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Shannon Passage

Dale R Hamilton

Can you suggest someone in Ireland who might loan a small boat so we can row the Shannon? With that innocent request to Mr. W. M. Nixon (Winkie) of Dublin, I set into motion a complex exercise that would cause a prominent Dublin Attorney to take time off from the affairs of the Republic, to sail a 28 ton Dutch barge clear up the length of Lough (lake) Ree, to call at the tiny, isolated and phoneless cottage of the legendary Irish boat builder Jimmy Furey.

I was blissfully unaware of all of this as Ireland emerged from heavy clouds like a brilliant green and brown patchwork as we made our landing in Dublin. Gwen and I took a cab to the old Mount Herbert Hotel in Ballsbridge- the former home of Lord Randolph, just down the street from the famous Lansdowne Road Rugby stadium. We wandered around the local neighborhood that cold October day had a nice supper, and straight to bed.

Monday morning we were to rendezvous with our new friend, David Beattie, who would take us to Jimmie Furey's place at Mount Plunkett to pick up the boat. I had just time to nip down into Dublin and scour the city for navigation charts of the River Shannon- a little detail I had left undone. The mud-spattered Landrover that David arrived in, gave me my first clue as to how much trouble these guys had already gone through for the sake of our little Irish holiday on the Shannon. We spent the next 2 hours driving to County Roscommon over progressively narrowing roads, until the blackberry bushes fairly scrapped the sides of the car. It was during this ride that David revealed the fact that he and Winkie had some serious reservations about whether they should be a party to a potentially dangerous trip made by two unknowns at a marginal time of the year. I will be forever grateful to them that they took the chance.

David slowed time and again, muttering to himself as he peered over identical-looking fields. Finally, he directed me to open a wire gate, and we dodged cows, sheep, and some of the deeper holes as we made our way to a tree line in the distance. Nestled in the trees was the tiny cottage and workshop of Ireland's premier boatbuilder and creator of the famous Shannon One sailboat design. Jimmy stood tall and lean, his long wispy hair flew like a spinnaker in the breeze. A 75 year old bachelor, he has lived alone since his brother died and now chooses to see very little of the outside world. But his welcome was cordial and generous and he gripped my hand with a strength I could have hardly expected.

We 4, plus Jimmy's dog, crowded into the tiny kitchen for tea prepared over a peat fire. I was fascinated with the way this man makes tea. Every move methodical and practiced- like a surgeon laying out his fragile philosophical instruments. Great gnarled hands that make no wasted motions. I suspect this is the way be builds boats -and the talk soon turned to boats. We discussed David's progress on the restoration of the Dutch barge, and then Jimmy brought out the first model of the Shannon One design. It was exquisite- tiny delicate planks and frames individually fastened with miniscule copper rivets. If that was not enough, he brought out an iron-age Danish rowing boat built from drawings taken from the ruins of the original excavated in Denmark. It was even more impressive- the planks being individually lashed to the frames.

I was feeling comfortable enough with this interview that I began to tell about my own boatbuilding efforts. As I described my epoxy-glass composites, I waxed confidently on about how epoxy could make a wooden boat almost immortal, and that leaks were a thing of the past. David seemed to be having some trouble with one of his eyes- he was blinking furiously. I found out later, I was in danger of blowing this whole deal with my epoxy talk in front of one of the worlds archetypal wooden boat builders who even fashions his own wooden trunnels by hand in the old way.

But the danger passed and as tea was finished, we set about getting the boat up on the trailer. The boat proved to be a traditional 17' lake fishing boat built from larch on oak by Jimmy 30 years ago for his brother Paddy. She was a plain lap strake design with an elegance of purpose shared by many of her breed. She had a beautiful wine glass-shaped transom stern and traditional spoon bladed thole pin oars (crogged oars in Shannonspeak).

