Beyond the water's edge in Ireland's Ancient East
Cruising along the Shannon is the summer holiday of our dreams but there is so much more to see beyond the banks.
When it comes to the ultimate Irish staycation bucket-list, a cruise along the Shannon has to be one of the top destinations. Taking Ireland’s longest river by boat and checking out the wealth of attractions along the way is a trip many of us have always dreamed of.
The Shannon acts as a divide for the island with the 17 counties of Ireland’s Ancient East lying to the east of the river. This ancient land of Saints and Scholars, high kings and heroes, castles and conquests lines the river’s edge. This summer, why not discover it for yourself?
Stops like Clonmacnoise and Athlone Castle as well as the quaint little villages of Shannonbridge and Ballina-Killaloe are what make the cruise along the river truly magical and memorable. While it’s the water that draws us to the Shannon, it’s the places and faces that lie beyond her banks that make us never want to leave. What are you waiting for?
Where better to start your Shannon-side adventure than at a historic site at the very heart of Ireland’s Ancient East, Athlone Castle. Athlone Castle dates way back to the 12th century and was built to defend the crossing point on the River Shannon.
In 2012, the castle reopened as a visitor centre, inviting tourists to experience the history of Athlone in an ultra-modern way. The exhibition is made up of eight multimedia displays with everything from interactive games to a 360 cinematic experience, putting you right in the heart of the action of the 1691 Siege of Athlone. You even get to hear from some of the historic figures who made Athlone what it is today and a chance to look at artefacts from the 19th century.
If you can manage to pull yourself away from the immersive multi-sensory displays, make sure to check out the incredible views of Athlone town and the River Shannon from the upper battlements in the castle. Tours of the castle are self-guided but you can book a guided tour of the castle throughout the summer months. Find more information about tickets here.
After whizzing your way through 5000 years of history, you are bound to have worked up an appetite. For a real treat, have a picnic in the shadow of the castle on the banks of the Shannon.
From one historic location to another, just a stone’s throw from the castle you will find Ireland’s oldest pub - Sean’s Bar.
You might be surprised but the pub out-dates Athlone Castle, having sprung up as far back as 900 AD, around the same time as the crossing point. The barmen even joke that the people living at the castle probably dropped into the pub for a pint!
When you step into Sean’s on the Main Street, it is like being transported back in history. The pub has stuck with its traditional feel with sawdust on the floor and open turf fires. You can even catch local musicians playing in the corners. In fact, there is live music every night in Sean's Bar, all year round.
While you can see the history of the place everywhere, look out for the artefacts from the early days of the pub which have been carefully kept and put on display like old coins minted by their former landlords to barter with the customers.
Having a drink in Sean’s Bar is like playing your own part in a bit of Irish history.
Just a two-minute walk from Sean’s Bar sits Luan Gallery right on the banks of the Shannon. The contemporary building hosts art from all over the world but prides itself on local pieces from artists in the Midlands. You will always find something different in the gallery, the exhibited works change every two months.
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The gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of the work of Athlone artists called “Elsewhere” until June 23. Visitors can see the abstract impressionist paintings of Catherine Rock, the 3D sculptures of Lawrence O’Neill and Leila Henry’s black and white charcoal drawings.
While the art itself is captivating, you might find yourself distracted by the uninterrupted views of the River Shannon. The building was built with these views in mind with floor to ceiling windows. You could even spend a few hours just sitting in the gallery watching the Shannon go by.
Entry and guided tours of the gallery are free. Find out more about the gallery and upcoming exhibitions here.
Many people start their cruise of the Shannon further north at towns like Enniskillen in Fermanagh or Carrick-on-shannon in Leitrim but Athlone and towns further south have become popular launching points for Ireland’s best loved river cruise. Want to rent your own boat? Companies like Locaboat and Carrick Craft offer boat rental for tourists for a week or more. Locaboat sets off from Killinure Point on Lough Ree, just a 20 minute drive north of Athlone while Carrick Craft have a marina in Banagher, Co. Offaly, just 15 minutes from the village of Shannonbridge.
