Canal Boating In Ireland

By Ann Dermody
Published: December 2012

Although I was raised in Ireland, I'd never seen the heartland of the country by boat. So, when a pretty significant birthday poked its way onto the calendar at the start of this year, a trip on the Shannon-Erne Waterway seemed like the perfect place to start the celebration.

If the map of Ireland were a human body, the River Shannon would be its spine, albeit a wiggly, slightly-left-of-center one. Running from Limerick estuary in the southwest, it's navigable all the way to Belleek (home of the basket-like white china) in the northwest, thanks to the opening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway almost two decades ago. The section I'd signed on for was Portumna to Carrick-on-Shannon, a 75-mile one-way trip with Le Boat — operating as Emerald Star in Ireland — with five locks and two lifting bridges, known as the Celtic Cruise. While 75 miles don't seem very far, the fastest these boats go is 5 or 6 knots, so if you space the week out, that translates to about three hours of cruising a day, giving you plenty of time to explore the surrounding countryside.

Photo of sailing down the Shannon-Erne Waterway

Virtually every village and small town you tie up in has a shop, a pub, a church, a restaurant or two, and something of historical significance — that will generally be something large, made of stone, and very, very old. With that in mind, you'll soon slow down and get into a pattern of contemplating the scenery while navigating, planning your next meal, what pub you'd like to visit, and which gigantic old stone you'd like to see next.

My crew for the first four days was all women — school and college friends I've known since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. None of them had spent any time on a boat, but they're a "have a go" well-traveled lot, so I wasn't unduly worried. Or at least I wasn't until one of them arrived on the dock for our Portumna departure in six-inch heels, and another had just had her hair cut and blow-dried. Needless to say the heels never saw the light of day after that first afternoon, and the hair has yet to recover. That didn't stop us from causing something of a stir in one of the marinas, however. The old dock master, after asking who was driving and realizing that I was, inquired, "Are there no lads onboard, then?" — but delivered in a charming Irish way as to be minimally patronizing. He escaped with a disdainful, "Well, we don't have to lift the boat over the locks, do we?"

The second leg of the trip, from Rooskey to Carrick-on-Shannon, I was joined by my sister and her three small children, Luke (7), Ivan (5), and Rachel (3), making for an altogether more hectic, but no less enjoyable, holiday. Overly briefed by my sister on how they'd have to listen to instruction, and wear their life jackets at all times, maybe even in bed, they spent much of their few days aboard giving military salutes and saying "aye aye, captain" whenever I spoke. The importance of monastic sites was quickly replaced by the proximity of playgrounds and pizza shops for this part of the journey, and the trip scored high on those markers, too, I'm happy to say.

This was my first time aboard as the official "captain." While I'd spent almost two years and 10,000 miles cruising through various parts of the U.S. and Central America with my late husband, I only occasionally docked the boat, and like many boaters, I suffer a bit from docking anxiety, particularly when there are other people's boats around to bounce off. But the mechanics and handling of these cruising barges are not something most people need concern themselves with, and the addition of a bow thruster makes things much simpler, too. The boats go very slowly and after a day, you'll be feeling pretty confident in your boat-handling skills. I wouldn't exactly say we were a polished crew by the end of the week, but we were certainly looking a lot slicker, despite a couple of surprising deviations: "No, Clare! You have to take the line with you when you jump off!"

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