My next test came as we were lashing the boat to the trailer. David employed a triple sheepshank with a Portuguese windlass to secure the portside thwart to the trailer. Jimmy responded with a fisherman's bend compounded with two clove hitches and a sidebend to secure the starboard thwart to the trailer. I adroitly sidestepped this whole contest by devoting myself to picking out the leaves that had accumulated in the boat's bottom.

The trailer loaded, we said our good-byes to Jimmy, who I am sure never expected to see us or Paddy's boat again and we headed north. By nightfall we had made our jumping off point on Acres Lake in Drumshambro- as close as we could get to the origin of the Shannon. Gwen checked us into Mary Costello's Forest View Lodge, while David and I offloaded the boat. Poor David still had to return the trailer and then drive to Dublin. I hope the Jack Daniels I brought made his homecoming a little more comfortable.

A cool frosty morning introduced us to the old Irish custom of turning the heat off as soon as you are in bed- no wonder the bed covers were 4 inches thick. But we enjoyed a "full" breakfast and then a short hike down to the lake. The boat was safe and sound but it must have taken on 100 gallons of water during the night, due undoubtedly to her being out of water for some time. We bailed with the only vessels we had- sterling silver tumblers, which last tasted the waters of Loch Ness. I guess I will have to devote them to Irish whiskey instead of Scotch whiskey from now on. Gwen spends most of the morning bailing, and I can see that she has some apprehension about beginning our journey in a boat that seems to be taking on a prodigious amount of water.

From the first stroke of my oars, I knew that this boat was something special. She was quite slender for her 17-foot length, and a single stroke propelled her some considerable distance. I was to find out soon that her length was just right to bridge the swells on the mighty Lough Ree. My thwart was comfortably placed and the oars came nicely into hand. There was a little rocker to her bottom but not much, just enough to avoid drag when correctly trimmed as David had described. With the gear in the bow and Gwen occupying the aft thwart-, this seemed to be the case. I further observe that our bow wave makes a happy little chortle under weigh.

We rowed north up Lough Allen canal and into the locks at the little village of Drumshambo. These were old locks, first constructed in the 1830's, so it should not have surprised us that they leaked. We had to stand well off the lock walls to avoid filling the boat with broomstick-size water jets issuing from the walls. On the other side, Lough Allen stretched its 7-mile length through dark purple hills. On its northern shore there is a prehistoric ditch known as the Black Pig's Race, that brings the infant River Shannon from its source, the Shannon pot. This we understood was not navigable, so we contented ourselves with a gentle turn around O'Reilly's Island, and then back into the locks.

Passing through Drumshambo, we retraced our course down the canal, through Acres Lake, and on to Battlebridge and the entrance of the Lough Allen Canal. Ruth Delany relates in her book By Shannon Shores , the story of the construction of the Lough Allen Canal in 1819, which was not without difficulty. It seems that a local landowner, Mr. Horan, claimed damages to his land and stopped the works declaring he would 'repel force by force'. It was eventually completed and soon after fell into disuse- the expected coal trade from the region never having materialized. Passing under Battlebridge, we turn east into the Ballinamore & Ballyconnell Canal Works - now known as the Shannon-Erne Waterway.

Dick Warner writes a delightful Shannon-Erne Waterway Users Guide to describe his voyage up this waterway to Enniskillen. Although he required a motor for his passage -the book is still worth reading because he describes all the pub stops. We discover the Leitrim Inn hard by the highway bridge and we check in for the night. I had the foresight to bring along with us an industrial-strength collapsible hand truck- and now it proved its worth. I was able to load all our gear aboard it and wheel easily over turf and uneven ground to get everything to our hotel room for the night. The town we understand is famous for its July festival, An Tostal, a celebration of Irish music, pageantry and singing. The Leitrim Inn is like being in a time warp-nothing has changed from the 50's [Eds. note - this was ~10 years ago -the Leitrim Inn has been extensively refurbished since this article was written]. We settle into the bar and a few beers and a wine or two make all the aches and pains go away. Later, John the chef and new owner of the Inn, prepared a really great mixed grill, and served it in a dining room that looked very much like Arnold's Place in the old Happy Days TV series.