If you would prefer to leave the sailing to someone else, you can take a guided tour around Lough Ree from Athlone Marina with Lough Ree Boat Hire. The tour specialises in the wildlife that calls Lough Ree home including rare species of seabirds and native fauna. Bringing you around the headlands and small islands, with a bit of luck you can spot birds like the common scoter duck, swans and cormorants on the lake. Book your water safari here.
If you want to see how wild Lough Ree really is, stop off at Baysport Waterpark. This on-lake inflatable waterpark has plenty to keep the kids entertained and is like nothing you have seen in Ireland: imagine bouncy castles but on the water. As well as the on-water inflatable fun zone, you can also try water sports like paddleboarding and kayaking. There really is something for all the family. The minimum age for entry is 6 years old and equipment, including wetsuits, is provided.
Looking to do something a bit different? Step aboard a Viking ship at Athlone Castle. The ship has sailings north to Hodson Bay every day and takes just 75 minutes return. In time for your stopover, book some spa treatments or afternoon tea overlooking the lake in the Hodson Bay Hotel. Heading south, the Viking ship departs for Clonmacnoise every week. The boat drops you at Clonmacnoise after a 90-minute journey along the Shannon. Have a look around the early Christian settlement before the bus brings you back to Athlone.
Back on dry land, Dun na Sí Amenity and Heritage Park is just 15 minutes from Athlone. For all those budding historians and little geographers, this park brings the stuff in textbooks to life.
One section of the park is a dedicated parklands and wetlands reserve which is home to plenty of indigenous plants and animals. The highlight has to be the chance to see a real turlough, that’s a disappearing lake for those of us a few too many years out of school. The former grazing area for cattle floods to form a lake during the winter months and then disappears as summer approaches.
Over in the Heritage Park, visitors can experience what life in Ireland was like in the past. There is a gigantic statue of Lugh, warrior of Irish mythology who looks over the park. After having a look at the magical stone circle and mass rock, you can check out what a farmhouse would have been like 100 years ago and even a bothán, where the labourers lived. Dun na Sí is also home to a hedge school. Hedge schools were the norm for Irish kids in the 18th century where classes took place outdoors, often in hedgerows, because Catholic schools were banned under the Penal Laws.
Why not make your way to Dun na Sí on two wheels? The Old Rail Cycle Trail runs from Athlone to Mullingar, taking in the towns of Moate and Castletown along the way. Dun na Sí is one of the stops, just an 8km cycle from Athlone.
As the name suggests, the route follows the old railway track which first brought passengers from Athlone to Dublin in 1851. The tracks have now been accompanied with wide trails where cyclists can enjoy the beautiful countryside of the Midlands while zipping under railway bridges and passing by disused stations. You even get to cycle through an old tunnel!
Don’t worry if you haven’t got your own bikes or would prefer to leave them at home, Buckley Bikes in Athlone offers both short-term and long-term bike hire. Whether you are just heading on the Old Rail Trail for a one-day jaunt or want to bring your bike aboard the cruiser for your whole holiday, Buckley's have bikes suitable for every need as well as kids bicycles.
Back aboard the cruiser heading further south, you will come across the ancient Irish settlement of Clonmacnoise. While thousands of years have passed since St Ciaran first founded the historic religious site during the 6th century, at Clonmacnoise it feels like time has stood still.
Sitting on the east bank of the Shannon, lies the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches and round towers. Amidst the ruins, you will be struck by the remains of the three high crosses – the North, the South and the Cross of the Scriptures. Despite becoming a popular tourist destination because of its historical significance, there is still a palpable feeling of peace and reverence that had endured throughout the centuries.
To hear all about Clonmacnoise, drop by the modern Visitors’ Centre. Here you can learn all about the first settlement, view religious artefacts and see the original stone crosses, brought inside for preservation, up close. After discovering the magic and mystery behind the site, you will begin to understand how Ireland became known as “the land of Saints and Scholars”.
As the sun lingers above the ancient ruins while the Shannon flows by, you will be transfixed by the marvel that is Clonmacnoise, a place that has inspired and informed the modern Ireland we know today.
Fittingly only separated from Clonmacnoise by the Mongan Bog to the east, the experience at Celtic Roots Studio in Ballinahowen, Co Westmeath, is truly unique.
