I should not have been surprised then, when a life-worn old Irish dairyman – whose large and languid-looking herd of Frieslands lingered to drink alongside our boat – asked my husband for his mother’s hand in marriage.
“Ay, she’s fine woman. A fine woman, indeed,” he said, nodding his craggy head towards my baffled-looking Dutch mother-in-law, whose understanding of English does not extend to the broad Irish accent. “Oy knew that when oy first laid eyes on ’er (just minutes prior). Oy knows a fine woman when oy sees one.”
That romance was not to be. Regrettably, as her son explained, the fine woman was promised to another and the old man was left on the bank alone, sadly waving his cloth cap as we cruised away down the River Shannon.
Our romance with Ireland and the river though, was just beginning. We had, the day before, collected our home for the next week – a six-berth cruiser – from Banagher Marina, less than two hours’ drive from Dublin and an ideal starting point from which to explore the lower Shannon and Lough Derg, the largest lake on the Irish waterway.
After a quick and business-like navigation lecture and a demonstration of the boat by one of the cruising company’s staff, we set off southwards towards the lake, through Portuma, on to Terryglass, Garrykennedy and Killaloe, before boating north to Mountshannon and Ballinasloe.
Self-boating the waters of the Shannon, as it slowly meanders its way through the countryside, is surely one of the most tranquil and satisfying ways of sampling the laid back way of life that is synonymous with rural Ireland. In places the river is so narrow you can almost touch the noses of the cattle and horses that graze along its banks. In lake though, the water is wide, dark and deep. Across the water, the gentle, green rolling hills stretch far and wide, and the charming little stone villages, with their mandatory church steeples reaching high above the horizon, are film-set perfect.
The boat we hired was easy to operate, fully equipped and, like a water-born caravan, we could simply moor it, lock it and leave it. Many of the cruise companies will, as we requested, put bicycles on board so that you can moor and cycle through the country lanes whenever you choose.
The river, lakes and moorings are quiet and it is seldom necessary to nervously navigate around other amateurishly crewed boats. I can attest to the fact that lock keepers are friendly, helpful and patient with clueless crew. Your time, destination and schedule are your own within the parameters of your lease agreement for the boat. You stop when you like, tie up your boat and explore nearby villages or the countryside, not to mention the countless pubs and restaurants that typify Ireland.
You do not have to go far from the Shannon to find signs of early civilizations. The region bears signs of heritage from the prehistoric, early Christian and mediaeval ages. North of Banagher, at Shannonbridge, we motored through the bridge fortified during the Napoleonic era and not much further up the river, we moored at one of world’s most famous monastic sites, Clonmacnoise. Clonmacnoise dates back to 548 AD and is the resting place of Ireland’s last ‘high king’, Rory O’Connor.
The sky above the Shannon River is large. The people along the way are warm and unaffected. The experience of self-boating on the waterway is invigorating, authentic and very romantic. In fact, if you linger too long at any of the moorings, you just might receive an unexpected proposal.
(First published in The Weekender in April 2006.)