Barging Inland: How to take a barge holiday on Ireland's inland waterways
Short breaks in Ireland
A short break on a barge provides a surprising intro to Ireland's inland waterways
Set the mood
As Kenneth Grahame wrote: "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
And for a Wind in the Willows-style wallow in Ireland, nothing beats an olde worlde canal barge on the Shannon-Erne Waterway - originally built as a Famine relief project, and heaven to chug along at sub-strolling speed with the leafy canopy slipping by overhead.
Our craft is The Sub - a canary- yellow shortened barge, customised to make it wider and more manageable for canal greenhorns like us. A barge has the turning circle of an articulated lorry, so steering with the tiller takes some practice, and reverse is very tricky indeed, but we soon get the hang of it... and slip into inland-waterway pace.
A canal barge run is sublime, so don't ruin it by over-planning or pressurising yourself with journey-time targets. Pick a direction when you emerge from the marina (left or right) and simply follow your nose. Chug one way for half of your holiday, stop off when and where you want, then simply turn around and come back. Simple.
The expense of barge hire usually involves four to six people sharing, and vessels seldom rent for less than a week in peak. We found an affordable weekend short break with a vessel easily managed by a lone couple at Riversdale Holidays in Ballinamore. Take notes at your familiarisation session and make sure your pre-paid smart card for the 16 locks is topped up or you'll end up stranded...
Tie up your tub up at scenic Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, and check into Smyth's Siopa Ól, the postcard town's most renowned hostelry - with its blazing fire, perfect pint of Guinness and a well-travelled barkeep who will regale you with tales both local and global (Main Street, 071 964 4955, or see Facebook).
There's usually music at the weekends, when it gets really lively. Try the food menu, which includes steak and salmon, but in particular look out for the lamb shank and the beef stew - both simply prepared but cooked to perfection. And dessert? Find out why this spot's sticky toffee pudding brings them in from far and wide.
The Sub is really quite beautiful inside and out, with its miniature but wholly functional kitchen, a stout stove, central heating, cosy beds and a table big enough to host company. It warrants at least one night of cooking in, to savour the pleasure. The driving deck is covered, so you can sit with a hot whiskey, tending a fishing line lobbed over the side for roach, bream, tench, perch, eel and pike. Marinas along the canal offer stop-offs with fresh water and washing facilities too.
A 14-tonne barge is not a place for unruly children. It moves slowly but can easily crush a person or a limb against lock walls - so take care. While the canal itself is shallow, locks are deep. Watch out too for spring-loaded branches whacking you from bankside trees!
Get me there
Mark travelled as a guest of Riversdale (071 964 4122; riversdaleholidays.com), which currently charges €855 a week for The Sub (two to four people) and €1,020 for the Legend Class barges (up to eight sharing), rising to €1,265 and €1,490 in peak summer season.
However, two-day breaks in The Sub should be booked now for the off-season (October to January), during which the rate falls to €360. It's long enough to give you a taster of the experience, and at quieter times there's little canal traffic to contend with.