Shenanigans on the Shannon
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We left France in pouring rain late May and travelled to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall visiting friends and relations then to Pembroke Dock and the ferry to Rosslare arriving around 7pm. We were due to meet up with Beth O'Loughlin and the good ship Aqualegia in Shannon Harbour so we had booked a Travel Lodge for the night at Waterford which was about 50 miles towards Shannon. The next day we checked our emails and one from Beth advised that the rendezvous had changed to Ballinasloe. On checking the map to find where Ballinasloe was, we discovered that Shannon Harbour was nowhere near Shannon so we had a long drive north from Waterford. We arrived mid afternoon and Beth showed us around Aqualegia, a 14 metre UK built replica barge and shot off back to Waterford where she lives. An excursion ashore into town discovered Joes Bar and the biggest liar in Ireland. There is apparently one on every bar, however, we made our excuses after a couple of pints of the black stuff and returned to the boat. Back on board a major problem with Aqualegia, for us, was that the only way to cook anything on board was with a microwave!!! Help!!! How do you toast bread for breakfast? Boiling water for tea or coffee involved starting the generator and waiting for the waves to work their magic. We had pasta that first night by first boiling water, pouring over the pasta then microwaving it for another five minutes. Then you had to heat the sauce by which time the pasta had cooled down. Not a great success.
We began the next day in pouring rain while driving across County Clare to the Burren. This is a limestone area dear to my heart as an ex caver with fond memories of drinking Guinness in Paddys Bar, Lisdoonvarna where the Shepton Mallet Caving Club broke the Mendip Guinness drinking record of 8 pints per man per day including the ladies who did not drink it!
Lunch was had in Doolin before we sped off again to the Cliffs of Moher. Someone in the Irish Tourist Board, or whoever was responsible for spoiling this lovely spot with a huge car park and visitor centre, should be shot. Not only that but they had the nerve to charge you 8 euroles to park! By the way, Ireland is currently the most expensive country in the euro zone we have yet to visit with Guinness at 4 euroles a pint. Lunch at the pub was the best part of 50 euroles for two of us with only two drinks. Back through Lisdoonvarna and north again dropping off the plateau you get this wonderful vista over Galway bay through the bare limestone hills.
Ballinasloe is situated on the River Suck! It doesn't suck and we sailed down, through the only lock to the Shannon the next day in serene weather then south down this splendid waterway through one more lock to Portumna where we waited for the swing bridge to be opened and eventually moored in the harbour at the very top of Lough Derg. The town is a 2km walk from the harbour where we spent an evening in a pub listening to county and western music. They seem to play anything but Irish music in the pubs these days which is not what the average tourist wants to hear. The landlord did give us a bright idea when we told him we only had a microwave on board by suggesting we bought some of those portable BBQ's to cook on.
Lough Derg is more like a huge inland sea about 50 km long and sometimes several km wide so if the wind blows in certain quarters it can get decidedly rough and, in a barge, you do not want to be caught out in anything more than a force four. We therefore tuned in the VHF each day for the coastguard weather forecast. The first night we found a quiet harbour near Whitegate and the next day navigated the narrow winding River Scarriff.
Our objective the next day, averaging about 4km/hr, was to reach Tullamore to sample the "Dew" and this was one of only two days of rain we had in Ireland while it rained continuously over the rest of Europe. I blame global warming! On the way we stopped at Pollagh in the middle of the bog to look in the local church whose claim to fame were the wonderful carvings made from Bog Oak or Bog Yew. These trees are very rare now and are extremely long lived, perhaps thousands of years. Carbon dating has the wood in these carvings to be 4,800 years old.
In Tullamore, which we reached in time to join the last whiskey tour of the heritage centre, we learnt that Irish whiskey is distilled three times so is therefore purer than Scotch. It is also only made using barley, roasted and un-roasted but never malted (the process of smoking the grains over a peat fire until they germinate) so it never tastes of smoke or peat. We tasted the Tullamore Dew, named after the initials of its founder, Daniel E Williams and his slogan "Give every man his Dew". Sue also tasted the Irish Mist, based on a 250 year old recipe for "heather wine", a whiskey liqueur made with herbs and honey.
If you are ever in Tullamore you should take a look inside its church. Externally it looks just like another bit of Victorian Gothic architecture, and it is, but some years ago after a hard drinking session, a few of the local louts burned the place down so the inside was replaced. I can only describe it as like an inverted Viking ship. Its beautiful and its centrally heated!
On returning to Aqualegia we found the local canoe club had moved our mooring further down the quay and were engaged in some sort of canoe water polo in the canal basin doing Eskimo rolls and generally getting stuck in! An early start the next morning saw us return to just below the double lock. A 2km walk into the local village where we had intended to eat resulted in three pubs, all closed. Enquiries revealed only one was functioning and did not open until 8pm and no food available so it was back to the microwave. Indeed, in the pub in Shannon Harbour the next day the landlord told us that his was the only pub of three that now opened apart from one which opened two days each year just to keep the license. Plans are afoot to revitalise Shannon Harbour and dump all the rusting hulks (no doubt with the help of EU money, or perhaps not, now that they voted against the Lisbon treaty!!).
