboard for dinner.
The next day we turned east to stay on the River Shannon, rather than heading west up the hilariously named River Suck. We also passed through Victoria Lock, which is also known as Meelick Lock after the nearby town. When we first arrived the only sign of life was a burro hiding in the lee of the stone lockkeeper’s building. But a few minutes later the lock keeper himself arrived by car; he’d spotted us heading down river and came to meet us.
We locked through the beautiful stone structure and continued downriver to Portumna. While we waited for the next scheduled bridge opening we checked in at the Emerald Star facility, where we would return our boat the next morning. They recommended Terryglass, the harbor we’d already picked out for our last evening on our own. Pushed downwind across the open waters of Lough Derg by a strong puffy northerly, we were glad to turn the corner into the protected harbor behind a large stone breakwall. A quick walk up the hill took us into the tiny town, where we had dinner in the pub.
After a quiet night behind the stone seawall, we wandered up into town again and found The Courtyard, a small B and B that served us a great breakfast (even though we hadn’t spent the night there).We used the wireless to check on our flights and catch up with the most important emails, before gladly heading back to the harbor for some cozy reading.
We timed our departure from Terryglass to make the afternoon bridge opening, and then headed into the Emerald Star base to check out. That afternoon we took our bikes to the Portumna Forest Park, a beautiful open space filled with native trees and plants and well laid out with stone paths. It was a great way to spend our last day on the river before heading to the airport and back to civilization.
I can strongly recommend an Irish riverboat cruise to anyone looking for a luxurious escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life, and LeBoat makes it easy to cruise together with one or two other couples. We chose to spend the week offline, which heightened our awareness of the beautiful timelessness around us. Though we missed sailing, chartering a powerboat turned out to be very relaxing. We knew no matter what the weather, we would be able to make our daily run from the cozy comfort of an inside steering station—without rush or panic. We also knew that our biggest decision each day would be whether to use the well-appointed galley on board, or head ashore for dinner.
Watch the video Paul put together:
Photos courtesy Paul Cronin/WhiteCapVideo.com