Sculptures and jewellery are designed by craftswoman Helen Conneely and created using ancient reclaimed bogwood. Trees were engulfed by the bog thousands of years ago and have been unearthed by the team behind Celtic Roots. The pieces are then dried for two years before being polished to become keepsakes.
Eager to uncover the provenance of the wood used in her studio, Helen contacted Queens University Belfast who dated the samples back over 5000 years – you can’t get much more ancient than that. You can admire the masterpieces in the Celtic Roots studio and workshop.
You can ask for works in the studio to be personalised or if you have your own design in mind, you can request your own bespoke piece made by the team. Want to get stuck in yourself? Celtic Roots offer short classes on small scale wood carving where you can take your work-of-art home with you. Certainly more glamorous than the summers in the bog we are all used to!
Travel from Clonmacnoise to Shannonbridge in style by hopping onboard the River Queen, this relaxing cruise takes just one hour and you can appreciate all the breath-taking views of the Shannon at your leisure. The cruise runs every Wednesday and Sunday during the months of July and August.
After reaching Shannonbridge, you will be immediately taken with the quaint little village. It is a great place along the route to stop for something to eat and a drink with the locals. Make sure to visit Kileen’s Bar and Tackleshop, it is like being transported back to Ireland of old. The building has been standing in Shannonbridge for the over 350 years while the pub has been owned by the Kileen family for 80 years.
The real charm of the pub has to be the old-world feel with an open fire and an adjoining shop where you can buy a little bit of everything from angling equipment to sweets. Known for their live music, they invite customers to bring their own instruments along for an impromptu seisiún. There are even puzzles and board games to keep the kids entertained.
Just like in every traditional Irish pub, half the craic is spending the evening chatting to the owner and the rumour is Mick at Kileen’s has some great stories! Stop by for a pint and some pub grub in this Shannonbridge institution.
While Ireland’s Ancient East has become known for its castles like Kilkenny and Birr, Clonony Castle in Co. Offaly is one of the region’s best kept secrets.
First occupied in the early 16th century, the castle was then owned by Thomas Boleyn, the father of King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn. Thomas gifted King Henry VIII the castle as part of his agreement to marry Anne. In fact, Anne’s cousins Mary and Elizabeth not only lived at Clonony Castle but are also buried there. The castle is open to the public all year round and is considered to be an Irish National Monument. While there are no official guided tours, look out for the caretaker who is always happy to recount the stories of this historic castle.
While the unique history of the castle is interesting, what brings visitors to Clonony Castle has to be the ghost stories. Clonony is considered to be one of the most haunted places in Ireland. Over the years, many people have claimed to have seen a skeletal ghostly figure of a man atop the castle tower. Take a look for yourself, if you are brave enough!
Around the east side of Lough Derg, you will find some of the most beautiful villages in Ireland, the perfect place to while away an afternoon, having a drink and a bite to eat by the lake.
Not far from where the River Shannon meets Lough Derg is Terryglass. This village is one of the most visited spots along the river and you can certainly see why. While the views of Lough Derg are remarkable, Terryglass has a certain appeal that will make the picturesque little village difficult to leave.
The real draw has to be the food.
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Terryglass is home to two very popular pub-restaurants, Paddy’s and the Derg Inn. Paddy’s Bar has been a gathering point for locals since 1826 and its popularity has endured. The menu changes in response to the seasons with much of the herbs and vegetables coming from their own garden. The Derg Inn in the village has become a gastro-grub destination with people travelling from all over Ireland to try their food. They have the awards to back it up too: the place is coming down with McKenna’s Guide and Georgina Campbell plaques. Want to dine al-fresco? Terryglass is arguably one of the best points along the Shannon to have a meal and watch the sun set on Lough Derg.
This village is a peaceful waterside refuge year round but Terryglass really comes alive in August. From 16-20 August, it hosts the annual Terryglass Arts Festival. National theatre companies, music acts and dancing troupes descend on the village to perform across the weekend. Keep updated with the full programme of events here.