Beth turned up that afternoon and ferried us back to Ballinasloe to collect or car. Our thanks to her for the loan of her barge and we look forward to welcoming her on Harmonie in the future. We then drove down to just outside Bantry in County Cork where we had booked accommodation at the Bridge House pub at Pearsons Bridge (www.thebridgehouse.eu) for a week.
Any visitor to this part of Ireland will always remember the beautiful hedges of Fuchisa. The plant was introduced originally from Chile and found the combination of soil and climate much to its liking so that it grows everywhere in profusion, even at quite high altitude. Our first Irish Breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes and the piece de resistance, Clonakilty black and white pudding, set us up for the day and we headed off down the Sheeps Head peninsular then down to Mizen Head, the most southerly point on the Irish mainland. Here they have created a visitor centre and you can walk down a cliff path and across an old bridge spanning a mighty chasm to what was a radio station. Much of the old equipment is still in place but there are also videos and pictures of the history and life on the Fastnet rock lighthouse which you can clearly see offshore. But for me, the highlight was the stunning seascape as you crossed that bridge, perhaps the most dramatic I have ever seen.
There are some pretty nice sandy beaches a few miles back up the peninsula near Crookhaven, already somewhat spoilt by tourist development of Hotels, chalets and caravan parks.
Driving back through Skull you can see a big globe on top of a mountain which the locals will tell you is full of Guinness to feed all the Skull pubs. In fact it is a beacon for transatlantic flights to navigate by!
Back in Bantry we chanced to our luck wid' 'de fairies and had our first Irish pizza. Not to be recommended but washed down with a drop of the black stuff it tasted better. The next morning we headed into Glengarriff and took the Blue Pool Ferry across to Garinish Island to visit Ilnacullin Garden. It was the creation of one Annan Bryce, a Scottish MP, born in Belfast who purchased it from the War Office in 1910. Together with English architect Harold Peto, he turned what was a mostly a barren island into a huge garden, the jewel in the crown being The Italian Garden which is outstanding. He had planned to build a mansion on the island but never did get round to it. When he died in 1923 his widow continued the work followed by his son who died in 1953, bequeathing it to the Irish Nation. The tide was out so we were fortunate in seeing a seal and her pup basking on a rock in the bay. The robin was one of the island residents!
The Italian garden was at its very best. There were the inevitable Fuchsias but the stars of the show were the huge Letospermum or what I know as Tea Trees of which there were hybrids of pink, red and white. I have seen these in their native Australia and New Zealand but never flowering is such profusion.
The garden, viewed against the background of the Caha Mountains on such a glorious day was a privilege to have experienced. The rest of the garden is mostly informal but some of the specimen trees and plants, particularly from Australasia and China seem to thrive here. All the more surprising as much of the soil on the island was imported from the mainland and coniferous trees planted around the edge to provide a wind break before anything could be planted.
At the highest point of the island is a Martello Tower. These were build all over the British Isle by the then UK government fearing invasion from France, with good reason as a certain Irish patriot Wolfe Tone in 1796 persuaded the French government to send 43 ships with 15,000 troops, arms and ammunition. Fortunately for the Brits the fleet was dispersed by a violent storm on the way over and only a few reached Ireland, one of which lay at anchor in Bantry Bay for several days.
We were now at the start of the Beara peninsula where the Caha Mountains rise to a height of nearly 700 metres straight out of the sea. In the 1840s there was the terrible Irish Famine, about which more later but the point of mentioning it here is that a wonderful mountain road was built across the peninsula linking the counties of Cork and Kerry simply as a way of employing people, enabling them to earn a wage and prevent starvation. It was not a successful policy as, due to lack of food, those employed had little energy for the heavy work involved and needed even more food to survive. This road was named the Healy Pass after Timothy Healy, the first Governor General of Ireland and the view from the top is a bit special looking out over the Kenmare river to the highest mountains in Ireland, Macgillycuddy's Reeks in the distance.
Around this region there are a lot of O'Sullivans who were the Celtic chiefs for many years. Donan O'Sullivan was a famous chieftain who fought with the Spanish when they invaded Ireland but his brother was loyal to Queen Elizabeth and fought with the English led by St Leger. The invasion was put down and Donan declared a rebel, meanwhile St Leger tried to seduce Donans wife who was having none of it so he killed her. Donan kidnapped his brothers wife and held her in one of his castles on Dursey Island which the English attacked and killed everyone there. Donan is slightly pissed off by this time so he throws St Leger off has brothers castle battlements, rounds up 1,000 of his troops and sets off up to Ulster to try and persuade those who survived the Spanish battle to join him in fighting the English.
Our hosts, Maggie and Liam, at The Bridge House suggested we drive over a mountain pass called Priests Leap rather than taking the usual main road over the Caha Pass. This we did and it was a wild and desolate place. We descended down to Kilgarvan where there was a heritage centre which we explored. It contained standing stones, a stone circle etc and was really not very well done. Kenmare was full of souvenir shops and tourists wasting their money. It has a reputation for being a bit of a gourmet centre so we strolled around looking at menus but found nothing remotely inventive or at what we considered a reasonable price. Each menu seemed to include similar dishes (chicken gougons with a sweet chilli dip seems an Irish favourite) and were about 30% more expensive that the restaurants in Bantry.