We were away the next morning by 10:00 on a westerly course bound for Lough Drumharlow. Its overcast, cool, and threatening rain as Gwen gamely bails the boat. I marvel at the speed of this boat- in no time we cover the 21/2 miles to Hartley Bridge, shoot through its graceful arches and enter Lough Drumharlow. We now have both wind and waves against us, and its abundantly clear that our planned visit to Cootehall, will cost several hours of determined rowing- and its all in the direction opposite of our overnight stop. It did not take a Nelson to alter course, make a wide sweep around Inishatirra Island and head south for Carrick-on-Shannon.

Another lovely roman-arched bridge heralds our arrival in Carrick-on-Shannon. Besides being home to the local rowing club, this little village is an angler's paradise-there being no fewer that 41 lakes within a 10km radius. It is also the most northerly hire base for the huge ungainly blue and green clorox bottle cruisers they rent to the general public. Thankfully, due to the lateness of the season, most of these monsters are tied up in their marinas, their hulls festooned with a variety of multi- colored fenders. But I shudder to think of what mayhem this garish fleet must unleash on these lakes during the high season. I land on the west bank under the bridge and leave my navigator to her bailing. The problem with a "big" village is that there is usually no secure place to leave the boat. I'm not satisfied with the west bank, so we row over to the other side and I finally elect to moor at the Carrick Rowing Club- right under the "Do not moor" sign. I figure this has to mean powerboats.

I leave Gwen again and reconnoiter up High Street passing the tiny Costello Chapel, reputed to be the second smallest chapel in the world. In less time than it takes to tell, I had us booked into second floor rooms of the Four Seasons B&B- hosted by our new best-friend Gabriel- he turns to show "no wings". We dump our stuff and it's off to the nearest pub to refresh and write some post cards. Flynn's Pub happened to be just across the street and that's as far as we got. We were well into our postcards and beer in front of a peat fire that felt really good by now, when we happen to take up conversation with a certain Sean Matthews. He was a true river rat- having spent his whole life on one river or another, and now he lives on his boat. We managed to run off Sean's companion- a dour German- and then we got down to some serious craic. Anyway, we spent the evening arguing politics and buying each other beer- Gwen was pretty quiet by now, having foolishly tried to keep up with us. Finally, while I, at least could still stand, we wandered off to get something to eat. Francis Cryan is a former European woman's rowing champion who now runs Cryan's Riverside Inn. We had an excellent meal here although we didn't get the chance to meet Francis.

I had notice that sea conditions on the large lakes are usually quite mild in the morning, and the wind tends to strengthen about noon- until by afternoon things were quite rough. That plus the length of our passage caused us to ask Gabriel to lay an early breakfast for us next morning. We had more than 13 miles to go today- much of it straight down the length of Lough Boderg, which we would hit in the afternoon- and the wind would be against us. Our conversation with Sean had revealed that there were no accommodations anywhere on our route- we had to make Dromod Harbor.

Happily our boat was still moored at the rowing club and after the usual bailing we strike out on a glass-smooth surface. Skies were again gray and overcast with rain in the forecast. In 45 minutes, we have passed through lovely Lough Corry and I notice we have not seen any evidence of other people-no boats, no farmhouses. The village of Jamestown comes into sight and we pick up the manmade Jamestown canal, which bypasses the unnavigatable portion of the Shannon and takes us directly to Albert lock. This narrow canal is lush and green, the trees showing no signs of Fall, form an interlocking arch over the water. We dawdle around Colara Bridge taking pictures and whatnot, but we have a long way to go, and I reluctantly pick up the pace.

Emerging into tiny Lough Tap at 9:45, we can suddenly feel the wind in our faces and the sky is growing dark But the lonely countryside is lit here and there with shafts of elusive sunlight and it is a beautiful, if surreal tableau. By God, I was just bitten by a mosquito as I rowed. Incredible, it was 40 and gusting winds and we were in the middle of a lake. These brutes have to be the toughest on earth just to survive-let alone take a blood meal.

