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Captain Kent St. John cruising in Ireland
Captain Kent St. John cruising the Shannon River

Whiskey and Water: Self-Cruising the Emerald Isle

By Kent St. John, GoNOMAD TRAVEL DESK GUIDE

Islands and boats have a strong connection, and while Ireland isn’t exactly a yachties’ paradise, self-cruising Ireland in a motored cruiser links you to a lifestyle and culture unchanged for centuries.

Ireland’s Shannon River has long been a passage through the very heart of the country, and there are 300 miles of other rivers and lakes to explore, as well as countless villages, castles, and hiking paths. And even in the chill of a late winter, the Irish warmth and whiskey can make an ancient mariner out of even the most land-locked traveler.

We joined our new Birchwood 29/29S craft in the riverfront town of Killaloe and entered the marina for Ireland Line Cruisers.

After stowing our gear, we received our instruction course, and within an hour we were familiar with our craft from stem to stern. The Birchwood sleeps up to four people and has a complete galley, toilet-shower (head) compartment, as well as central cabin space.

We chose to rent during the off-peak spring season, and at times were thankful for the central heating system.

Killaloe is a visually perfect town in which to begin an Irish river excursion. Its crown is the 12th century St. Flannan’s Cathedral, and the 13-arched stone bridge completes its traditional Irish feel. For this reason we decided to moor overnight (all mooring and dock space on the river is for public use) and provision our boat.

Read reviews of Shannon hotels.

Mc Keogh’s foodstore provided all we would need for our first few days and they offered free delivery to the marina. With provisioning done, we walked to Molly’s Pub for a bit of Sean Nos (traditional music) and a few pints. Soon, I was settled in the front berth looking over the navigational guides provided and planning the next day's cruise down the Shannon.

As the mist swirled on the river, we headed north on the Shannon on to Lough Derg. The lake is Ireland’s largest and is worth spending several days exploring. Using our navigation guide, we headed up the narrow Graney River to the town of Scarriff. This small town has some mighty connections to Irish Theater. Lady Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater, lived nearby.

Eddie Hogan closed his Butcher Shop to join us at Jakko’s Pub for a wee bit of Guinness. The warmth of the peat fire was only surpassed by the warmth of our fellow customers. "Hey Jack," one fellow said, "pull’em one on me." It seems all the folks in this part of Ireland have relatives living in the US and somehow that makes us guests. The afternoon passed by at the local school’s hurling match and we cheered the locals, surrounded by our new friends. As we were escorted back to the docks, dark clouds formed over the water.

The white caps added adventure to our plans for crossing the lake to overnight in Garrykennedy. During our two-hour voyage, I was relegated to making coffee laced with the thick cream we bought. A little John Powers Irish Whiskey was added for fortification against the driving rain. Dressed in our yellow rain suits, we took on the airs of ancient mariners.

The old stone rath (tower) was a welcome sight as we approached the harbor of Garrykennedy, and in a short while, the galley was filled with the aroma of Eddie Hogan’s prime lamb shanks. Our boat took on a cozy feel and a good night’s rest seemed assured.

The beauty of traveling in your lodgings was made more apparent as fresh coffee was brought to me at the wheel the next morning. The sun was shining and the countryside appeared to have forty shades of green. We were headed to Portumna, the largest town on the lake. On arrival, the view from the marina displayed the majestic De Burgh Castle. Forest and parkland, perfect terra firma, encircled the 1333 castle. The nature trails and gardens offered themselves as a perfect place to picnic and spend a peaceful afternoon.

That night was a totally different story, the sound of musical pickup sessions drifted throughout the town. Every pub offered Celtic music and lively crowds. As Van Morrison would have said, "the craic (conversation) was good." An impromptu after hours party aboard a fellow cruiser’s craft united many nationalities.

The next morning required a dash across the lake to Terryglass and its natural drinking wells, especially St. Augh’s. The wells’ power to cure headaches -- even a dreaded hangover -- is sworn upon by locals.

Revived, we headed out the lake and up the Shannon, into our first lock of the trip. With help from newfound friends from our night before, our entrance was effortless. As we traveled up the river, fishermen nodded and children waved. Small farms and stone cottages were mixed in amongst old manor homes. This was storybook Ireland.

By mid-afternoon we docked in the small village of Shannonbridge. After loading on water and emptying refuse, we set out to shop for dinner supplies. The friendly clerk at Nugent’s food shop advised us that the ancient monastic center of Clonmacnois was a scant six kilometers further up the river and that mooring space was available. The chance to sleep within sight of one of Ireland’s most historic sites pulled us back to the river.

The medieval learning center of Clonmacnois was founded in 548 AD, and we were following the route that Viking invaders took when they sacked the city via the river. The mixture of green fields and stone ruins quickened my heartbeat. Grazing sheep greeted us as we docked. Picking up some "luck of the Irish," we were to have the place all to ourselves. The tour busses had departed for the day and the peaceful air surrounded us like the river’s mist.

For centuries, this monastic settlement was a leading center for learning. The ruins of one cathedral, eight churches, two round towers, and numerous high crosses stirred our imaginations. Sounds of ancient chants filled my head; time travel can be real. Early the next morning, as I prepared coffee, the sun burst over the settlement. Basking in its warmth, I carefully plotted the navigation charts to pick our "last port."

Back on Lough Derg, we chose the village of Mountshannon for our last night’s stay. This appealing village was the winner of the All Ireland Award for Tidy Towns in 1981. The neatly laid out stone-fronted buildings project an air of stately prosperity.

The shops are boutiques and pricey, but the quality and selection were the best we encountered. A short 1/2-mile cruise from the harbor is Holy Island, where St. Carmin founded an early Christian settlement in AD 640. Today, there are the remains of 5 churches, a round tower, and even a hermit’s cell to explore.

Slowly, we cruised back to town, enjoying the experience of arriving by water. As we listened to the fiddlers at the Maple Bar later that night, I took a sip of warm Irish whiskey in toast to the ancient mariners of the Emerald Isle.

 

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