The Hawthorn Blog
Liveaboard life and general wanderings on the Irish Inland Waterways.
Our cruise up the Shannon meant that we were going to be passing the entrance to Lough Key just north of Carrick On Shannon and, since everybody that we have spoken to since arriving here enthused about Key, we decided to spend a few days on it. We stopped at Carrick just long enough for Jill to shop and me to meet another barge owner and to be offered the loan of his mooring, electricity and friends while we were on Key. When Jill got back we were invited to have a look about the trip boat ‘Moon River’, that plies its trade up and down from its mooring on the town quay. We were not on board long as the next bus full of trippers were soon loaded and ‘Moon River’ left with Hawthorn following in its wake.
Lough Key lies up the Boyle River which joins the Shannon just a mile north of Carrick. Turning west we could see the hills around it a few miles in the distance as we entered the first of several smaller loughs that the Boyle flows through. These smaller loughs are very beautiful in their own right and would be crowded with visitors and surrounded with walkers had they been in England. Here the only people visible were the few boaters making their way up or down from the jewel at the head of the navigation upstream. Of course, as always we got to the only lock of the day just in time to see the lock keeper leaving for his lunch hour. We waited in the lock with a little cruiser occupied by two very elderly men who were quite clearly enjoying there adventure: when released an hour and a bit later, and after a lot of struggling with ropes, they put the motor in full forward and bounced off the walls and lock gates before shooting out onto the river. All the while one of them was shouting: “ Away we go!”. We were rolling about with laughter; the lock keeper just stood still, mouth agape and shaking his head. We left rather more gently, soon rounding the last bend and having the full glory of Key revealed in front of us.
At only 12 square kilometres, Lough Key is not a large body of water by Irish standards and its scale is further reduced by the numerous islands scattered over it. Gently rolling hills, the presence of a castle folly on one of its islands and the densely wooded banks make it picture book perfect. We had been told to moor on Drummins Island if possible and were relieved to see just one boat on the jetty, and a familiar boat at that: we had met the owners the day before when, at Jamestown Lock, a German crewed hire boat had come into the jetty too fast. The subsequent collision had thrown the father of the steerer overboard and there had been some excitement as he was fished from the water and an ambulance called to attend to his damaged ribs. Hobbes had taken advantage of everybody’s distraction to steal the dog’s food on the boat behind us and, recognising his prey from the day before, repeated his theft as the owners took our ropes at Drummins, fortunately they didn’t seem to mind. Drummins Island is part of Rockingham Forest Park so, for the very first time since leaving the Grand Canal, we were able to walk from the boat without putting Hobbes on the lead (his distended belly meant that he was going nowhere fast!). This was such a rare bonus that we decided to stay for a few days and do some exploring on foot. Not that we went far that afternoon as we had a television signal that was strong enough for us to watch Wimbledon - the commentary was in Gaelic so we could only make out the occasional word - Murray and Roddick - which was interesting.
I was woken soon after dawn the following morning by the strangest of noises: it sounded as if someone was trying to break into the back of the boat with a small hammer. Going through to the stern cabin I watched a dirty great Raven smashing at the porthole with its beak. It only flew away once I opened the wheelhouse door. We could only imagine that it was having a ‘shiny, shiny’ moment at the tools on the cutting table. Our intentions that morning were to walk to the farmer’s market in the local town of Boyle - just three miles distant. Our neighbours were appalled that we would even think of such a venture (the Irish and walking again!) and, given that they too were going to Boyle, albeit by boat, they insisted on giving us a lift, even Hobbes once the dog food was locked away. The market was not large and it seemed that most of the stalls were run by English ex-pats who had moved to the area for the ‘Good Life’. We walked back in the pouring rain. Not much fun on the (albeit quiet) roads but much better once we had made the shelter of the forest. And it is a fine forest, more of a arboretum than a wild wood. This was all explained later when, on our afternoon stroll, we called at the visitors centre and learnt that the woods had all been carefully managed for many generations. What we had taken for near wilderness was, in fact, the remains of one of Ireland’s great estates. When I say Ireland’s, of course I mean a great English estate in Ireland. Lough Key, Boyle Abbey and its estate, and other huge tracts of land had been granted to Sir John King by English Monarchs in the 17th Century as reward for his military successes in Ireland. What we had initially assumed was a ‘natural’ space on entering Lough Key was actually carefully managed parkland. The ‘Castle’ on Castle Island is a folly built to replace the original castle of the last Irish landlords and it was a visit to Castle Island in 1890 that is attributed as the source of W. B. Yeats’s ‘unique and mystical style of writing’.
Rockingham House stood on the southern shore until fire destroyed it in 1957. Designed by the architect Robert Nash in 1809, it had some unusual features in that the kitchen was underground and servants quarters were some distance from the house. In order for staff to remain invisible even when going to and from the house, their quarters were connected to the main house by tunnels. Goods were brought to the house from Boyle by boat and then taken into the kitchen via another tunnel from the lake shore. Architecturally this meant that Rockingham could be approached from any quarter without seeing any service buildings. The power of the King family was such that when they went into Boyle itself, the local Garda, informed of the time that they would be passing through, would clear the streets of the local poor. And yet the King’s were not considered particularly oppressive landlords. Many of the Great English Houses were burnt by Irish Republicans yet, at Rockingham, the Republicans only raided the armory in 1918. Due to charged atmosphere in Roscommon the trial was held in Dublin: the two men charged with the raid were released when the only witness, a butler, decided that he could no longer be certain that the two men were involved. Now, with the house burnt down due to faulty wiring and the English long gone, the Irish enjoy the parkland (which is now publicly owned). As did one Englishman, a Welsh woman, and a dog devoid on any national identity.
We were reluctant to leave such a tranquil spot, but with work booked on the lower Shannon and an intention of visiting Lough Allen before we went south, we dragged ourselves away after a few days of walking, fishing and indulgence. Lough Key is rightly held up as one of the jewels of the Irish waterways system. Having only briefly enjoyed it we intend to return.