Clonfert Cathedral

I saw a wonderful photo today by Christiaan Corlett of the Romanesque doorway at Killeshin Co. Laois It is very reminiscent of the one at Clonfert, although Clonfert is much more ornate. Thanks to my good friend Conor Cahill for the photo.

Romanesque doorway at Clonfert Cathedral

Romanesque doorway at Clonfert Cathedral

Excerpt from ‘The River Shannon – A Journey Down Ireland’s Longest River’.

The fishermen wave to us as we pass by, following the river away from Shannonbridge and the tower of the power station, not realising it is the last time we will see it. The river Suck (An tSuca) joins the Shannon from the west here, and we pass it by as come around a bend in the river that turns us in a south east direction towards our destination of Banagher. It has been possible to navigate the 16km up the Suck to Ballinasloe since 2001, which it has not been possible to do since the section of the Grand Canal here closed in 1961. The canal opened here in 1828, and was linked to the Dublin line of the canal by a wooden bridge over the Shannon for tracer horses.  The bridge was replaced by a cable-operated ferry in the 1840s, but with the arrival of the railway in 1851, the canal gradually declined until its eventual closure in 1961. The channel of the canal is still present, apart from a filled in section at the northern end, and you can follow its course from the Shannon to Ballinasloe. Various features have survived too, including two lock chambers and lock keeper’s houses, 4 bridges, 4 canal-related buildings and 4 of the original 7 aqueducts.

We continue on towards our destination of Banagher, passing under the industrial railway line that crosses from the west of the river to the power station. There is a fork in the river up ahead, but we bare left, following the navigation markers. We are passing close to the tiny village of Clonfert (Cluain Fearta, meaning the meadow of the grave) in Co. Galway, home of St. Brendan’s Cathedral. It could be possible to access the cathedral from here with some ingenuity and bravery, involving launching the canoe off the side of the boat and paddling across to the western bank of the river. There is a road from there that leads directly up to the cathedral, but the logistics are too difficult and we decide to leave Clonfert to a later date and access it by car.

St. Brendan the Navigator founded a monastery here in the 6th Century, but there are no remains left of that original church. That is not surprising seeing as the monastery was destroyed by fire in 744, 748 and 749 and then in the 9th Century it was attacked by Vikings on 4 occasions and reduced to ashes after one of the attacks. The fact that the monastery was located within a large sweeping bend in the river and therefore exposed to the river on three sides meant that in addition to being very  was particularly vulnerable to attack. The cathedral that stands on the site today is only the most recent in a series of ecclesiastical buildings on that site since Early Christian times. The oldest feature to survive is the western doorway, which is the largest and most elaborate example of a Romanesque doorway in Ireland.

We continue along downstream, passing green fields on one side and a sea of brown on the other where the peat is currently being removed, probably for the power station at Shannonbridge. As we approach the area around Shannon Harbour, we pass by the first in a series of islands that the river winds around between here and Banagher – Ash Island, Lehinch, Inshinaskeagh, Minus, Bullock, Grants and Birds. Just after Inshinaskeagh the channel splits off to our left, up towards Shannon Harbour. This is the point where many boaters begin their Shannon Journey as this is where the Grand Canal ends, and via the 36th lock you can enter the Shannon system. The River Brosna meets the Shannon here also, just below the 36th Lock.


Killaloe and Brian Boru

We were very happy to get an invite to Killaloe this June bank holiday from our good friends T & C. Of course this made me think of my last visit there when I was conducting the research for my book. Killaloe in Co. Clare and Ballina in Co. Tipperary lie on opposite banks of the river Shannon at the southern end of Lough Derg. The towns are connected by an 19th century bridge that used to have 13 arches, but 4 were removed to insert the navigation section. The settlements developed at an important fording point (now submerged) that has been utilised since the prehistoric period. The approach to these twin towns is spectacular. The lake narrows below Scarriff Bay, and is enclosed by the Slieve Bernagh mountains to the west and the Arra mountains to the east.

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

The River Shannon at Killaloe-Ballina

Perhaps the most famous son of Killaloe was Brian Boru, High King of Ireland from 1002 to 1014. His palace of Kincora stood on the hill in Killaloe where the Roman Catholic church, the green and some of the nearby houses are today, but there is no trace of Kincora to be found.

Brian Boru was the leader of the Dál gCais sept of Co. Clare. In Irish he is called Brian Bórumha or Bóirmhe, which are variations of the word bóraimhe which means ‘cattle-tribute’. However, Dáithi Ó hÓgáin in his book ‘Myth, Legend and Romance’, mentions a poem that refers to Brian Boru as ‘Brian from Bórumha’. This could be Beal Bórumha on the right bank of the Shannon just north of Killaloe. This translates as ‘the port of the cattle tribute’, and Brian may have grown up there. Brian and his brother Mathghamhain (Mahon) battled constantly against rival septs and the Scandinavian invaders commonly called Vikings (although they referred to themselves as Ostmen). It is the struggle against the Vikings for which Brian Boru is probably most well known. Brian became leader of the Dál gCais on the assassination of his brother in 976 and went on to become the High King of Ireland. His reign came to an end in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf in Dublin.

Brian’s power in Ireland had remained unchallenged until a revolt by the Vikings and Leinstermen under Mailmora and Sitric of the silken beard (the son of Gormlaith who had previously been married to Brian Boru). The Vikings enlisted aid from the western isles of Scotland and from the Isle of Man, but to no avail as the forces of the elderly Brian Boru and his son Murrogh defeated them at Clontarf on Good Friday 1014. On the night before the battle a lady of the otherworld called Aoibheall came to the aged Brian and told him he would be killed the next day. As Brian’s forces were beginning to subdue the Leinstermen and their Viking allies, a fleeing Dane called Brodir saw Brian praying in his tent and attacked him. Despite severing Brodir’s leg with his sword, the Dane manged to smash Brian’s skull with his axe, killing the High King. The descendents of Brian Boru, the O’Briens, held the high kingship of Ireland for a while after Brian’s death, but eventually lost it to the O’Connors. The O’Briens remained Kings of Thomond for centuries, until they allied themselves with the English, when they were granted an Earldom. Brian is described in the Book of Armagh as Imperator Scotorum, ‘emperor of the Irish’.

An Experience in Arigna

I was surprised to hear that coal had been mined in Arigna from the 19th Century up until 1990, and this was only one of the many interesting things I learned at the Arigna Mining Experience on a miserable November day in 2010. I had driven by the sign for Arigna hundreds of times on my way to Sligo, with no idea what I was missing.

Located in Arigna on Kilronan Mountain in Co. Roscommon, the Experience opened in 2003. You can take a tour of the mine with one of the former miners and get a sense of what it was like to work in some of the narrowest coal seams in the world. A sense is all you will get as the shafts have been widened and heightened to accommodate us tourist types. The tour starts with a somewhat shaky introductory video, watched from the comfort of the cafe, and our guide appears to bring us into the mine. The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is thoroughly enjoyable and informative.

This picture shows miner Maurice Cullen cutting coal from the seam (Thanks to the Arigna Mining Experience for letting me use this in the book).


Even though it was such a gloomy day, we managed to get a nice shot of the view from the car park:

Lough Allen from Arigna

Lough Allen from Arigna

Arigna Mining Experience, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Roscommon