Bridging the Gap of Peace in Ireland: the Erne and Shannon Canal

Captain Kent
Captain Kent

Bridging the Gap of Peace in Ireland: Cruising the Waterway to the North

By Kent E. St. John

The water from the canal lapped at the Swilly Star (our boat) and the George Mitchell Peace Bridge loomed up ahead. Heading up the Erne and Shannon Canal wasn’t even possible until 1994. The irony is just how peaceful it is.

The canal was the first joint project undertaken by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. After a self-skipper cruise on the Shannon River a little while ago (Whiskey & Water” on GoNOMAD) the chance to join John Daly of the Irish Tourism Board on uncharted water was overpowering.

It was also a chance to explore an Ireland where being a visitor was still a special event. In early October the waterways are open and the traffic is light. A hot Dr. Daly’s toddy special (see recipe below) added to the adventure.

The price is right and the adventure possibilities endless. Better yet is the value! For those who prefer land travel I visited several great lodging and city choices.

Reclaiming the Waterway

The canal connecting the Shannon and Erne waterway was constructed from 1846 to 1860 for commercial traffic. It also provided work during the Famine years. It was, however, abandoned in 1869.

In 1994 the canal was again refurbished but this time strictly for recreation and wildlife. And as a hands across the border project. it also gave the island Europe ‘s biggest navigable cruising waterway.

The canal follows the original with vast improvements such as push button electrically-powered locks. With 16 locks to navigate, it is certainly helpful. The combination of unspoiled nature, snapshot villages and ancient ruins will have you feeling relaxed and possibly convinced that self-cruising is the only way to travel. For an in-depth look at the project click on to or

Sail on Sailor

As we approached our floating home on the docks of Kesh Carrigan the beauty of the 42 ft Swilly Star, bright white with green trim, stunned me. The room on board seemed cavernous and my rear berth well laid out, all cabins had their own WC facilities.

Celtic Cross

It amazed me that such a vessel is easily rented and at a price a 12ft runabout in the US would cost. I don’t know how to divide 42′ by three but John, Diana and myself all had plenty of room.

The galley and community area was spacious and the wheel area downright exciting! The steps up to the deck and flying bridge promised maximum outside viewing and the best way to enjoy the sights along the banks. After a short shakedown cruise with a captain we were ready to assume command.

It’s funny how nautical terms spring to the lips on your rental ship. We packed on the bikes available for rent and disembarked. We watched the picturesque village fade and headed north and on to the canal. The excitement mixed well with the soft wind and rippled water.

Signs, Signs

Navigation is easy when it is as well posted as it was on the Waterway, and the sixteen locks each provided a place to follow the course. The first lock was a light tasks as we all assumed positions.

John hopped over to shore to steady us up. Diana took deck and I slowly guided our craft in. With the insert of a supplied computer card, John lowered us down a level as we continued.

Seemed easy enough though I preferred to give over command to Diana on other close quarter maneuvers. The stone locks and wooden gates blended perfectly. It was all too soon that we docked in Ballinamore to explore and provision.

Bikes off loaded, we peddled up to the town to shop for crafts and goods. The town was true to its reputation as ” Friendly Town “. The main street was filled with pubs and shops. It took John’s powerful persuasion skills and a promise of a Dr. Daley’s Toddy to get us moving forward.

As we pulled from the dock I headed up to the flying bridge to steer. A soft drizzle only enhanced piloting from above. Braced with the toddy there was no way I was going below. On to Mrs. Kennedy’s, rain be damned!

Irish Eyes

If ever Ireland is in need of a world class ambassador Teresa Kennedy, owner of the Glenview Guesthouse, is perfect.

As we docked for the night at lock 4, the sign to the Inn was well posted. The drizzle on the walk seemed fitting. Even more spectacular was the peat glow from the fire in Glenview ‘s sitting room. From the wooden cubby bar, Teresa herself delivered several pints of the best Guinness I’ve ever tasted.

A smile or chuckle is easily found here about. Dinner consisted of local edibles and was outstanding, the fireplace blazing. Fully sated, Teresa insisted on driving us the short distance to our boat. “No catching a cold for my friends” she insisted.

It’s funny how you start thinking about the boat as yours-returning felt comfortable. Dreams came quickly in the rear berth.

Pulling In and Out

The bright sky and the green from the countryside while cruising was amazing. There are forty shades of green. Better yet is the full rainbow that followed around every bend. Cows grazed and swans swam.

The single engine Swilly moved at her top speed of 5 MPH and the occasional castle ruins pulled us further along. I was relieved of duty only to follow up on my promises of galley magic. Using the well-stocked kitchen supplies I managed to whip up soup and pasta.

