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.


Loop Head: A Destination of Excellence

Of the 1,400 destinations nominated for ‘best place to holiday in Ireland’, Loop Head has been chosen by the Irish Times as the overall winner. According to one of the judges,Rosita Boland from the Irish Times, “This competition was partly about finding lesser-known places, and also acknowledging what’s being done in areas to make the best of what they have. Loop Head does that really well, has a diversely beautiful landscape, is remote, and has great tourism initiatives.”

In Catherine Mack’s blog about Loop Head in Co. Clare she talks about the EU Destinations of Excellence or EDEN scheme. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first time I have heard of this scheme, but I totally understand why Loop Head is one of five such destinations in Ireland.

Catherine travelled the peninsula on bike, following the Loop Head Cycleway to take in the breathtaking scenery and sights such as the Bridges of Ross and the Shannon Estuary dolphins.

Catherine was disappointed that she couldn’t stay in the Loop Head Lighthouse, an Irish Landmark Trust property. I was fortunate enough to spend three days there in November 2010 during some very wild weather. From Catherine’s beautiful photos I can assume she got better weather than we did!

My photo of Loop Head Lighthouse. Don't be fooled by the blue sky - it didn't last!

My photo of Loop Head Lighthouse. Don’t be fooled by the blue sky – it didn’t last!

If you are planning to head west anytime soon, check out Catherine’s blog and you will definitely be adding Loop Head to your itinerary.

Loop Head – going in search of Eden, and finding heaven



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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’.

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour is one of my favourite spots on Lough Allen. The first time I visited the harbour it was shrouded in thick fog and we couldn’t see the jetty or the water. The November sunshine quickly burned through to reveal the lovely scene below.

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour Lough Allen

Spencer Harbour is named after John Poyntz Spencer, the 5th Earl of Spencer (1835 – 1910) and Viscount Althorp, also known as the ‘Red Earl’ thanks to his flowing red beard. The names Spencer and Althorp are probably ringing a bell, and that is because he is an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales whose family home is the Althorp Estate in England. The 5th Earl was Lord Lieutenant or Viceroy of Ireland twice, first for 6 years in 1886 and then for three years in 1882. His second term as Lord Lieutenant came about when the Chief Secretary for Ireland resigned following the release of the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell from prison. Spencer’s other political duties were neglected so that he could take charge of the government’s Irish policy. Spencer was a close friend of the British Prime Minister William Gladstone and an early supporter of Irish home rule.

Spencer Harbour Ironworks

Spencer Harbour Ironworks

A solitary red brick chimney stands in the middle of a field behind the harbour. It is all that remains of a 19th century ironworking site. Although there are no facilities to speak of in Spencer Harbour, the harbour has beauty and peace to offer the boater who manages to make it this far north on the Shannon. Lough Allen is not a widely used section of the Shannon navigation, so if it is peace and quiet you are after I can highly recommend a visit.

The Shannon-Erne Waterway

I spotted a lovely blog recently by Andy and Sally The account of their travels along the Shannon-Erne Waterway reminded me how interesting I found the story of the construction of this canal.

The waterway was originally called the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal  and work started on it in 1846. The construction of the canal employed around 7,000 people during the great famine.  With picks and shovels these 7,000 souls cut through the soggy Leitrim soil and bog, and toiled for 14 years to build a canal that was of poor quality and that became redundant after a very short period. During the 14 years of construction the railway had come to Leitrim, making the canal system redundant, so that during the 8 years when the canal was in operation, only 9 boats travelled along it.  By 1869 the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal was no longer in use and fell into dereliction.

The Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal was renamed the Shannon-Erne Waterway in 1994 when it was reopened as part of a cross-border flagship scheme. The £30 million sterling project involved the governments of Ireland and Britain, The OPW, Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, the International Fund for Ireland and the ESB. The Shannon-Erne waterway stretches over 36 miles of remote countryside in Counties Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim. The waterway makes it possible to travel over 400 kilometres from Limerick to Belleek in Co. Fermanagh, making it the longest leisure navigation in Europe.

