Some weeks ago some friends asked me if I was interested in joining them for a week on a river Shannon barge cruise. Well of course I was. The problem however is the greed with which I had already consumed my holidays this year. Never fear, I told them. I will join you for the first night on the river. On Sunday I would bid them ‘Ahoy’ and make my way back to Dublin. My intention was to be back by early evening, so I could hopefully enjoy the celebrations, after Mayo’s victory against Dublin in the all-Ireland football final.
We set off at lunchtime on Saturday, this hardy crew of four. As it so happened I was insured as a driver in the car we were traveling in. With my learner’s permit in my grubby paw, once we left the motorway outside Dublin, I got behind the wheel and set off for our destination – Ballinamore in County Leitrim.
The inside of my cheeks are still raw and bloody today, such was the ferocity with which I was biting them for the duration of the journey. My passengers apparently didn’t notice how nervous I was, and thought I remained calm throughout. This is actually true, but it was disconcerting to be driving a car full of people on open roads I didn’t know, without my safety blanket – my foul-humoured driving instructor Attila.
We reached our barge. All in one piece.
It was already 6pm. We had phoned in advance to tell the boat company that we would not make the requested 4pm arrival time. The man seemed quite anxious.
‘The locks all shut at 8, you have to get through two this evening if you want to moor for the night. ‘
He proceeded to give us a thorough, but very speedy safety list. He guided us through the first lock – the Aghoo Lock Number 4. Then he bid us farewell.
Fair enough – we’d held him up by two hours.
This was a river. We were not miles from shore. We’d be grand.
And we were. We glided through the second lock – the Andrum Lock number 5 – without hindrance (the process takes about fifteen minutes.) We moored our boat. Despite the bounteous food and drink supplies that we’d brought with us, we all felt a bit cold and hungry.
Into Ballinamore village we trotted, to the Commercial and Tourist Hotel on the main street. I had battered fish and chips. I was on the river. Of course I wanted to eat fish. Sea fish maybe, but it was the thought that counted.
After our meal we repaired to our barge. It was a long and narrow vessel, capable of sleeping seven. Although with that number you’d want to be fairly comfortable with intimacy with your fellow passenger.
An evening of beer and card games ensued. All very civilised. I had never played the card game ‘Fuck You’ before. It was quite the team building exercise.
After breakfast on Sunday, we navigated our way to the next lock – the Ballinamore lock, and made our way through without incident. We were really getting the hang of this.
My plan was to depart the boat at about 3pm at Keshcarrigan jetty. This would give me enough time to get to Carrick-on-Shannon to get the last bus to Dublin that day. As my time on the boat was to be brief I took charge of the rudder, to guide us to my departure point. Everyone else would have plenty of time to do this in the week to come.
There were signs in the water to tell us which areas were safe for the barge and which were to be avoided. Cunningly the red half of the sign signified danger.
We were cruising along peacefully, while approaching the Saint John’s Lough, when were heard the thunder of an approaching boat. Having listened to the man who’d rented us the boat, I steered right, to allow the larger vessel to pass.
I had not realised however, that in my efforts to be a good river citizen that I’d veered into danger territory.
When I attempted to embark again, the engine whirred, the water foamed, but the boat would not move.
Nothing major. I’d just grounded the boat on rocks, in the shallow bank.
My heart sank. Of course, it would be me who was guiding the boat when something like this happened. I had been feeling quite proud of my driving ability on land the day before. Pride before a fall and all that.
It was just our luck that the only boat we’d passed that day was on the very stretch of the water where in the guide book, in bold red lettering was emblazoned ‘CAUTION! SHALLOW WATER.’
Nobody on board gave out to me. But on the inside I was distraught. Why did this occur when I was in charge?
Two very friendly English fishermen sitting on the bank, donned their waders and tried to help us to dislodge the boat. To no avail.
‘You’re on the rocks,’ one of them explained.
This isn’t cocktail hour, I thought grimly to myself.
A young woman walked by. She told us that her dad farmed the land on the bank and she’d speak to him to see if he could assist.
We decided to pause for lunch – a chicken and ham and coleslaw sandwich.
After about an hour we realised that the farmer might not be coming back to rescue us. We bit the bullet, and called the barge company.
Remember now that the All-Ireland football final was playing that afternoon, as we bobbed by the riverbank. People had better things to be doing today than assisting river virgins.
The company told us to call the government waterways company. We did. They told us that they only looked after the locks and that we needed to call the company.
Eventually we received telephone guidance from the company. A helpful gentleman instructed us to turn on the taps to empty the water tank to lighten the load and talked us through various manoeuvres to budge a grounded fourteen tonne barge. As a more capable boatman than I, attempted to reverse the boat, the rest of us were running up and down the deck, jumping like hyperactive children. This was on the instruction of the guide – the aim being to dislodge the boat. Our luminous orange life jackets bouncing with us.
After about thirty minutes of this carry-on, while I was resigning myself to spending a night on the river, and calling work the next day to say I was stuck on the banks of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, we heard a slow, painful creaking.
The boat was edging back in the water. Reversing to deeper water.
Glory be. We were on the move again. Three hours late granted. But who was counting?
I glanced at my watch. It was 5pm. The last bus to Dublin from Carrick-on-Shannon was leaving at 7.20. It would take us an hour to reach the next lock – Castlefore.
Castlefore Lock is situated 25 kilometres from Carrick. It is in the wilds of country Leitrim. There was no bus service from such a remote area to town.
No point in worrying though. We were progressing
As predicted we reached Castlefore lock one hour later. I got off the boat.
It had been over twenty years since I’d done this, but finally it was time.
I was going on another hitch-hiking adventure. Hitching used to be my means of getting from Limerick to elsewhere, back in the days before people decided that it was an unsafe means of transport. It was quite popular back in the 1990s.
I said goodbye to my friends who thought it might be wiser that I stay on board overnight. Seeing as we were in the middle of nowhere and all. My mind was made up however. By hook or by crook I was going to Dublin that night.
As I wandered down the rural laneway in the direction of what I thought was the sound of traffic, I noticed that a grass strip was growing in the middle of the road.
Dark thoughts of spending the rest of my life wandering the wilds of Leitrim flicked through my mind.
Until suddenly and unannounced I reached a main road with markings. This was more like it. I headed in the direction of Carrick. It was now 6.15pm. I had one hour to walk 25km. That was manageable surely?
The road was quiet. I had been walking for fifteen minutes. Not a solitary car had passed.
In the distance I heard the humming of an engine. A car was approaching.
Visions of axe murderers passed through my head. Then I remembered that in films it is usually the hitcher who is the psychopath.
I’m not a psycho though. I’m just a very silly boy.
The car pulled over.
It was a middle-aged Swiss couple. They weren’t going to Carrick though. Only to the next village Keshcarrigan. I didn’t care. I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be spending the night at the side of the road with my thumb out. Any movement in a car was progress.
We reached the village. The woman got out of the car to meet her friends in the pub. She told me that Hans would drive me to Carrick.
I could have kissed her. Although that would have made me look insane so I resisted.
Hans from Zurich did not speak very good English. I didn’t care. It was better than my German I just babbled happily in gratitude.
He dropped me at the bus stop fifteen minutes early.
Into Francesco’s Takeaway in Carrick I went, and bought myself a sausage and chips meal. I ate it by the bus stop. Food never tasted so good.
What an adventure. What a lovely, lovely couple.
Home at last.