In August 1939 the Irish travel writer Richard Hayward set out on a road trip to explore the Shannon just two weeks before the Second World War broke out. His evocative account of that trip, Where the River Shannon Flows, became a bestseller. The book, still sought after by lovers of the river, captures an Ireland of small shops and barefoot street urchins that has long since disappeared.
Eighty years on, inspired by his work, Paul Clements retraces Hayward’s journey along the river, following – if not strictly in his footsteps – then within the spirit of his trip. From the Shannon Pot in Cavan, 344 kilometres south to the Shannon estuary, his meandering odyssey takes him by car, on foot, and by bike and boat, discovering how the riverscape has changed but is still powerful in symbolism. Paul Clements will be giving an illustrated lecture on Monday 17 Feb. at 8.00 p.m. at the Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore ‘The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps’ Admission is €5 and includes tea and biscuits. So why not come along to hear and see this wonderfully illustrated talk.
While he recreates Hayward’s trip, Clements also paints a compelling portrait of twenty-first century Ireland. He sails to remote islands, spends times in rural backwaters and secluded riverside villages where the pub is the hub, and attempts a quest for the Shannon connection behind the title of Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. That book had only just been published. His comments on other places on the river reflect the poor state of research on the county at the time. The Offaly Historical Society had only been founded in 1938 and there were few publications on the county that Hayward could draw on. Hayward noted:
Clonony Castle stands a little beyond a road which branches to the right and which will soon lead us to Shannon Harbour. It is a magnificent looking structure and, and one of the best preserved ruined castles in Ireland, and it looked peculiarly impressive on this August afternoon of mellow golden sunshine. The tender green of the after-grass lay upon the meadows which surround the venerable pile, and deep black shadows hid themselves within its portals and lay behind every piece of jutting masonry. There was an old man leaning over the gate of a little cottage on the opposite side of the road, and, although I was well aware of the name of this place, I thought I would ask him for the sake of some information which might follow in the wake of his answer. “What Castle is that” Says I. “Its Clonony Castle they call it”. Says he, “and a grand evening you have for viewing it”. “And what would Clonony mean” says I. “Indeed now”, says he, “I couldn’t tell you, for I have no Irish at all. But it’s a terrible old place beyond any doubt, for it was there in my grandfather’s time, and I had his own word for that and me only a small thing of a child, God rest him”.
Just two miles down the road to Banagher, we come to Shannon Harbour, where the Grand Canal joins the Shannon after its long journey from Dublin. This place was anciently known as Ath Crochda (“the Ford of Grief or Vexation”) and here the warlike MacCoghlans would often cross the river to fight the O’Maddens, who were their chief rivals in this district. [Others have recently concluded that the Ath Crochda was at Banagher and not Shannon Harbour. – a forthcoming blog.]
At Shannon Harbour the Grand Canal Company set up one of those great, massively built hotels, several of which are dotted at intervals along their navigation from Dublin to the Shannon. Why they were ever built on such a grand scale I cannot think, and that they were ever successful for any length of time I have not been able to discover. They were designed to meet the needs of passengers on the celebrated fly boat service from Dublin to the Western Midlands, which I shall shortly be describing, but even at the peak of this strange passenger boat service through the bogs of Ireland it is obvious that hotel less pretentious and of about a quarter the size would have met every possible need. It is extremely difficult to discover any contemporary references to the fly boats and hotels of the Grand Canal Company when they were in full flower, and the famous chapter in Charles Lever’s Jack Hinton which describes the Shannon Harbour Hotel fails us because it is impossible to date with any degree of accuracy the scenes described, and because in any case the account is fiction.
Hayward was back in Offaly in 1948-9 preparing his book on Leinster and the city of Dublin (London, 1949). He stayed with Sam Pim of Anngrove, Mountmellick and toured the county by car over two days. Tullamore was of no interest to him.
Tullamore and Durrow
We set off from Anngrove for Tullamore, the town which has taken the place of Daingean, or Philipstown, as the county capital, and journeying alongside a north-flowing reach of the Barrow for three miles, we crossed that rive at Two mile Bridge, and in another four miles had reached the Offaly border and moved on into Killeigh – Cill achaid, the Church of the Field – with its tuned abbey dedicated to Saint Sincheall, and its Seven Blessed Wells. Tullamore – An Tulach Mhór, the Big Hill- which is probably named from the tumulus-like hump now crowned by the Parish Church, lay ahead across a country of bogs and eskers, but delayed us not at all, because it has nothing to show but its own prosperous self. We travelled due north for four miles across the Silver River, to Durrow- Dairmhagh, the plain of oaks – which is famous for one holy and two unholy things, the monastery left to-day, and there is certainly no feeling of murder about the well wooded demesne in which stands the handsome modern mansion of grey limestone.
Hayward was impressed with the High Cross at Durrow, but the old parish church. He did not comment on the big house nor visit the Tolers.
Nearby is the derelict Parish Church, a building of utter desolation, and in front of this is the High Cross of Durrow, a fine example of its type, nine feet high and in reasonably good preservation, as well as some interesting grave slabs, two with inscriptions in Irish. An ancient carved head is built into the modern wall, above the west door.
Rahan old churches was next on the Hayward bucket list:
A series of side-roads took us westwards, across the main Tullamore/Clara Road and the Silver River, to Rahan – Rathain a Place of ferns – where Saint Carthach, or Mochua, founded a Celtic monastery in the sixth century, just before he established his celebrated settlement at Lismore. . .
After a visit to the ‘abbey’ he commented that ‘The ruins of two other churches in this peaceful spot will also repay whatever time you spend in looking at them.’
He was impressed with Shannonbridge and Birr
A splendid bridge of seventeen arches carries the main Tullamore-Ballinasloe road across the great waterway, and the importance of this vital crossing during the Napoleonic scare, is revealed by the strong fortifications which were built on the Galway side 1795. I would commend the old artillery barracks, now the warehouse of Moran Brothers, to your notice, as a magnificent example of eighteenth-century building, and the adjacent tete de pont, battery and magazine, as nothing less. This was building indeed, and these structures give one impression that they will last till the crack of doom.
The Birr Little Theatre so favourably commented on in an article in The Bell in 1939 had just been closed by its new owner.
I was disappointed to find that the Birr Little Theatre, with its grand record of courageous pioneer work in good drama, had closed its doors, not on account of lack of support, but because the enthusiast who ran it, my friend James Fanning, required that portion of his premises which he devoted to the theatre, to deal with the expansion of his printing and newspaper business. The Fannings run the Midland Tribune a successful and well managed newspaper which they publish in Birr, and I found myself resenting the wider circulation of that sheet which had crowded out this splendid and much needed little playhouse.
It was back to Laois via an impressive Kinnitty and Forelacka:
Kinnitty itself must be one of the prettiest villages in Ireland, placed as it on the foothills of the Slieve Blooms, at the Offaly end of that military road which we travelled, as far as the county boundary, from Leix. Up that road near the source of the Camcor, is the delightful Forelacka Glen – Fuar Leaca, the cold hillside – a gem of a little well-wooded valley where all the small intimate beauty of Offaly seems to be gathered. From there we made for home, past the fine demesne of Bernard castle where Lord Deices breeds bloodstock, and on through a stretch of road towards Clonaslee in Leix, where the westerly prospect is so flat that it disappears in a distance of atmospheric blue that must be with a beagle’s gowl of Connemara itself. And so through Rosenallis again to Anngrove, and to another night of friendly talk and music and warm hospitality.
Paul Clements is a journalist, broadcaster and author of five travel books about Ireland. His new book based on journey along the River Shannon is forthcoming later this year (2020).