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 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 The exhibition was very tired and outdated and we were very disappointed when we moored the Nieuwe Zorgen beneath the castle walls in 2010.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

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 http://www.iwai.ie/publications/#Shannon

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