Traveling the River Shannon

A Tour Down Ireland’s Longest Waterway

by Barney Brantingham

Ireland_01.jpgOur 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.”

things-to-do.jpgWe 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.)

4•1•1 Abercrombie & Kent:
abercrombiekent.com;
Aberdeen Lodge: halpinsprivatehotels.com;
American Airlines: (800) 433-7300; The Clarence: theclarence.ie; Morrison Hotel:
www.morrisonhotel.ie

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