Travel: Cruising the Shannon, living the boating dream
A cruise on the Shannon is the perfect way to escape the shackles of lockdown, says a sun-bronzed and happy Geoff Hill
RAIN - in Ireland, in July... Who would have thought it?
Anyway, unlike the usual rain in Ireland, which is usually interrupted by showers, this was over in an hour as we set out from Portumna on the edge of Co Galway.
And after a year of lockdown hiding under the stairs with only the cat for company, even thunder, lightning and a plague of locusts couldn't have dampened our feeling of freedom.
Sadly, Cate had to stay at home for work, so the gang was me, old friends Cliff and Bernie from when we went to Queen's together in about 1846, volleyball pals Gerry and Keith, and Keith's gal Pamela.
Cliff and Bernie were veterans of several Le Boat jaunts in Ireland and on the Canal du Midi, Gerry had loved his first cruise on the Shannon a couple of years ago, and Keith had a degree in naval architecture and a dog, so what could possibly go wrong?
Well, just one, for as we pulled away from the marina at Portumna, Gerry looked around and said: "Keith, where's Loughie?"
Loughie was finally found in the car of Jack, one of the Le Boat staff, and we set off again, this time complete with dog, to the welcoming little harbour of Terryglass in Co Tipperary.
Over pizza and wine for dinner, we set to discussing the serious issues of life - like why Robbie Robertson and The Band split up, and what the names of the four Monkees were. Top marks to Bernie for that one.
By the next evening we were in Killaloe at the southern tip of Lough Derg, the former home of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland who got rid of those nasty Vikings in the 11th century.
His castle at the top of the hill is now a church, beside the Costcutter where he did his weekly shop and the Top of the Town pub where he went for a pint every Friday night.
While we were in the former, Cliff was minding Loughie outside when an attractive blonde pulled up in a convertible BMW.
"Hello, cutie," she said, then: "Oh, I meant the dog. Although you're quite cute as well."
More importantly, before going for a dander, we had stuck a hose into the boat's water tank, and arrived back to find that it still wasn't full; until Keith spotted water pouring out of the overflow vent. No wonder the lough was now three feet higher, with several cars floating down the adjacent road filled with baffled pensioners.
Next stop was Mountshannon, a lovely model village designed in the 18th century by Protestant Limerick merchant Alexander Woods, but now a bit of a ghost town surrounded by soulless modern holiday homes with signs warning visitors to keep out.
Not only that, but the grumpy owner of the only pub refused to let us into his beer garden because we had a dog, and the sign on the way into the village says Welcome to Mountshannon, then lists about four and a billion banned activities such as smiling, laughing in daylight hours, enjoying yourself or skipping about with gay abandon.
Rather weirdly, the maximum fine for infringements was €1,904.60.
At lunch moored at Scarriff, the conversation turned to biscuits, naturally, with me extolling the virtues of dark chocolate Hobnobs, Gerry mocked for his choice of Rich Tea as being the Budweiser of biscuits, Bernie saying Marie were even worse and Pamela opting for digestives with butter and home-made raspberry jam, which is the weird sort of stuff they get up to in Limavady.
Interesting buildings in Scarriff, meanwhile, include the Astor Cinema, long closed, and the Bank of Ireland, built in the same Albanian Lego white pebbledash style as the Costcutter in Killaloe.
In Nuala's Bar in Tuamgraney, we met Sean and Pat, both immaculately dressed but with muddy shoes. It turned out they'd just come from Sean's uncle's funeral, and the local custom is for relatives to dig the grave, and fill it in afterwards.
"Ach, he was a quiet man, but a great accordion player," said Sean. "You'll take another pint?"
Back at the mooring, after picking up some eggs for breakfast from an honesty box outside a farmhouse, we found a slightly careworn chap called Laurence O'Kelly aboard a matching catamaran.
A former pottery teacher in Galway, he had packed it in and now travelled abroad in the winter and in the summer wandered here and there around Ireland as the notion took him, and in the process managing to lose most of his teeth.
"I've become a bit of a beach bum, and kind of given up looking for women. With no teeth, there's no point," he said, with a strange mixture of wistfulness and acceptance.
Back at Portumna, Cliff and Bernie had to head home, and although the Le Boat office had closed for the evening, the staff still there were the epitome of kindness: Jason emptied the sewage tank and rustled up a table and chairs for on deck, and Jack gave Pamela a lift to the local shops, since we had unaccountably drunk everything on board. Not me, obviously.
The next day, after ice cream and a wander through the elegant Georgian streets of Banagher, nothing could be finer than pottering up the Shannon in the sun between lush meadows and trees genuflecting to the still water, with the cows cooling their feet in the shallows, cranes and cormorants looking for their lunch, and fishermen in little boats dozing the afternoon away.
We moored at the sprawling Hodson Bay Hotel and ate in its restaurant, where the menu's list of allergies catered for included kamut, lupin and sulphur dioxide.
Mmm, I thought, if growing up in a field in Tyrone I'd said: "Mum, I'm lactose-intolerant," the swift reply would have been: "No you're not. You're Church of Ireland like the rest of us. Now shut up and drink your milk."
After a while on this boating life, you start to feel that this is what it must be like to be wealthy and retired: breakfast on deck, spot of cruising, lunch on deck with a cold beer, spot more cruising, tie up, cocktails, dinner on deck with wine, sleep, repeat.
Catching a glimpse of yourself in a passing mirror, you look sun-bronzed and happy, and can't remember the last time you wore socks or tied a tie.
Tied up for the night at Dromod, we decamped to Cox's pub a short walk away for that most satisfying of experiences of which we had been too long deprived: a pint of Guinness in Ireland.
And then back on the boat found new neighbours in the shape of Noel and Niamh, having a sundowner on the deck of their gorgeous private boat called the Penguin.
A former Tipperary hurling champion and Colonel in the Irish Army about to be promoted to Brigadier General, he had lost the will to live and given up his job when his wife died of cancer, until his daughters went on a mission to find a good woman from him.
That was Niamh, a local pharmacist.
"She saved my life," he said, raising his glass and looking at her with a look which said more than words could say.
She smiled, and raised her glass back.
Le Boat has over 900 self-drive boats sailing from more than 39 departure bases across nine destinations.
If you've never done it before, instruction is provided before setting off, and it's a great way to spend a few relaxing days. Dogs are welcome on board.
In the event of Covid travel restrictions coming into force, customers can change their booking free of charge up to the day of departure. If you don't want to rebook immediately, you can get a credit towards a future holiday departing any time before October 31 2022 or receive a cash refund.
Prices start at £659 per boat for a seven-night self-catered cruise on the Shannon, starting and finishing at Le Boat's base at Portumna or Carrick-on-Shannon.
The 2021 Le Boat season on the Shannon finishes on October 31. Next year, it's March 14-October 31.
For more information on Le Boat boating holidays telephone 023 9280 9124 or visit leboat.co.uk.
The boat comes with a chart and a handy little guide to stops en route.
The Rough Guide to Ireland (£15.99) is also highly recommended – good writing, good format and useful tips.