Andy and Sally’s narrow barge The Puzzler on the Shannon-Erne Waterway at Ballyduff Lough

Introducing The Nieuwe Zorgen

One of my modes of transport on this Shannon Journey was a 100-year-old Dutch Sailing Barge called Nieuwe Zorgen. This type of barge is known as a Skutsje Tjalk, and this particular one is my brother Eric’s home.

The Nieuwe Zorgen by Eric Kemp

The Nieuwe Zorgen by Eric Kemp

A Tjalk is one of a variety of Dutch commercial barges, each type built for a specific purpose. The Nieuwe Zorgen was designed for carrying cargo on the shallow lakes, canals and rivers of Friesland in the North of The Netherlands, thus the low stern and bow. To pass quickly under the many low canal and river bridges, the Skipper had to drop and raise the mast and sails repeatedly, so the mast has a counter weight which allows it to pivot. Probably the most distinctive feature of the boat are the fan-shaped leeboards.

We know that Nieuwe Zorgen was built in 1904, and started out as a freight carrier. Many of these sailing barges were confiscated during WWII to be used against the allies by the occupying forces, but the Zorgen  escaped this  fate when the owner sank her to stop the Nazis from getting their hands on her. She was then recovered when the war ended.

The Nieuwe Zorgen on Lough Derg

The Nieuwe Zorgen on Lough Derg

Nowadays these types of Tjalk are used for racing  in the annual Skutsjesil, a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century when the skippers used to race each other to get the best spots on the town quay.

By the way, in case you are wondering – Nieuwe Zorgen means ‘New Worry’. Don’t ask, we don’t know either!

The Siege of Athlone

I was very pleased to hear that the visitor centre in Athlone Castle received a much need revamp late last year. The exhibition was very tired and outdated and we were very disappointed when we moored the Nieuwe Zorgen beneath the castle walls in 2010. I am keen to revisit now and see what has been done with the massive €2 million budget.

A recent article in the Westmeath Independent caught my eye – What do Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Athlone Castle have in common? Apparently the company that created some of the props from these two blockbusters are also responsible for the sculptures on display in the new centre. These sculptures depict some of the main figures of the siege of Athlone, including Sergeant Custume, Colonel Richard Grace and Lieutenant General Godard Van Reede Van Ginkel.

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

To honour this I have decided to post an excerpt from my book outlining part of the siege:

By the 17th century a new curtain wall and bastions were built around the eastern side of the town and earthen ramparts around the west. This was the period of the Jacobite War between King James II and William of Orange. King James II had been deposed by his daughter and her husband William, and James fled to France. Here he gained support from Louis XIV who aided his journey to Ireland to face battle with William at the now infamous Battle of the Boyne.  Following the Irish defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces retreated to the west of Ireland, and regrouped in Limerick to prepare the defence of the line of the Shannon. The Williamites knew that Athlone was vital to the defence of Connacht, so they attacked Athlone with a force of 10,000 under the Scottish Lieutenant General, James Douglas. The aged Colonel Richard Grace defended the castle and the Williamites retreated. Apparently he declared that he would ‘defend Athlone until he had eaten his old boots’ and then blow himself up rather then surrender. 

The following year the Williamites returned, this time numbering 25,000 men under the command of the Dutch Godard van Reede, baron de Ginkel. The Irish troops defended the town from the Connacht side of the river, under the command of the French General the marquis St. Ruth, and broke down several arches of the bridge so the Williamite forces could not cross over from the captured Leinster side of Athlone.

 The Williamite forces bombarded the castle with grenades, stone shot and canon balls, and attempted to repair the damaged bridge. Sergeant Custume and his Irish men defended the bridge and dislodged the attempted repairs of the bridge, but Ginkel crossed at the ford and entered the castle on June 30th 1691. His reward from William II was the title of Earl of Athlone (a title that remained with his descendants until 1844) and Baron of Aughrim. The Jacobite war continued with the Battle of Aughrim and reached its climax in Limerick, where the Irish army under Patrick Sarsfiled fell. Under the treaty of Limerik they were given the choice of sailing to France to join the army of Louis XIV, or returning to their farms. Those that went to France became known as ‘the wild geese’.


