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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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The Stately Shannon: Ireland's Magnificent Waterway

limerick

The Shannon and St. John's Castle at Limerick

by Suzanne Barrett

The River Shannon cuts a broad swath through Ireland's boggy and often treeless heartland. The poet Spenser spoke of "the spacious Shannon spreading like a sea." The river does spread, ebbing and expanding throughout its 214 mile length. It is the longest river in Ireland, and longer than any river in Britain.

For most of its length, it flows at a sluggish pace. The tempo accelerates as it courses over the mountainous stretch between Tipperary and Limerick, slowed imperceptibly by great turbines at the Ardnacrusha power station. Seventy years ago, this scheme electrified much of Ireland. One either side of Ardnacrusha, the Shannon's waters cool the steam produced from peat and coal and the generating stations of Moneypoint, Shannonbridge, and Lanesboro.

The history of the Shannon is rich and fascinating. Ten thousand years ago it provided food for the peoples living along its banks. These same people placed weapons and ornaments of precious metal in the river as offerings to the water gods. It also acted as a barrier between opposing armies and clans, yet it nourished a fertile plain where crops and cattle thrived.

ClonmacnoiseAfter the coming of Christianity, the Shannon became the refuge of saints. Island hermitages sheltered these men of God, and ecclesiastical cities like Clonmacnoise grew up along its banks. The remains stand today, a place of pilgrimage, a haven for historians, the delight of tourists. One of the finest intact high crosses stands in the churchyard at Clonmacnoise.

The river formed a natural boundary between the ancient provinces of Leinster and Connacht for much of its history. County Clare, which straddles the river, changed its allegiance from Connacht to Munster in the fifth century. A thousand years later, Clare peoples were banished "to hell or to Connacht" by Cromwell. They were forced leave their homes for the poorer, rocky lands to the west of the river.

In the eighteenth century, two canals linked Shannon to the eastern seaboard. Today, it is possible to navigate the waters of Dublin's Grand canal all the way to the Shannon in County Clare. This route was vividly and interestingly shown some years ago on the PBS series "Irish Waterways." Today, with the completion of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, there is more than 500 uninterrupted miles of water cruising for the enthusiast.

Along the Shannon are lakes, both large and small, and some of the friendliest and most interesting towns a traveler could choose for respite.

Lough Key, located near the town of Boyle in County Roscommon, is considered to be the most attractive of these lakes. It is flanked by woodlands and a forest park, even a 19th-century island castle. Ruined churches lurk among the trees. William Butler Yeats planned to set up a community here. Moylurg tower stands on the site of the Rockingham House which accidentally burned down in 1957. The ruined house and grounds were sold to the State, and now form Lough Key Forest Park. Here, visitors can walk paths of exceptional beauty, see the 1836 Trinity Bridge, built with curiously shaped limestone blocks from the lake or visit the Bog Garden.

Farther south lies Athlone, the main town of the middle Shannon. Developing around a main river crossing point, this became a key strategic location. To the left of the present road bridge is a Norman castle, rebuilt to house a museum dedicated to one of the town's famous sons, Irish tenor Count John MacCormack. In the castle's original state it served as a defense fortress for the Jacobites in 1691. The castle was reduced to rubble when William of Orange sent 21,000 cannon balls into its midst.

From Athlone the Shannon narrows and makes its way to the crossroads of Ireland. Clonmacnoise is one of the most remarkable of the early monasteries and was situated at the place the Shannon crossed the Eiscir Riada, the most important east-west roadway in ancient Ireland. This is most likely where the river fords, because nearby is a thirteenth-century castle which may have been built to control the crossing.

St. Ciarán, the charismatic founder of the site, died within months of its completion in 545 AD. It became an early place of pilgrimage. His monastery survived a thousand years until it was sacked in 1552 by the English who were garrisoned at Athlone. T. W. Rolleston's translation of an early poem states "In a quiet watered land, stands St. Kieran's city fair." Fifteen hundred years later, St. Kieran's fair city attracts visitors from around the world--travelers who come to this peaceful spot overlooking the Shannon.

In the Clare plain, from Portumna to Killaloe, runs the twenty-four mile long Lough Derg, a broad, long expanse of water that can be dangerous during storms. Several drownings have occurred over the past forty years. Boatmen advise caution.

At Killaloe the river slows once again, and narrows, before spilling downward in its steepest descent between Slieve Bernagh in County Clare and the Arra mountains in Tipperary. At Limerick, the greatest city on the Shannon, the mighty river makes its final dash for the sea. Loop Head is the extreme southwestern point of Clare and is where the Shannon leaves Ireland. Here cliffs fall steeply into the Atlantic below. Loop is a mispronunciation of Leap, named after the Leap of CuChulainn, one of the great heroic figures of Ireland.

The opening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway in April 1994 links the two great Irish waterways and bridges a cultural link between South and North. The reopening of the Ballinamore canal after 120 years of disuse provides boating and cruising enthusiasts with one of the longest stretches of waterways in Europe. Construction began in 1990, and in three years--within budget and contract time--the derelict waterway was transformed into a state-of-the-art system with 16 locks. Eight of the original locks on the old canal at the Shannon end were repaired, while the remaining eight on the fifty kilometer river and lake navigation section were completely rebuilt after sustaining damage from a century of rushing flood waters.

The original masonry carefully clads the new structures, preserving the look of a Victorian waterway. In addition, care was taked to preserve all the masonry bridges and wharves to project the look of less harried times befitting a leisure waterway.

Electronic "smart cards" (available for IR £10.) control the electro-hydraulic gates at each lock, and it takes about fifteen minutes to navigate each lock. Travel is leisurely and the journey reveals an unknown and charming part of Ireland.

A number of canal barges for hire have begun business; some offering the advantage of hiring a craft at one point and leaving it at another.

Whether boat or barge, the visitor's travel can be as spartan or as luxurious as he or she prefers. Some craft sleep six and are equipped with up to three bathrooms and a galley. Why not plan a Shannon self-catered cruise on your next visit to Ireland?

Until next time.

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