James Joyce called these Shannon waves dark and mutinous, and though dark the river may be, it is the wind, not the water, that betrays my two companions and me on this late summer evening. A gust pushes our 37-foot motor yacht alarmingly close to another that already is tied to the wharf as we attempt the first docking of our three-day voyage upriver. On the deck of the other boat, four Germans, lagers in hand, pause in their conversation to watch us drift toward them. Thus far the bow thruster has proved balky at slow speeds, but just in time we employ it and swing the craft smartly into the slip.
When the boat is secured, the Germans go back to their beers, and we take a short walk to the village of Terryglass, which, with just two pubs and a combination general store/ post office on the narrow main street, presents a postcard image of Ireland. At a sidewalk table outside of Paddy’s Bar, with dozens of rooks arguing in the trees across the street, we unfold navigation charts that we will study in preparation for the next day’s cruise. But first we raise our pints of Guinness and toast the safe commencement of our journey.
Earlier that day, at Williams town Harbour on Lough Derg, one of six lakes that punctuate the river, Shannon Castle Line, the company that provided our boat, gave us a two-hour primer on navigating the Shannon. After piloting the craft onto the lake and back through the narrow entrance to the marina, we were deemed river worthy. The Shannon has no commercial traffic but still holds an estimated 5,000 private boats. With more than a few of these piloted by novices on a river that in some locations is less than 200 feet wide, the navigation rules—passing rocks on the indicated side, mooring on the inside of a harbor wall—require strict attention. But in this land of poets, strict seems to be among the many terms open to interpretation, particularly when passing shoals. It is therefore essential that my companions and I remain sober helmsmen, notwithstanding a celebratory Guinness or two.
The Shannon, now linked to the Erne River lakes in Northern Ireland by a canal and series of locks, meanders through the Irish Midlands for 466 miles. A round-trip river journey from Killaloe, the birthplace of Brian Boru (a South Ireland king who was murdered by Vikings in 1014), north to Belleek, where dozens of porcelain shops beckon collectors, takes about three weeks. But with a village around every bend, even an 80-mile trip from Williamstown Harbour to the 10th-century ruins at Clonmacnoise and back provides ample opportunity to experience the flavor of the river and the surrounding countryside.
Above Terryglass, we don life jackets while preparing to pass through Victoria Lock, where the waters of Lough Derg pass into the Shannon proper. While the lockkeepers direct the action from above, the crews of the dozen boats crowded into the lock loop ropes from boughs and sterns around bollards to keep the craft in place while the water rises. After the locks open, we have just enough time to enjoy a glass and throw a few casts for brown trout before the next town beckons.
Shannon Castle Line