A Tour Down Ireland’s Longest Waterway
by Barney Brantingham
Our barge churned along the gently flowing River Shannon, black-and-white cows munched on the starboard bank, and a trio of ruddy-faced fishermen dangled their lines to the port. Fat white swans floated by, trailed by their babies. We were in the Callows, Ireland’s wetlands that run for miles along the Shannon, the longest river in Ireland or England, a water road down the middle of the Emerald Isle. After the hustle ’n’ bustle of Dublin, we were at peace. The 107-foot Shannon Princess II hotel barge was by far the largest vessel on the river, a red, green, and white double-decker that carried six passengers (10 when all five cabins are full) while making a 100-mile, weeklong cruise with owner/captain Ruairi (“Rory” to us) Gibbons at the helm. Before Sue and I left the U.S., friends wondered about the advisability of sharing a boat with strangers for what could be a very long week.
But we soon became fast friends, crew and all. Aboard were a middle-aged South African couple, two women-in-laws from Florida, Rory, his wife Olivia (magician of a kitchen the size of a broom closet), and three stewards: Olivia’s sister Marina and eager-to-help Eastern Europeans Petra and Vlasta. The Shannon is really a series of lakes, or loughs, connected by the river and featuring the interesting process of going through locks, raising or lowering the barge. On a typical day we’d get underway mid morning, stop for lunch, then board the bus to explore. In late afternoons Rory usually docked at a village and after a sumptuous dinner prepared by Olivia, we’d mosey out to stroll the town and test the pubs.
One night we found a pub jammed with locals gathered around a trio consisting of an elderly banjo player, a young woman impassively playing a push-button accordion, and a woman of indeterminate age with a coal-black top-knot pounding a piano (she apparently only knew two tunes) and filling the room with the worse singing voice we were to hear that week. The crowd loved it all. It was great fun and as midnight neared we wandered back to the Princess. It wasn’t the Land of the Midnight Sun, but in early summer there was still a faint magical glow in the west.
No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to a haunted castle. Rory led us to Leap Castle, inhabited by Sean Ryan, his wife, and their teenage daughter, Ciara. A small fire blazed in the hearth while Sean, wearing a red plaid shirt and jeans, gray hair falling about his shoulders, regaled us with stories of the Darby clan, centuries of violence, and malfeasance by the English and the Irish themselves. “All the wars were merry and all the songs were sad,” Sean said. “Most of the fighting was over cattle. Everything was done in the name of God.” He also told tales of hidden treasure and the ever-present ghosts of Charlotte and Emily, young spirits of yesteryear. “They just play around. It’s all quite friendly.”
Sean sang folk songs and played the Irish whistle. Ciara, just back from school, entertained a growing group of visitors with a sprightly step dance — she has professional ambitions — then played the small Irish harp. Sean said he bought Leap Castle in 1991 and began renovating it, “A stroke of luck or madness.”
Then it was back to the barge for dinner, a meal “so beautiful it would make the angels cry,” Marina said as she set out the dishes. The Irish, as we all know, have a gift for language. Someone who’s dipped into the Irish whiskey a bit too often for his own good is termed “too much in the jar.”
We also toured Craggaunowen, a reconstructed Celtic Bronze Age settlement, the town of Terryglass (twice winner of the coveted prize as Ireland’s Tidiest Town), and the stone ruins of Clonmacnoise, a sixth-century early Christian settlement featuring stone towers, the better to fend off the violent Vikings. We’d gone from the historic town of Killaloe to Athlone, where Sean’s Pub (not Sean Ryan’s) competes with Dublin’s Brazen Head as the oldest in Ireland, Sean’s claiming to date to the year 900 ce. After lunch at Athlone we visited Birr estate’s immense gardens, meadows, and exotic trees, including towering California sequoias, and a huge 19th-century telescope, once the largest in the world and a masterpiece built by the amazingly ingenious Parsons family. Our last full day on the Shannon found us in the huge Lough Ree, smooth as a mirror, flashing the sun back at us as we roved among the lake’s 365 islands.
While some hotel barges that ply the rivers and canals of Europe are converted cargo vessels, the Princess is just three years old, with a large top deck for sunning, snacking, and snapping photos. Cabins are roomy, with bathrooms. There’s also an open bar, not common on European barges.
The price of being an Irish rover aboard the Princess, which we arranged through Abercrombie & Kent, is a bit higher than on some other European barges — $7,000 for a couple. But fellow passengers said they found it well worth it, considering the alternative costs of meals, having to rent a car to cover the same territory, difficulty of finding one’s way through the network of narrow country roads, renting hotel rooms, and unpacking every night and packing the next day, schlepping bags, entrance fees, and the like.
As for the food one is likely to find traveling outside Dublin, we found the quality uneven, to say the least. We were disappointed to find that the much-storied pub grub left a lot to be desired, even in Dublin. The birthplace of author James Joyce (Ulysses) boasts many high-quality restaurants, of course, such as the Clarence Hotel’s Tea Room and the Morrison’s atrium-style Halo, on opposite sides of Dublin’s River Liffey. Both hotels are hip and modern. The Clarence is a converted 1852 building purchased in 1992 by U2 rock stars Bono and The Edge. Both are quiet oases with helpful concierge staffers, well-located down where the action roars in the night-clubbing Temple Bar neighborhood.
We spent one night in each, then upon return from the Shannon, taxied to the elegant Ballsbridge embassy neighborhood of charming Georgian-style homes. In the midst of it all was the B&B-like Aberdeen Lodge Hotel, boasting four-poster beds, a large back lawn, wine in the afternoon, and a full traditional Irish breakfast, including eggs, ham, sausage, tomato, black-and-white pudding, toast, and coffee.
Pat Halpin’s the owner/host here and a font of information about Dublin. The new Four Seasons is just a short walk away, he said, and we strolled over. It’s ugly on the outside but gorgeous within. There’s a rather formal dining room, but we opted for snacks and Irish coffee in the bar, watching Irish gentry come and go in tuxes and evening gowns, attending an affair in another room.
Ireland is proud of its pantheon of great authors and a must-see is the Dublin Writers Museum, a short walk from the river along main drag O’Connell Street. Other popular tourist attractions are St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College, the Guinness brewery, and the Old Jameson Distillery.
Then it was back to Santa Barbara aboard American Airlines, where we’d splurged for business class, and we advise you to do the same. (Save your frequent flier miles.)