I was talking last week with a couple, Aidan and Kate, who started boating on the Shannon in the seventies on a clapped out cruiser near Jamestown (not far from Carrick on Shannon). Back then there was little activity on the river with a lot of it in disrepair since commercial barges had stopped using it. Aidan remarked that he had brought some of the local old men out for a spin and to a man not one of them had ever been out on the river before. He was really surprised to hear that, as was I and on asking a few seasoned river users it turns out that Irish rivers are something that were rarely seen from anything but the bank or the bridge for most of the twentieth century. But that’s changing for the last few years.
I talked to a relative newcomer to the Shannon too. He’d mostly gone out when invited onto some one else’s boat but he had wanted to go out on a coracle (that’s the one in the picture) which is a type of simple currach, versions of which are still used all over the world from the Boyne to India for tens of thousands of years. He built a pair of Boyne currachs from hazel and string, covered with old canvass tents and painted with roofing tar paint. And off on a few days in the rain exploring the river in a much slower, quieter way. If you want to see wild-life on the river, this is the way and, when he took me out, we saw an otter and a king-fisher within minutes of each other beside an abandoned Celtic Tiger speed-boat jetty.
Up to now, the use of rivers for leisure meant you had to commit time and money but there is a constantly increasing number of companies and clubs that allow people the chance to spend a day or two on the water and you don’t have to spend a fortune on a cruiser. Dragon boats, which are long boats rowed to a drummer by ten to twenty rowers are the latest addition to the upper Shannon and these people-powered and inexpensive activities are springing up all over the country. You can take a covered one man kayak, a sit-on kayak, these stand-on paddle-board things that are a lot more stable than they look and these people in Leitrim are offering several days camping and kayaking in the long, open Canadian kayaks that will fit most of a family.
There are at least three groups of coraclers on the upper Shannon now but it was on the Boyne that I found the most remarkable use. There’s couple, Claidhbh and Sinéad Ó Gibne, who run The Boyne Currach Centre . Cliadhbh has been building Boyne currachs for about twenty years now and has gone from very simple models to truly beautiful pieces of traditional craftwork to the jaw-dropping, huge sea-currach, the Bovinda, which is a replica of the trading & raiding currachs that the Irish used to sail to Britain in during the time of St. Patrick and earlier. Over the summer on most Wednesdays and Thursdays Cliadhbh takes a group out on his fleet (yes, fleet) of Boyne currachs with the instruction to bring a packed lunch. They go out for the day and have what looks like a gorgeous day out. The Boyne was really the home of the Irish river currach with the Boyne currach being used in pairs for netting fish which is now illegal as it is a form of trapping. It’s understandable too, as the rivers have been nearly stipped of fish in many cases, with few large fish left; netting would only increase that damage. Still it would be lovely to see a licence granted for heritage fishing on a catch and release basis, even if it was only to the Boyne Currach Centre…
While we have the Sun, and our Summer is in full swing for now, it might be worth looking at our rivers as a way to enjoy it. Having been out in a coracle on the Shannon recently (and an inflatable kayak on a lake, which is a different story altogether) I can sincerely recommend the experience. Just remember to bring plenty of water and plenty of sunscreen.