It is just after 10:00 and the whole length of Lough Boderg lies spread out before us. It would have been fun to turn into Carnadoe Quay and explore the ancient Ringfort and of course the ancient Silver Eel Pub that lies at the end of Lough Grange, but the wind is whipping up occasional whitecaps by now and the rain is just a matter of time. We plan to strike a line just down the middle of the lake to enter the narrow pinch point at Derrycarne that will lead us into Lough Bofin. This is precisely the time I needed the damn GPS that had funked out, because both shorelines are a series of small inlets and bays- very easy to follow one of these into a blind pouch. I will forevermore admire Gwen's navigation skills because she precisely nailed the line of navigation markers that lead us through this narrow orifice. Wind and wave conditions continue to deteriorate, and we taking occasional shots of water over the bow. Nevertheless, the boat seems eager to forge ahead and we are making good time inspite of conditions. Its damn cold, windy, threatening, and getting worse by the minute when Gwen pays me the nicest compliment I have ever received. She says something like "If I couldn't have you in this boat right now- it would take all of Seal Team Six to make me feel comfortable".

Amazingly, we beat the storm into Dromod Harbor. The lake we have just passed through is now a sea of whitecaps, the wind is howling and the first raindrops are falling as I secure the boat to a protected seawall. Most mortals will never experience the satisfaction of the sailor who arrives at safe harbor just ahead of the storm. We nip down the road to Jimmy's pub and are soon enjoying the Irish whiskey in front of a peat fire. I would have thought that two yanks coming into a tiny country pub just ahead of a terrible storm- carrying all their sea gear and two 8 foot oars - would have elicited at least some curiosity. But no, not that I could tell. No matter, we had our satisfaction.

The only B&B in Dromod Harbor was "not taking guests" so we called the taxicab to take us the mile and a half to Roosky village. Neil, the cabby had the habit of repeating everything you said before he answered, and by the time we got to Roosky- I had begun repeating him repeating me. We found accommodations with Carmel Davis at the Avondale House, which catered especially to "anglers".

We had breakfast the next day with a pair of very serious English anglers, who babbled on about the record brown trout in Lough Bofin and the relative merits of using red maggots as opposed to white ones, and squatts- whatever they are. Strange people anglers- they actually thought it curious that we were rowing instead of motoring.

It was pretty obvious this was to be a "high stool" day as they call them here. We did hike down to the harbor to check on the boat- not a very safe thing to do along Irelands really narrow secondary highways. The morning news reported gales on the Irish Sea, and Dromod Harbor had whitecaps out as far as you could see. Flags on the quay threatened to whip themselves to tatters in the wind. We bailed the boat and snugged her up again, and set off to explore the Little village.

That did not take long. We found narrow gauge railroad tracks, which led us to a vintage railroad yard with, steam escaping from one of the workshops. This was too tantalizing to resist and we soon introduced ourselves to Michael Kennedy who obligingly showed us the yards. It turns out these guys spend their retirement restoring vintage steam rolling stock. Michael shows us 9 steam mine locomotives awaiting work in the lower shop, and a big diesel switcher lying in a million pieces in the engine shop. Huge floor jacks, spanners 6' long, a chain hoist as big as a Volkswagen- all the stuff necessary to build a firebreathing, smokeating steel dinosaur. I marvel at the scale of their hobby here in Roosky and in comparison, I feel like I'm something of dabbler in the manly art of mechanics. In fact, in my circle of cronies, a man's stature is measured by the size of his compressor and the number and variety of tools that he owns. I ask Michael how a bunch of old men can do such a heavy day's work. "Oh its not a days work" he says, "the lads tend to start drinking in the afternoons". Hmmm, maybe we are not so very different back home after all.

Had a wonderful dinner that night at Crews Pub in Roosky. This is a picturesque old place with a low ceiling supported by massive oak beams. You can almost imagine Brendan Behan penning The Hostage at a table by the fire. The air is peaty and smokey from the fire and its clear that everybody knows everybody else. We choose a creamed fish soup that was superb.

