'Viking Mike', the bike and I, cruise the River Shannon and visit the oldest pub in the land
Kim Bielenberg enjoys time out from pedalling and takes to the water instead, as he stops off at Athlone for a break and feels right at home in one of the few B&Bs in the country that refuses to serve a traditional fry
Published 29/07/2014 | 02:30
It's a quarter to three in the afternoon as I ride through an obstacle course of roadworks in the centre of Athlone, and I am behind schedule. I have come to meet the man known locally as 'Viking Mike', a boatman who plies his trade along the River Shannon.
Fortunately, his boat is also late as he arrives to pick up me and the bike at a mooring just below the town's Norman castle. The pace on the river is refreshingly relaxed rather than frantic. Nobody is in a hurry to go anywhere.
Some years ago, Michael McDonnell found himself unemployed after he lost his job in an agricultural business.
For want of something to do, he offered to help out on a boat that brings passengers up the Shannon from Athlone into Lough Ree.
The owner of the boat not only asked him to help out, but later invited him to skipper the cruiser. Michael ended up taking on the boat himself, restyled it with a Viking prow, and now runs a thriving business taking passengers up and down the great waterway.
"I took to it like a duck to water and it's what I love doing," says Michael, who originally comes from Co Kerry.
"It took a while to take off, but I stuck with it. The Celtic Tiger almost destroyed my business, because people thought they were too good to visit anywhere in Ireland, but now people realise what there is to see."
For many travellers, Athlone was once a bottleneck on the way west to Galway. But this is a town that is better seen from the gentler environment of a river boat than the front seat of a car.
I board Michael's Viking cruise ship, find a perch for the bike behind the skipper, and we head North on the Shannon under the white metal railway bridge past the boat and yachting clubs. Within a short time we are in a wilderness of wild birds, reeds and river meadows that flood in the winter and become lush pasture in the summer.
Michael tells us that corncrakes fly here from the tip of Africa to nest along this flood-prone shoreline known as the "callows".
About a mile north of Athlone, the river widens into Lough Ree, a lake dotted with wooded islands and secret coves.
Gazing over this scene an idea occurs to me. Loch Ness created an entire industry out of its lake monsters, attracting documentary makers, curious tourists and assorted crackpots.
Is it not time for Athlone to follow suit with greater promotion of the notorious Lough Ree monster?
The most plausible sighting of the menacing lake beast was reported in the Westmeath Independent in 1960. Three priests - Father Quigly, Father Murray and Father Burke - spotted a mysterious creature from the deep while they were fishing off Holly Point.
One of the witnesses said: "It was moving. It went down under the water and came up again in the form of a loop."
There are other stories of unexplained bumps on Shannon cruisers late at night.
The Lough Ree monster became international news in the 1960s and was covered by the BBC, but why is Failte Ireland doing nothing to promote it?
Michael is sceptical of the most famous sighting: "I think the priests had too many whiskeys on them that night. Maybe they saw a big otter."
Instead of a lake monster, Athlone for a time pinned its hopes on plans for a vast Chinese trade centre on the edge of town; it would act as an entry point for traders trying to crack the European market. The stalled plan was dubbed "Wrong Kong", and it remains to be seen if it will ever be built.
When our boat reaches the Hodson Bay Hotel, I disembark with my bike. Kids are jumping from the pier into the water, and along waterslides in the distance. I cycle for a few miles back down the western side of the lake into Athlone.
Michael has pointed me in the direction of a bed and breakfast known as The Bastion. Owners Anthony and Vinny McCay have created a little bohemian paradise of old wooden floorboards, creaking stairs, paintings, indoor plants and knick-knacks above what used to be the family's clothes shop.
The Bastion is one of the few B&Bs in Ireland that declines to serve a fried breakfast.
"We are both vegetarians," says Anthony. "We tried frying breakfast when we opened, but we couldn't stand the smell going right through the house."
The Bastion more than makes up for its fry-free experience with a breakfast of croissants, toast, yoghurts and cheeses.
As a sideline, Anthony also makes Bog Buddies - little sculpted figures made out of turf.
The Bastion is just on the edge of Athlone's 'Left Bank', an area along the river near the castle with restaurants, cafes and pubs. It may never rival the 'left bank' of Paris, in terms of scale and impact, but it makes a decent fist of it.
My in-depth research then takes me to the best-known establishment in this bustling enclave, Sean's Bar, reputed to be the oldest pub in Ireland and possibly even the world. When they were renovating the pub in the 1960s they found walls made from wattle and wicker and it was dated at 900 ad.
In terms of knick-knacks, Sean's takes up where the Bastion leaves off. Among its curios are old fishing reels, oars and hunting horns.
Owner Timmy Donovan says: "I also have cannon balls and muskets, but we are keeping them in storage during renovation."
The uneven floor is strewn with sawdust, and on a Monday night the place is packed.
On the following morning I pack up the bike and pedal away from the Bastion, bound for Roscommon. Athlone has been a welcome stopping-off point.