The Ballad of Athlone

Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?
Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!
The Shannon swept onwards broad and clear,
Between the leaguers and broad Athlone.

‘Break down the bridge!’ – Six warriors rushed
Through the storm of shot and the storm of shell;
With late but certain victory flushed.
The grim Dutch gunners eyed them well.

They wrench’d at the planks ‘mid a hail of fire;
They fell in death, their work half done;
The bridge stood fast; and nigh and nigher
The foe swarmed darkly, densely on.

“Oh, who for Erin, will strike a stroke?
Who hurl yon planks where the waters roar?
Six warriors forth from their comrades broke,
And flung them upon that bridge once more.

Again at the rocking planks they dashed;
And four dropped dead, and two remained;
The huge beams groaned, and the arch down-crashed –
Two stalwart swimmers the margin gained.

St. Ruth in his stirrups stood up, and cried,
“I have seen no deed like that in France!”
With a toss of his head, Sarsfield replied,
“They had luck, the dogs!’Twas a merry chance!

O many a year, upon Shannon’s side,
They sang upon moor and they sang upon heath,
Of the twain that breasted that raging tide,
And the ten that shook bloody hands with Death!

By Aubrey de Vere

Lough Key Forest Park

The Lough Key Forest Park has been developed in recent years into an activity centre consisting of the Lough Key Experience, Boda Borg and Adventure Kingdom. Part of the Lough Key Experience is a 300 metre long tree canopy walk that brings you through part of the forest, 9 metres above the ground. The tree-top walk emerges at the waters edge, just next to the Waterways Ireland mooring facilities, where there are excellent views across the lake to Castle Island.

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Tree Canopy Walk Lough Key Forest Park

Another interesting part of the ‘experience’ are the 19th century tunnels which lead out to the Moylurg Viewing Tower. The Tower stands in the place of Rockingham House, which was designed by the architect John Nash in 1809. The house was destroyed by fire in 1957, and the surviving walls were demolished in 1971. The viewing tower was built in 1973, and although it provides some beautiful panoramas of the lake and the park, personally I find the tower quite ugly and imposing. The bottom of the tower sits in the basement area of the house, where the servants’ quarters would have been, and the underground passages that lead to the harbour and the turf quay.

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Moylurg Tower Lough Key Forest Park

Trinity Island lies offshore to the west of Castle Island, just beyond Drummans Island. The MacDermot family gave the 2 acre island to the White Canons of St. Francis in the 13th century, where they remained until the suppression of the monasteries in the 17th century. The White Canons belonged to the Premonstratensian Order, which was founded by St Norbert at Prémontré Abbey, near Laon in north-eastern France in 1120. Their name stemmed from the white colour of their habits. They began construction of Holy Trinity Abbey soon after the MacDermots granted the land to them in 1220. The Abbey was constructed from the local rocks found around Lough Key, such as pale-grey sandstone and limestone which are found on the southern shore. The Annals of Loch Cé, which cover the period between 1014 and 1590, were written on Trinity Island. There is a tomb on the island where the body of Úna Bhán MacDermot lies. She was the daughter of the Chief Brian Óg MacDermot who refused permission for her to marry Tomás Láidir Costello, the son of one of his enemies. She is said to have died of a broken heart, and Tomás swam across to the island every night to weep by her graveside. When Tomás died not long after Úna, her father allowed Tomás to be buried by the side of his love.

On the southern shore of the lake, close to the Forest Park Visitor’s Centre, lies a small stone harbour. From here we can see the ruins of a castle on a little island just off-shore. This is the aptly named Castle Island, which is recorded in the Annals of Loch Cé in the 12th century. At that time the area was called Moylurg and it was ruled by the MacDermots, who resided on Castle Island and at the site of the Moylurg Tower until the 17th century. The MacDermot residence on the island was actually a fortress called ‘Carraic Locha Cé’ or the Rock of Lough Key. Under Cromwell the MacDermot lands were given to the English King family, who renamed Moylurg as Rockingham. The Kings rebuilt the castle on Castle Island as a folly, which they used as guest accommodation until it was badly damaged by fire.

