The plan for our Ireland trip was a week of boating on the River Shannon, a week of group bus tour (Pub & Folk Tour), and a few days on either end for sightseeing - flying into Shannon airport and flying out of Dublin. I had hoped to avoid driving a rental car and having to leave it parked for a week at the boat place. But as the trip came together, we were starting to rely on some very long (prohibitive) taxi rides. The car rental isn't very expensive, so we did in fact get a car at the Shannon airport and gave it back when we finally got to the Dublin area.
Martha booked a Medieval Banquet that turned out to be almost 30km from our hotel, so we really did need a car. The insurance they try to sell would have doubled the cost of the car, so we went bare. The car was very beat up to start with so anything we did to it would have been hard to see. It turned out fine in the end.
We had a day trip out of Limerick driving to Adare, a picturesque town with thatched roof cottages and lots of shops. We both bought sweaters. From there we continued on to Foynes to see the Flying Boat museum. It's pretty neat in that they have a nice display of lore about the history of flying boats, some sit-in simulators, and best of all, a full sized replica that you can walk in and explore. (At our local Oakland Aircraft museum there is an actual Flying Boat you can walk through.) Driving between these places takes some time because most of the roads are two lane, sometimes very narrow. Plus it takes a bit of effort for me to drive on the left side.
The next day we drove up to the Medieval Banquet at Knappogue Castle. We arrived rather early so we toured the castle on our own and ended up getting locked in when the ladies who ran the place left for the afternoon. We finally found our way out and spent a nice relaxing time in their elaborate gardens. The banquet and show were great, though I envied the folks who had come on tour busses and didn't have to drive back. But Ireland is so far north, that there's still a fair amount of daylight at 10PM, and we got back to our hotel in Limerick before dark.
Saturday we went to the "Milk Market" market place in Limerick. They were having a "heat wave" and the temperature one day was 81F in Limerick. We had packed for boating in the cold so had very little in the way of warm weather clothes. So Martha wanted to buy some hot weather tops. No tops at the Milk Market, but we did find an interesting woman who raises and shears her sheep, spins the wool into yarn, and knits things to sell. Martha also chatted with a woman who runs the local quilt store and another who sells sewing notions.
In the afternoon we drove to Banagher to get our canal boat. Originally we had planned a one way river cruise, starting a Banagher and ending at Carrick-on-Shannon. But there didn't seem to be a way to get back to our car so we opted for a two-way cruise. We moved all our stuff into the boat, did our grocery shopping, and parked the car for a week. The grocery store delivers to homes or boats at no additional charge so we took advantage of that service. We ate dinner at a pub in town Saturday night (pretty quiet) and set out the next morning.
We headed North toward Athlone and stopped over at a tiny town called Shannonbridge. They have ruins of an old fort, some of it restored to house a trendy restaurant. They have just completed a trail marked with signs showing the different aspects and features of the original fort and the military cleverness of it. The occupying English were very worried about French invaders in the late 1700s.
We saw many swans on the Shannon. Usually families - mom and pop and their little cygnets - some sitting on nests.
There weren't as many locks on the Shannon as we'd experienced in previous canal boating trips. And the locks we saw were all manned by lock keepers. It was indeed a great help to have someone help put the lines around the bollards at the top. So Martha & I were able to handle the boat ourselves quite easily.
Our first overnight was in Athlone. It was a Bank Holiday weekend so Sunday was just as lively as Saturday. Lots of young folks hanging around the pubs chatting and joking. We had our pints and watched the action at a pub across the street from the "oldest pub in Ireland" (Sean's Bar). Athlone was the largest and most northern town we would visit by boat. It was also the most bustling (esp. by comparison to the 2-pub towns we would visit later in the cruise).
The next day heading back downriver we saw a small dock and some ruins at a place called at Clonmacnoise. We decided to stop to eat our sandwiches and have a look around. We discovered a major tourist attraction with tour busses, visitor center, gift shop etc. tour busses, and giant crosses. Clonmacnoise was a monastery founded in the year 545AD and was an important cultural, religious, and military center for many years. The ruins we saw from the boat were the ruins of the castle.
We came to a fork in the river and turned right, going up the River Suck (yes, that's its name) toward Balinasloe. The Suck is a lot smaller than the Shannon and it seemed much more like a canal than a river.
At Balinasloe we docked at a nice new marina with only a few other boats. The marina facilities (showers and toilets) required a "smart card" and a sign listed a handful of places where we could buy one. So we spent the next hour of so touring the town, quizzing the nice natives, trying to find the elusive "smart card". Most of them don't have any business at the marina so didn't know what we were talking about. They were all very nice though. We finally found the one place that actually had the card. It was a used book shop run by an eccentric chap who talked our ears off.
Heading back down the Suck and back on the Shannon heading south we entered Loch Derg. It's a large lake, 45 sq miles in area, 7 ½ miles across at the widest and about 18 miles long with the Shannon entering at the north and exiting at the south. Navigating is a bit more difficult because the visual cues are largely absent - the shoreline all looks the same at a distance. We used our little GPS though to tell us where we were on the large map and what direction we were heading, and eventually found our way to the marina at Castle Harbor, near Portumna.
We walked into town but didn't find much in the way of activity. We saw a nice castle and its grounds, but it was too late in the day to tour. We did find a place for dinner and a pint though.
Next day we headed southward out onto the lake. We made a stopover at MountShannon and walked into the town. We were attracted by a fence made of old bicycles. As we were admiring it, the homeowner arrived and told us it was part of a town-wide art display, and that here house was open if we'd care to come see what she had on display. We looked at the art and chatted with her for a bit before walking back to the boat and continuing south on the lake.