The galley was large enough to make just about any meal, certainly a grand way to travel. The canal has numerous places to tie up so you simply pick your waterside dining spot. Fortunately the magic missed by my cooking is replaced by the stone lock and rushing water.

In contrast to France, where docking presented a challenge, here it was easy. There is, in fact, no other waterway in Europe so well laid out for the traveler.

George Mitchell is a hero on the island of Ireland and rightly so. The ease of going south to north seemed seamless, a far cry from a trip in 1992, check to find out more about the Bridge and all that it implies.

To see forward movement on a peaceful solution to a long time hotspot is amazing these days. We pulled into Northern Ireland with no more friction than the Swilly’s wake.

The fact that both tourist boards are working together is monumental. Very soon we headed onto Lough Erne and passed islands. The county is Fermanagh and it is all visual pleasure.

Lords, Ladies, and Laughs

Our next stop is Crom Estate where the current Lord Erne resides, marker 23 E on the waterway. If driving it is located in Newtownbutler.

Crom Estate covers over 1,700 acres of woods, parkland and wetland and is one of Ireland ‘s most important nature conservation areas. There are also many attractive buildings on the estate, including Crom Old Castle and the romantic folly, Gad Island Tower.

The National Trust has restored seven cottages around two sides of an open courtyard at the Old Farmyard on the shores of Lough Erne. Five with views to woodland whilst two, Badger and Alder, overlook the old orchard.

Crom Estate offers splendid boating and fishing, marvelous walks and an overnight observation hide for the dedicated wildlife watcher.

All too soon we pushed off and headed to another night among royal splendor done cheaply!

Belle Isle Castle and Estate proved powerful enough to have us abandon the Swilly and spend the night on terra firma. Belle Isle has been inhabited since the 11 th century and being an island was a natural safe haven.

In 1991 it was purchased by the Duke of Abercorn and the castle converted as a holiday house. The old coach house was turned into rooms in 1996. Our fully equipped courtyard cottage was converted in 1998 and is a bargain.

Soon a peat fire was blazing in the living room and the full kitchen busy and good cheer resonated. The estate is still a working farm and rising early to see the milking of the cows is a must. Watching the fog lift from the castle is a close second.

Fortress Ahead

Like Viking marauders centuries ago we approach the city of Enniskillen, a city that is an island. The Enniskillen Castle is still guarding its inhabitants. The city was once, not long ago, the site of a horrific bombing. Today it is a bustling county seat filled with shops, pubs, and history.

It is also a great example of what N. Ireland is in reality; warm, real and undiscovered by Americans. This is a place to meet people and pub-crawl. Stocking up on supplies can also be done easily.

The city also is the point where the Lower and Upper Lough divides. A walk down the main street can be a bit confusing as it changes names six times. If traveling by land the city is a great place to center yourself.

Some sites to visit are

•  Sligo – an western Republic of Ireland city filled with Yeats history 49 miles away

•  Castle Coole – A magnificent neoclassical house designed by James Wyatt and family home to the Earls of Belmore 9 miles.

•  Florence Court – One of the most important houses in Ulster, built in the mid-eighteenth century by John Cole 16 miles away.

•  Marble Arch Caves – Wonderful Mesozoic limestone caves with an extensive network of caverns 30 miles.

•  Donegal – A musical city guaranteed to please 47 miles away.

•  Belleek – A town known worldwide for its pottery and beauty 34 miles away.

Better yet discover charming towns and ancient burial grounds that appear around every corner.

Wilde about the Swilly

As we headed out of Enniskillen we passed the veritable Portora Royal School where Oscar Wilde was a student from 1864 to 1871. It is said that his tale the Happy Prince was based on his stay there. As we slid past, students were loading boats onto the water. I had to wonder if one was a future writer of Wilde’s stature. There is now an Oscar Wilde Festival held in June.

Not more than a few miles up is another place where writing was done centuries before. Monks who labored over candlelight and transcribed texts that passed on civilization’s roots.

While it is possible to ferry over from Enniskillen, doing it on your own is much more fun. The Devenish Island Monastic Site is overwhelming and was founded by St. Molaise in the 6th century.

Prevalent are the remains of a 12th century round tower and Romanesque ruins. Full of high crosses and spiritual vibes rule. The island is covered with views and feelings that are not found elsewhere. As I looked to the Swilly moored at the dock, I reflected on the past and future. It was time for another Dr. Daly’s toddy.

Kent E. St. John is GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor.

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