Castle Island Lough Key

Castle Island Lough Key

The River Suck Callows

Ecofact Ireland recently posted some wonderful photos of Greenland white-fronted Geese on the River Suck Callows.


Greenland white-fronted geese

Ecofact Ireland’s image from their recent wintering bird survey of the River Suck Callows

The River Suck Callows form part of the whole River Shannon system as defined by the EU Water Framework Directive. Under the terms of the Directive all EU Member States must maintain “high status” of waters where it exists, prevent any deterioration in the existing status of waters and achieve at least “good status” in relation to all waters by 2015. In Ireland, it has been decided to divide the country into eight River Basin Districts (RBD) and develop management plans for each in accordance with the Water Framework Directive.

The Shannon RBD covers the natural drainage basin of the Shannon, stretching from its source, the Shannon Pot, in the Cuilcagh Mountains in Co. Cavan, to the tip of the Dingle peninsula in north Kerry. It also includes coastal parts of Kerry and Clare, which drain to the sea. It flows through 18 local authority areas (the largest being Limerick, Clare, North Tipperary, Offaly, Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon) and is also considered an international RBD as a small portion of County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland drains underground to the Shannon Pot. What this adds up to is a significantly larger catchment than has been attributed to the Shannon in the past. The Shannon River Basin District covers around 18,000 square kilometres, mostly in the lowland central area of the Republic.

River Shannon Callows

River Shannon Callows


Callow is an anglicized version of the word ‘Caladh’, which means river meadow.  This anglicized version was used in the early 19th century to describe ‘lands liable to flood beside the River Shannon’. These callows stretch for 40km between Athlone and Portumna, where the river is broad and sluggish due to the slight gradient. During winter and spring the water level of the river rises and floods the surrounding grasslands. The grassland dries out enough during the summer to accommodate grazing and hay production.

There are 3,500 hectares of callows along that 40km stretch of river, including The Callows along the Little Brosna River, which enters the Shannon just below Victoria Lock, north of Portumna. If you include the River Suck Callows then the figure rises to 5000. The Shannon Callows are of huge importance in terms of conservation. They are home to a variety of rare and endangered plant and animal species, and an excellent example of a habitat that is becoming extremely rare throughout the world.

The grasslands of the Callows are classified as semi-natural, lowland, wet grassland (The fact that the summer meadows are grazed and eventually cut for hay is what makes this habitat ‘semi-natural’). If there was no human intervention at all, then trees such as hazel and alder would colonize, and gradually a woodland habitat would evolve. So without agriculture, the plant and animal life currently found on the Callows would no longer exist, and the Callows grasslands would cease to be. It is a rare case of productive farming and diverse wildlife not only existing in harmony, but actually dependent on one another.

Whooper Swans on the Shannon Callows at Clonmacnoise (c) Conor Cahill

Whooper Swans on the Shannon Callows at Clonmacnoise (c) Conor Cahill


For an very detailed account of The Shannon Callows see Stephen Heery’s excellent book “The Shannon Floodlands” available for purchase on the IWAI website at

Lough Derg Canoe Trail

Check out the excellent app on offer from Every Trail at

All the information you would need to plan a canoe trip on Lough Derg is offered including maps, destination guides, photos, safety tips and advice. This is only 1 of 22 Shannon Region guides courtesy of Shannon Region Trails.

Holy Island Round Tower

The monastic remains on Holy Island are well preserved and consist of six churches, a round tower, several ballaun stones, high crosses, an 8th century cemetery and holy well.

The paddle across to Holy Island from Mountshannon was one of the highlights of my trip down the Shannon. We set off from the jetty at the Lakeside Holiday Camp where our tent was pitched in an excellent waterside spot. You can hire canoes at the campsite, which we did on this occasion. If you head straight out from Lakeside towards the island you will come to an old stone jetty which is a very short stroll from the monastic site.

Feeling less adventurous? Don’t worry, Ger Madden provides a boat trip and guided tour. For details see the East Clare Heritage website

A view of Lough Derg taken from Holy Island near Mountshannon

A view of Lough Derg taken from Holy Island near Mountshannon (c) Aiveen Cooper