We arrived at Killaloe, where the lake narrows back down to a river, and as far as we were allowed to go in our rental boat. KIllaloe is a bit larger town, and we walked around looking for restaurants and pubs. Across the bridge on the other side of the river is the smaller town of Ballina. There we found two nice restaurants overlooking the water. The one we chose for our pints, and later for dinner, was very nice with beautiful leather upholstered booths and a very handsome bar.
Our boat was rented for a whole week and we didn't have to return it until Saturday, and it seemed on Thursday that we had an extra day to work our way back to Banagher. So we motored leisurely the next day back up to Mount Shannon, intending to spend the night. After arriving and walking back into town, it dawned on us that the Bus Tour we had booked started on Saturday, and we had booked the hotel in Dublin for Friday night. Oops. It was perhaps 4PM at that point and we had already motored a few hours to get to Mount Shannon. But we jumped back into the boat and headed north. I had got an Irish phone SIM card for my cell phone so we were able to call the boat rental place and tell them we'd be cutting it short by a day and we'd be in a bit of a rush on Friday.
One of the constraints on navigation is that the locks don't open until 9AM and there is a swing bridge on the Shannon, just north of the lake at Portumna that first opens for boats at 9:45AM and last opens at 7:30PM. We had certainly missed the last opening of the day so even though it was still light, we could only go as far as a town called Terryglass. Martha had wanted to visit there anyway, so that's where we went, pulling in about 8PM after a long day of motoring.
On Friday we started out at our leisure and still arrived at the Portumna bridge well before 9:45. The rest of the morning was filled up with getting back up to Banagher and checking in with the boat, then pointing our car toward Dublin. I had an Ireland map on my little GPS, but it was from 2007 and many of their large motorways are very new. So our lady of GPS was often confused and would have taken us the entire way on smaller roads. We eventually got to the Budget rental place at the airport, gave back the car, and took a taxi to the hotel. Seemed like a long day.
The next day we joined the CIE Pub & Folk bus tour. We had chosen the Pub tour because it seem like we might have a livelier group of people than might otherwise take bus tours. In fact they were fairly lively and all quite friendly. On the first day many of them were still jet-lagged so our activities were limited to a drive-around tour of Dublin with a stop at the Guinness brewery.
The tour company, CIE, is semi-governmental, meaning I suppose that it's run by the government but is self supporting. It's actually a very big tour company and we saw many of their busses on our travels. Our driver was also our guide, negotiating narrow roads and at the same time giving us the story of various areas we passed through.
We drove on Sunday to Kilkenny with a stop at the Irish Stud farm, a large horse breeding operation. It's set up for tourists with guided tours, gift shop, and a Japanese garden.
We made our requisite stop at Blarney castle, where we climbed to the top and Martha attempted to kiss the stone. I don't think there was any lip contact however because the process was a bit rushed. Each night on the tour, we were pointed by our guide/driver to a good pub in the area. Most of the folks in the tour would follow his lead, and we always found one or two good pubs. The ones I preferred were with music and singing. The musicians would sing the verses to the traditional Irish songs (Trad) and invariably the crowd would join in singing the chorus. "Whiskey in the Jar" and "Wild Irish Rover" seemed to be well liked and often played. We stayed next in Killarney.
We stopped to see a sheep dog demonstration. Quite amazing how the shepherd communicates with his several dogs, with separate commands for each dog . We drove around the "Ring of Kerry", a scenic route around one of the peninsulas projecting to the west. We drove to a place where we could see the Skellig Islands, little rocks about 5 miles offshore in the Atlantic. We heard of monks who established monastery there surviving on fish and birds and rainfall.
We crossed the Shannon and a ferry and continued to see the Cliffs of Moher. The sheer cliffs are all made safe with walls and warning signs. But the most spectacular views are for those who ignore the signs (maybe 10% of the tourists) and venture past the safety barriers.
We drove next to Westport and toured Westport House. We saw a deserted village where in the 1850s the people either emigrated or starved to death. I had never quite understood how the failure of the potato crop could cause a million people to die of starvation. It's a bit more understandable when you learn that the population of Ireland grew from 4 million in 1800 to 8 million 50 years later. And these were the poor tenant farmers living on poor ground unsuitable for growing much else. The potato was a miracle crop for them that they could plant in the poor ground and with little effort produce a crop that would feed their huge families. There is a statistic that said the average male consumed 14 lbs of potatoes per day, and the average female 11 lbs. It was a disaster waiting to happen. The blight (fungus) that killed the potatoes in 1845 through 1847 was also present in Europe and England, but the west of Ireland was most vulnerable. One and one half million people emigrated in addition to the one million who died.
The tour ended and we said goodbyes to all our nice friends. We had a couple of days to explore Dublin before our flight home. Martha went shopping one day and I visited Trinity College to see the Library. I'd seen it before but it truly is awe inspiring. The pics here are scanned from postcards since photography is not allowed. In the evening we went to the TempleBar area. There is an amazing collection of pubs in the area and on the weekend the place is packed with people partying. We found some pubs which suited us, mostly those with the Trad music and a mix of people of different ages. We stayed in our last pub so late that the trams had stopped running and we had to take a taxi to the hotel.
We made good use of our Kindles, reading on the trip home. The flights were long but uneventful. Martha's sister and brother-in-law were waiting for us at the airport to drive us home - pure luxury.