Next morning we awoke to milder temperatures, but with gray skies and wind at around 8-10 mph. We probably should not have launched for Lanesborough, but we had both seen enough of this little village. At Roosky lock we were delayed a little as some chap approached us to inquire about Jimmy's boat. It seems he had a Shannon one day sailor and was struck with how much our boat resembled the design of his. "It ought to" I remarked, "they were made by the same hands"- which of course prompted a wonderful dialogue on boats. His name was Burkes Corbett, and we felt that we had made a friend.

It was an easy two miles to Lough Forbes and our course down the length of this lake was routine but lonely. We tried in vain to locate the Castle Forbes, which dominates the eastern shoreline, but the trees are too thick. It started to drizzle as we left the lake and passed the mouth of the Camlin River. Tarmonbarry and the locks came into view just before eleven. I was debating whether to stop and refresh, but when Keenan's Pub came into sight, I pulled for it with a will. A pint of Guinness for me a couple of red wines for Gwen soon had the color back into our faces.

My notes record that it was" hard, hard work" for the 7 miles from Tarmonbarry to Lanesborough and I see from Gwen's notes that she characterized it as "JUST AWFUL" in capital letters. My good Scottish sweater kept me warm and dry, but it was soon time for the slicker. I had been warned about the tricky landing at Lanesbouough. It seems that there is an unusually strong current under Lanesbouough Bridge and the only landing is a narrow one just upstream. Moreover, the bridge abutments are massive 12-foot thick concrete structures all scarred and banged up and at this point we were hurtling toward them like a rocket. Gwen keeps us into the bank and at just the right time I give it all port oar. We slipped in neatly as a London taxi and I berthed her at a small pier- disappointed that there were no witnesses to such a Horratio-like landing. We were both thoroughly drenched and miserable and I dispatched Gwen to locate an overnight while I secured the gear. What a smart idea the hand truck was- easy to load all the gear aboard, shoulder the oars and trundle up the hill after the lovely Gwendolyn.

We were to be the overnight guests of Phyllis O'Shawnessey, who insists we join her for tea as soon as we got out of our wet clothes. I've never really thought much about tea- something little girls have pretend parties with, and old ladies drink as they entertain each other with their catalogue of human sufferings. There was of course Jack Hawkins sipping tea on the bridge of the Compass Rose as they hunted submarines in "The Cruel Sea". And then Gwen seems awfully keen on tea. But for me, after a hard miserable day of heavy rowing in the rain, tea was not the first thing that popped into my mind. Let me tell you however, Mrs. O'Shawnessey made it very strong, a dab of sugar, and a man-sized shot of Paddy's Irish whiskey. This warmed my very soul as well as my body. We had several and I now have an entirely different estimation of tea.

Later that afternoon, we set out to explore the town. In the first pub, Clarks, they were so glad to see people that they locked us in. Martin's Pub just down the street was memorable for having a sign in the men's room that read:

Many an Irish property was increased by the lace of a daughter's petticoat
But we ended up at Samantha's for a surprisingly excellent grilled lamb dinner and then we hiked home in the cold.

Monday we face our greatest challenge- Lough Ree-Lake of the Kings. But the sky is bright with a few dark clouds scudding over the horizon to the west and the wind at this point is moderate. I am acutely aware that this is our longest, most exposed leg and there is no shelter for 12 or 13 miles. We were told to expect sea conditions on Lough Ree. Gwen picks a southerly heading that takes us past Katheline Castle, between Ferrinch Island and Inch McDermot and out into the lake. Our lack of a GPS is a big problem now. We are staying out of the navigation channel- preferring to seek whatever shelter is available along the westerly shoreline. The several huge bays and inlets are not marked and we must pick Blackbrinks Bay to lead us to Leecarrow and then Mount Plunkett. For the next 4 hours, I follow Gwen's directions as we pick our way through shoals and reedy islands. The rowing takes effort, but I marvel at how well-fitted this boat is to the conditions at hand- then I remembered, Jimmy built her for these conditions.

