For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [
The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy. Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.
Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He set off on his journey from the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan. He travelled with a photographer and cameraman and made a 25-minute black-and-white film of his river journey shown at cinemas across Ireland. The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in his book Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. As a chronicler of the river, he was one of the first in the twentieth century to write about it in detail. His book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times that summer and was top of the paper’s non-fiction section, ‘What Dublin is Reading.’
Since then, the river has nourished artistic souls and influenced many writers. Numerous epithets have been applied to it by travellers, poets, musicians and other chroniclers. The Kerry novelist, Maurice Walsh, who wrote the foreword to Hayward’s book, called the river ‘immense’. He said it once separated the Pale from Hell – ‘though there was a small dispute as to which side Hell lay’. The elegist of the midlands, John Broderick, was less flattering, referring in The Waking of Willie Ryan to the river’s ‘silent, menacing presence’. Writing in his autobiography Nostos, the Kerry-born poet, mystic and philosopher, John Moriarty, described the estuary from Tarmons Hill, near Tarbert, as ‘A grandeur of water … the Shannon flowing through it with a landscape that had in it a remembrance of Paradise’. In the final passage of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, he writes of the ‘dark mutinous Shannon waves’.
One literary connection to the Shannon that is not so well known is the fact that Flann O’Brien’s novel, At Swim Two Birds, takes its title from an island on the river between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge. Although born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, O’Brien’s family moved to the midlands when he was nine and his childhood was spent near Tullamore.
As part of my quest, and as a dedicated ‘Flannorack’, I set off, naturally enough by bicycle, to try to pin down information about two small islands which I had come across on an old map: Curley’s Island, and just south of it, Devenish Island, or Snámh-dá-Ean (literally ‘Swim-Two-Birds’). In the Anglo-Norman era, Curley’s Island was guarded by the castle of Clonburren on the west side of the river. Some accounts also state that St Patrick crossed the river into Connacht at this point.
The road from Shannonbridge followed hedges overflowing with cow parsley and bright yellow gorse. When I reached the riverside callows, I came across a fellow cyclist and dog-walker, who introduced himself by the name of Flan – a serendipitous encounter, which the author himself would have enjoyed, even though he spelt his name only with one ‘n’. We talked about the title of the O’Brien book with which Flan was familiar and walked across the callows to get as close as we could to the edge of both islands. The meadows were filled with a sea of buttercups, pignut, plantain, gleaming cowslip, the bobbing heads of bog cotton and cuckoo flower all starring the grass. The river here is low-lying here but it was clear that the two islands appeared to be made up mostly of grass and stone. Curley’s Island, a thin six-acre strip of grass and sand, lies to the north of Devenish Island which is larger. There was an architectural grandeur to the lofty tottering reed beds rising with a towering palisade of stems up to six metres. When we reached the river we made out the division with one part falling down like a finger to Devenish. Cattle were relaxing on the island, in no hurry to move anywhere.
‘Curley is a common name, more so in south Roscommon,’ Flan explained, ‘where in the old graveyards a lot of those names are buried. There was a ford here which meant that the water was so shallow you could literally walk across it. You’d be walking through water up to your ankles and Devenish Island was likely dug out or drained to make it navigable. Once they dug it, then there was an island in the middle. The small ford that would have been used by people to cross the river and salmon would have loved it too.’
It was intriguing to discover that At Swim-Two-Birds exists as a real place. I recalled a quotation from another of O’Brien’s books, The Third Policeman celebrating the romance and mysticism of cycling: ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.’
My travels around Offaly involved spending time at Clonmacniose, attending events such as the Banagher horse fair and the annual vintage barge rally on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour. The rally, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, is where the owners of many carefully tended classic old boats and barges – some dating back to 1846 – congregate to celebrate their colourful heritage.
5. Shannon Harbour barge rally, an annual event which attracts many classic boats and barges and is organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.
Another summer highlight of the Shannon Harbour weekend is the annual opening of the Canal Bar beside the handsome single-arch Griffith humpbacked road bridge. It is an example of what a welcoming midlands bar should be: a half-door with a stone floor, low ceiling and dim lighting, cushioned benches beside a turf fire, red wainscoting with black trim, and a few jigs and reels coming from a corner. For years, many towns turned their backs on the river but are now embracing it. Today farmers, fishermen and recreational users all have a different relationship with it compared to the days when Hayward travelled along it, but the twenty-first century Shannon and its hinterland has been neglected by various agencies. However, Fáilte Ireland have launched a new regional tourism branding scheme, ‘Hidden Heartlands,’ a route running from Sligo to Limerick, taking in both banks of the Shannon. Along with a new marketing plan from Waterways Ireland, and the Atlantic Edge campaign in Limerick, the Shannon is clearly having a moment.
Developments in Offaly are taking place too, such as work on the defensive Shannon Napoleonic fortifications brooding over strategic river crossing points. This summer, Fort Eliza in Banagher, a five-sided, four-gun battery, built around 1812 and looking out over the river, was awarded a grant of €35,000 from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (match-funded by Waterways Ireland as part of its Conservation Management Plan) for important renovation work. But many feel that more still needs to be done, especially in relation to small towns such as Banagher where the crumbling Royal Shannon Hotel has been boarded up since its closure in 2005. The striking disused Georgian building with bow-fronted windows, was where the novelist Anthony Trollope lived when he worked for the post office in the 1840s. Now tumbleweeds sprouts from its roof, the garden is choked with dead plants, paint peels from its walls, while broken slates and smashed windows add to its pitiful condition.
This year life has slowed down for many people who have reconnected with their surroundings and discovered places on their doorstep. It has also redefined our relationship with the natural world and led to a river revival. The callows, bogland parks such as Lough Boora or Clara Bog, the new blueways and cycleways around Lough Derg, as well as those in Athlone and Drumshanbo are attractive places in which to spend time holidaying at home, experiencing the gentle comfort of sitting by the riverbank.
Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by The Lilliput Press at €15.and is available from Offaly History.