Life

Travel: Shannon cruise provides a great escape from the real world

River boating offers relaxation and random acts of kindness for Geoff Hill and when you add in some good friends, sunshine and a bottle or two of vino... well, it doesn't get much better

McDermott’s Castle on a wooded island in Lough Key – a castle has stood there since the 12th century
Geoff Hill

THERE’S only one thing better than good friends, good food and good wine, and that’s those three plus a boat. In this case, the rather impressive Emerald Star flagship the Magnifique.

“That’s not a boat, that’s a superyacht,” said my old mate Gerry as we parked the car and unloaded enough food and drink to feed a small Albanian village for several years.

Cate and I had had several cruises before on Lough Erne at the north end of the Shannon Waterway, and Lough Derg at the south, but this was the first time we’d tried the bit in between.

And for Gerry and his wife Paula, it was the first time they’d been cruising at all, after years of me telling them what a relaxing way it was to spend a few days pottering about with friends.

I must have finally convinced him, for after I booked this trip, he’d told me an estimated 4,598 times over the past three months how much he was looking forward to it. Packing complete, I asked Gerry if he wanted first go at being captain.

“No fear. Maybe later,” was the reply.

Probably a good call, since within half an hour we came to Albert Lock, and locks do require a bit of delicate manoeuvring. You also need to remember not to tie the boat to the bollards on land tightly if the water is going down, otherwise you end up with the boat hanging off the canal wall.

This lock had been built in 1848 and seen four generations of lock keepers look after passing traffic, at first horse-drawn barges, and now virtually all holidaymakers.

The current incumbent was delightfully cheery, as well she might be with a lovely little cottage of the same vintage, spring flowers bobbing gently in the breeze on either side of its brightly painted door.

“That’ll be €1.50,” she said before setting us free.

“Eh? I thought it was free, and we haven’t got any euros yet,” I squawked.

“No worries. I’ll get it,” said the man on the boat in front.

Warmed by that act of kindness, we sailed on through a perfect evening. Lambs skipped in the meadows on either side, and a solitary heron flapped across the still water, its perfect reflection mirrored below it.

“Here, Gerry, you can take us into the harbour at Dromod,” I said.

“Nooooooo!” he wailed, but with a bit of guidance, he nursed us in nicely, and we went for a walk into the village, finding three men standing outside Cox’s pub.

“Is there an ATM anywhere close?” I said.

“Aye, just go down to that corner, turn left and walk 12 miles,” said one. “What do you need it for?”

“Just to get €1.50 for the next lock.”

He reached into his pocket and held out a €2 coin.

“Sure take this,” he said, in another random act of kindness.

In the pub, things were quiet.

“Ach, it’s only busy at the weekends. The drink-driving thing has killed the pub business altogether,” said Seamus the barman.

“Mind you, we get a load through on the boats. A surprising number of Americans. You hear them before you see them,” he laughed.

The next day, we pottered back to Carrick-on-Shannon to collect more old friends, Cliff and Bernie, who’d been with us on several previous jaunts on Lough Erne, Lough Derg and the Canal du Midi in France, and loved them.

While we waited for them, we wandered through the eclectic town, with everything from traditional music pubs to Kurdish delis, and a very fine design centre featuring the work of local artists and craftspeople.

In Belfast, the funeral of Lyra McKee was taking place, and in an empty church Gerry lit a candle for her, and the thought came to me that people seek religion for the same reason they go boating: to find peace from the troubles of the world for a few minutes, hours or days.

Back at the boat, Cliff and Bernie arrived, bringing with them the rain. We set off north, steering from inside the boat, which always feels claustrophobic; especially with the windscreen misting up and the wiper threatening to self-destruct.

With Bernie on wiping duty and her kitchen roll slowly diminishing, we finally gave up and moored near a lock, only for me to spot as I was tying up one of the cushions from the seats on deck floating off down the river.

“Leave it to me, skipper,” said Gerry, leaping into our rowing boat and saving the day.

Cushion saved, we opened a bottle of wine or three and cooked supper, huddling in a cocoon of warmth and friendship against the driving rain outside as we solved all the problems of the world.

The next morning brought sunshine, both in the weather and in the disposition of the lock keeper.

“I love my job. I wake every morning and feel like I’m going to heaven,” he said.

By lunchtime we were sailing past McDermott’s Castle on a wooded island in Lough Key. A castle has stood there since the 12th century, until English settlers called the Kings grabbed it and all the land around in 1586, and built a church and fabulous mansion which was burnt down in 1957.

Today, the castle and church stand open to the sky, and all that is left of the mansion is the vast space which was once the basement, but the grounds are perfect for enchanted woodland walks down bosky paths and over gnarled bridges.

Gerry, by now an accomplished skipper, took us back to Carrick-on-Shannon to hand the boat back.

“This is just brilliant. We must do it again,” he said.

“I’ll make a note,” I said as we sadly handed the keys back and returned as slowly as possible to what passes for the real world.

FACT FILE

:: A seven-night self-catered boating holiday on board the Magnifique sleeping up to 10 on the Shannon, starting and ending at Emerald Star’s Carrick-on-Shannon base, starts at €2,223 per boat, or €222 pp, plus fuel.

:: No boating licence or previous experience is required. The price includes renting the boat and its equipment, a galley with kitchen utensils and appliances, towels and linen for all passengers, a boat-handling demonstration, technical support, chart and cruising information.

:: Smaller boats are available. For information, visit emeraldstar.ie or call 071 962 7633.

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