Between Dog Island and Inchcleraun Island, we spot a cluster of channel bouys marking Iskeraulin shoals-or could they be Wood shoals? Gwen decides on the latter and orders a 45 turn into what we hope will be Blackbrinks Bay. If she is correct, at the head of the bay we will find a mile-long canal, hand -dug to connect the bay with a pub in Leecarrow. Eventually, two sets of markers appear to confirm that she was right. My admiration for her navigation skill increased still further.

It being early afternoon, it seemed a shame to return the boat straight to Jimmy, and there was the pub. The mile up Leecarrow canal is delightful. It is only wide enough to accommodate our boat and two 7-foot oars-maybe 18 feet wide. High reeds lining the banks give way every now and again to give us a view of sheep-filled meadows. No swans grace the waters here-these are the home waters of rangy Irish ducks who squawked as we went past. Still, in spite of everything, I am reluctant to bring this boat home and I dawdle at the oars. Eventually I beach the boat under a willow tree and we strike off to find the pub.

Coffey's pub sits at the junction of the highroad. It's a tiny place attached to a tiny grocery store. We took up perches on two of the 6 bar stools and instantly became friends with John Coffey - maybe that's why the pub has been in business since 1815. He makes Gwen an Irish coffee and in due time brings me a Guinness with just the right head on it.

But there is business to be done- and besides we can come back after we return the boat. So we leave most of our gear with John, jump back into the boat and make for Mount Plunkett. The canal part goes quickly, but now we must find Jimmy's tiny cottage in among the thick trees and reeds that line the west shore of the lake. This takes some doing, as these reeds are 6' high and we are just a few feet off the water, but eventually we get lucky and hit the right beach.

Jimmy could not been more surprised had Neptune come striding up his back pasture. He was genuinely pleased to greet us and he hastened us up to the kitchen for the tea ritual. Again, this could not be hurried. We told him all about our adventures and how nobly the boat had performed. Finally, another little ritual. I presented him with a heavy brass Commissioning Log- a duplicate of the one I brought for David. I hope he will use this to proudly identify the next Furey-built boat that sails out of Mount Plunkett.

We had intended to hike back to the pub, but he insisted we drive and in short order we were bumping along over the pasture in Jimmy's tiny car- he and me, Gwen, and the dog. Back at Coffey's, John made a phone call and soon had us booked into the Kilmore Lodge (and sheep farm).

This turned out to be a lovely villa on the shores of Lough Ree with perhaps 3 or 4 guestrooms owned by an English couple Roger and Liz Hussey. They got us settled into comfortable rooms with an attached parlor and kitchen complete with its own garden. That night after great fish and chips, Liz told us a wonderful story of their trip to Gambia. It seems Liz was approached by a native chap who wished to get rid of an ugly daughter by buying her a husband. He offered Liz a goat in exchange for Roger. "What" she says, "Have you seen my husband"? (who weights some 18 stone). "He's worth much more than 1 goat". By this process, Liz got the ante up to some 12 goats- but the deal soured somewhere alone the way and Roger returned to Ireland.

Our last day was spent hiking into Knockcrockery to explore and visit the clay pipe factory. This turned out to be two girls who still made pipes in the ancient way on the ground flood of their house . Later that morning we stopped into another tiny pub to write our last post cards- and have a little refreshment of course. I notice that the town was so small, that it had no post office. Instead, a tiny window in the pub served the purpose, and it appeared to be open for business. So, when we finished I went over to the window and bought stamps from the postmistress, and asked what time the mail might go out. "Oh, that depends" she says, "on what kind of a night Michael had. Its eleven now- doesn't look to good for today". As it turned out, we beat our own postcards home. Michael must have had a hard night.

Dale R. Hamilton is a US government employee, who lives and builds boats, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, USA.