From sunset to sunrise, the best way to spend a morning on Lough Derg is in Dromineer. The village is an ideal stopping point for breakfast and a cup of coffee. The Lake Café serves locally-brewed artisan Ponaire coffee from Newport in Tipperary. From 8:30am every morning, you can enjoy a pastry, a scone or even a full-Irish.
While docking in the village you will be welcomed by the 13th century Tower House sitting right on the shore – the perfect location for a holiday snap!
Dromineer is famous for its yacht club, the Lough Derg Yacht Club. It is the oldest in the world and has been running for over 180 years. You can do water sports like kayaking or sailing and the village has long been a favourite of amateur fishermen. There is also a short stretch of beach perfect for a romantic stroll after breakfast.
While Dromineer had a Tower House to mark its location, the ruins of the castle of the O’Kennedy family will help you find the town of their namesake, Garrykennedy.
Stepping off the boat at Garrykennedy, the village really is like something straight from a postcard. There is a beautifully maintained park with gardens for the kids to run around and a dedicated barbecue area – weather permitting! The real star in Garrykennedy is Larkin’s Pub, a music pub easily recognised by its thatched roof.
Larkins is the perfect spot to finish a day of boating around The River Shannon (boats can be docked just out of shot on the right). With award winning food, and live Irish trad music, you have the ingredients for a pretty epic day ☘️ #garrykennedy #larkinsgarrykennedy #therivershannon #boating #dayslikethis #epicdays #northtipperary #hiddenireland #secretireland #instaireland #seagreentravel
Larkin’s is known all around Ireland for its unique atmosphere. The food is not to be missed, you can eat in the main pub but if you are after something more intimate, ask for a table in the snug – it only seats 12 people.
While the food is noteworthy, it’s the ceol agus craic that has visitors rushing in the door. Their traditional music sessions are legendary. Get yourself a pint and pull up a stool for an evening you will never forget.
At the southernmost tip of Lough Derg lies the twin villages of Ballina-Killaloe. The twin towns of Ballina-Killaloe are amongst Ireland's most picturesque attractions and are connected by a 13-arch bridge, not only linking the two towns but also the counties of Clare and Tipperary. When you amble along the winding streets of these villages, you are truly walking on hallowed ground. The area was the birthplace of none other than the High King of Ireland, Brian Ború.
Ballina-Killaloe has a dedicated Brian Ború Heritage Centre in the middle of the village if you want to learn all about the High King. After getting genned-up on the area's most famous son, take the one mile climb north of the village to Béal Ború for something really special. The walk brings you through forest before you reach the remnants of Brian Ború’s ringfort. The mound overlooks the villages of Ballina and Killaloe and Lough Derg below. With the sunlight splitting through the trees, standing in Béal Ború seems almost spiritual.
What better way to celebrate the area's link to the High King of Ireland than with a big party? Ballina-Killaloe welcomes thousands of visitors each year for the annual Féile Brian Ború, taking place this year from the 29th of June to July 2nd. Highlights include a swim in the Shannon, a street party and the climax of the festival has to be the Féile fireworks on the Saturday night.
Pay a visit to St Flannan’s Cathedral which has stood on the banks of the Shannon since the 13th century. The original structure, first built in 1180, was destroyed but some of the original features remain like the distinctive Romanesque doorway, preserved in the south wall of the new cathedral. St Flannan’s is full of surprises, inside there is a small stone from 1000AD with an ogham inscription but your eye will most certainly be drawn to the 11-metre high stained glass window.
Anyone in either Ballina or Killaloe will tell you, there is nowhere better for an evening meal than the Cherry Tree in Ballina. You can eat the best local food like Angus steak from Tipperary and Bluebell Falls goat’s cheese from just across the river in Ennis. The Cherry Tree is a bit of a critic’s darling but they can definitely back it up.
When it comes to all you can see along the River Shannon, we have barely scratched the surface. As you cruise along on the summer holiday of a lifetime, just cast your eye east to spot all of the stunning locations and attractions dotted along the river banks. While it may be your first time exploring Ireland’s mystical waterway, you will be rushing back to see more of what lies beyond the Shannon.
With so much to see and do in Ireland's Ancient East this summer, one visit may just not be enough.
Plan your holiday today at irelandsancienteast.com.