Walk of the week: River Shannon, Errina Canal and The Headrace O'Briensbridge, Co Clare
'The floods came up to here," said Michael Murtagh, chairman of the O'Briensbridge Community Group, laying his hand on a willow branch five-feet above the towpath. "We'd never known the Shannon do that before!"
No one who witnessed the floods on the River Shannon along the Clare/Limerick border in November 2009 will soon forget the spectacle.
There were fears that the 14 arches of the bridge at O'Briensbridge might give way before the brown torrent released from Lough Derg that seethed and spouted through them. Trees went sailing, fields disappeared, gardens were inundated.
It seemed an apocalyptic event.
Yet, Michael revealed as we strolled downriver from pretty O'Briensbridge, things had regularly been as bad as that -- or worse -- before the Electricity Supply Board dammed the Shannon's outfall from Lough Derg at Parteen Weir.
"They opened Parteen Weir in 1929 and sent two-thirds of the water down a new canal -- we call it the Headrace -- to feed the hydro-electric scheme at Ardnacrusha, just outside Limerick. That tamed the Shannon. Before then the river level was much, much higher, and it was all low-lying bogland each side. Oh, you'd have had powerful flooding back then, all right!"
Michael Murtagh should know all about the Shannon and its many moods. He worked for the ESB developing fisheries, creating habitats for fish and birds, and making spawning beds for the wild salmon whose route to their native streams had been blocked by developments along the river.
The looped walk we were following down the Shannon, along its tributary Errina Canal and back along the Headrace, was planned and laid out with the expert help and advice of the O'Briensbridge Community Group and its ever-enthusiastic chairman. Michael just can't keep himself away from his beloved Shannon, and no one with eyes and ears could blame him. In this part of the world, snaking as a wide ribbon of molten bronze and silver between the contiguous counties of Clare, Limerick and Tipperary, overhung with trees, slow-flowing and majestic, the Shannon is a kingly river and a beautiful one.
A mile out of O'Briensbridge we spied a curious procession approaching along the bank. Two men, a woman and a brace of dogs leaping crazily -- and small wonder, for one of the men had a large, muddy swan cradled in his arms. "Taking it to the vet," he said laconically.
The big bird lay against his chest as if stunned, its large coarse-skinned feet dangling, its long neck curved in a hoop as its protector shielded its eyes with one hand to prevent it seeing the slavering muzzles of the dog as they jumped, mad with bravado and excitement.
Now we swung away from the shining Shannon and made inland along the tree-shaded towpath of the long-abandoned Errina Canal. "My favourite part of the walk," murmured Michael. "I love the peace of it, out in the country under the trees like this."
Barges, like salmon, cannot easily negotiate obstacles in the river, and the canal was built in the 1780s to bypass the salmon fishery at Castleconnell. Today, all was quiet along the old canal.
Among the bushes of Rose of Sharon, with their plump inky fruit, we found exotically striped yellow and orange snails as bright and shiny as sweets. At Errina Bridge we stooped to inspect the grooves that barge ropes had gouged as the horses dragged them decade after decade against the stone bridge abutments. Then, it was up on to the long smooth curve of the Headrace embankment, walking against the water's flow.
A quick detour to Michael's house for a sandwich and a cup of tea, and we strode on along the Headrace towards Lough Derg, Michael's bouncy little dog Jack at our heels ("part Jack Russell, part eejit!"). Stupendous views opened to the billowing heights of Slieve Bearnagh and the tall, eye-catching dome of Keeper Hill, still patched with winter snow.
Up at the castle-like edifice of Parteen Weir we lingered, stunned by the sight and sound of white water jetting thunderously through the sluices, till the slanting light of a cold sunset made us shiver and bend our steps to the homeward path.