We drove north up to Molls Gap where there was a designer outlet right at the top of the pass; weird! Here you look across to Macgillycuddy's Reeks and Irelands highest mountain, Carrauntohill, rising to 1038m and we decided to drive right around the mountain chain in a clockwise direction. We turned left at Mollys Gap towards Sneem then turned right over a mountain road to Glencar, a walking and climbing centre, where we refreshed ourselves with a pint of Guinness.
We continued along the shores of Lough Caragh and on to Killarny where we reached similar conclusions to Kenmare. On the route back through the National Park along the Lough Leane shore we met all the coaches coming down to Killarney. The road is narrow and winding and we had some near misses enlivened by Sue's squeals as Desmond Diahatsu is left hand drive and Sue was in the suicide seat! At Queens view towards the top of the pass you get a great view down the valley towards Lough Leane.
Back at Bridge House Liam had cooked us three huge lamb chops which we washed down with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet. We didn't ask the price, conscious that the price of wine in Ireland is astronomic but were pleasantly surprised when we saw the bill.
We visited Bantry House and discovered a German film crew all over the place making some romantic soap for German TV. This place is still owned by the descendants of the Earls of Bantry who built the place several hundred years ago. It fell into neglect in the 1930's and restoration only began in 1997. Formal gardens overlook Bantry Bay and behind the house is a terraced garden, a fountain surrounded by a Wisteria Circle and 100 steps leading up through the terraces.
I had the impression that past Earls of Bantry were very much loyal to the English crown, indeed, the original Earldom was granted in recognition of the resistance to the Spanish invasion. This history is now played down, in fact an exhibition on the Armada in one of the stables had been cancelled and we were told this was due to local politics! All over Ireland you find statues demolished and place names changed from the time the republic was part of Britain which is a shame as it is a legitimate part of Irelands history which has been destroyed. You wouldn't dream of destroying a Viking relic but they were invaders just the same as the Normans and the English.
We visited the Skibbereen Heritage Centre which is devoted to the Great Famine and experienced a reluctance to discuss the politics of that time although they did admit that no attempt was made to fully explain it. We were shown the facts of what happened and the plight of those involved but not the whys and wherefors of the cause.
In 1841 the Irish population was 8.5 million and by 1850 a million had died of starvation and another million had emigrated which continued in later years. Todays population is around 4.5 million and I have a theory that one of the main reasons for the famine was simply too many people. Something had to happen eventually as the land could not continue to support so many and the potato crop failure simply bought things to a head. Interestingly the landlords take of the land rent was about 3 euros a year, middlemen took 35 euros and the tenant farmer took 48 euros so the system meant that the poor stayed poor. They spent their whole life tending their potato crop (a typical family ate 45lbs per day!) and working for the tenant farmer for a pittance which could never lift them out of poverty.
A list of donations from around the world amounted to many millions of euros but the churches did not appear on the list? The Irish famine was not unique and the poor of Europe suffered equally but not in the same numbers. Just across the river from the Skibbereen centre are the famine burial graves of 10,000 unidentified souls.
Clonakilty is rightly famous for its black pudding and we purchased several in this delightful Georgian town. This is "rebel" country and IRA organiser, Michael Collins was born near here. He lived in Clonakilty for a time and his statue stands on the corner of the pretty Georgian square where he lived. He signed the truce with the British government which allowed the partition of Ulster from the republic and was shot dead for his troubles by extremists who disagreed with the terms of the truce.
Near the end of our visit we discovered Gleninchaquin Park. It is situated in the north of the Beara peninsula and travelling from Kenmare you need to look out for the sign about 11km along the R571 for the left turn which is easily missed. You then follow a mountain road up past the Cloonee Loughs which terminates at the park. In addition to Fuchsias, the other flower which grows in prodigious numbers in these parts are foxgloves and in this place there are more that we had ever seen elsewhere.
When you arrive at the road end it is like a secret green oasis in an amphitheatre of mountains and a huge waterfall. It is a working farm which has created a number of walking trails to interesting places. There is an easy farm walk, a river walk, a heritage trail a long walk up over the top of the waterfall, a walk around the upper valley of about 4 hours and a serious mountain walk around the boundaries taking about 7 hours needing proper clothing and preparation.
After our final Bridge House Irish Breakfast we waved goodby to Liam and Maggie and set off for Cork. We took an open top bus ride around this lively city and would have liked to have spend more time there but we still had a long journey to Waterford then an early start the next morning to catch the 9am ferry from Rosslare back to Pembroke Dock. On the way back through Wales we stopped off at Narberth and stocked up with Welsh Black beef, lamb, butchers sausages, Pembrokeshire new potatoes and Caerphilly cheese which we presented to the Cliffords with a Clonakilty black pudding when they entertained us to dinner in South Petherton. Then back to France, arriving in Chatillon-en-Bazios just before midnight.