Cruising Ireland's canals
WE were one man and four women in a boat. The roomy canal barge that drifted along Ireland's Shannon-Erne Waterway could just as easily have been carrying a family of Mum, Dad and four kids.
"Family holidays are popular on the canals because plenty happens on the water, let alone on land when you dock," grinned the boat-hire manager.
He had reassured our novice crew that the penichette (French for barge) was idiot-proof and took us through the canal boat drill to master the fundamentals, including the science of penichette lavatory pumps.
"Operate the locks with a swipe of your lock card and push of a button or two. Piece of cake," he promised.
Our crew's bloke appointed himself captain. "Just to get the show under way. Everyone could have a go at being captain," he decreed manfully.
As deckhands, we girls assumed lock duty.
Our chosen route, the Shannon-Erne, traversed canals, streams, rivers and lakes. The Emerald Isle's generous rainfall replenishes the network of rivers, lakes and canals that extend from the tip of Northern Ireland to Waterford in southeast Ireland and Limerick in the southwest.
We meandered with countryside unfolding in a tableau of pasture, woodland and villages, an Ireland not seen from the road.
The Shannon and the Erne are linked by the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, which opened in 1860 for navigation of Ireland's two great waterways. Its working life was cut short by competition from steam train transport, and more than a century passed before a massive feat of engineering converted the canal into a waterway for pleasure boats. The cruising waters extend for hundreds of kilometres.
Our stretch of revitalised waterway included 16 locks. After some post whacking we got the hang of steering the 14m vessel and emerged with dignity intact. The more we sailed the less we resorted to using the bow thruster to avoid river banks.
The weather was nippy in early May, but our boat was built for the weather. We could steer it from the open top deck or from inside the cabin.
The locks were all electro-hydraulically operated, in technical parlance. Our captain cracked orders for two of us to leap ashore, swipe the lock card and press the right lock button for entering the lock and hitching to a mooring. It took about 15 minutes to negotiate each lock.
When twilight descended we pottered in the galley making snacks, pouring wine and slotting Irish music in the CD player. There were four cabins on our boat with compact en-suite bathrooms. Storage was limited and some of us rued bringing big cases.
As the penichette had a well-equipped kitchen, we cooked meals on board or moored for pub dinners. The village of Keshcarrigan was chosen for a dinner of freshly caught salmon. The tiny town has two of the best music pubs in Ireland, Gerties being one. The villagers have an unusual way of celebrating St Patrick's Day. They march backwards. Many then march to the pub, presumably backwards.
We farewelled our penichette at the bustling canal town of Carrick-on-Shannon. I watched a cargo boat heave out down the river. The skipper bore an uncanny resemblance to his dog as they both stared pointedly in the direction of the Grand Canal.
Carrick-on-Shannon, steeped in history, also bills itself as a paradise for anglers. Within a 10km radius of the town are 41 lakes, more than enough for the town's annual international fishing competitions.
At the end of our voyage we were all still friends. The captain had eventually relinquished his role and joined the deckhands.
We all regretted not leaving enough time to ride the hired bikes on board along country trails. But we picnicked ashore, watched birds, explored historic towns and dropped fishing lines from the barge and from ancient stone bridges. The Shannon-Erne Waterway is home to many wild fish - bream, roach, perch pike, salmon and brown trout among others.
You can plot your route to suit and ease into the gentle pace of the life on the Irish waterways.