Navigating the Heart of Ireland on a Rental Boat

Pleasure boats navigate the River Shannon through the Midlands of Ireland. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Tap, tap, tap. The nap I long for after a morning of sightseeing is being interrupted by a knocking on the window of the cruiser I’ve rented on the River Shannon. Tap, tap, tap. There is goes again. Who could be outside my cabin window, at the water line mind you, disturbing my rest? I draw the curtain aside and quickly rear back as a swan pokes its beak at the glass for another attack. Long neck craned, black beady eyes staring at me, it means business.

Hungry swans pursue boaters in Shannonbridge, Ireland. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

That’s what I get for joining my comrades on deck, pitching our leftover crusts of bread overboard to a flock of hungry swans milling about. Lunch is over for me, but this guy has sought me out in my cabin to let me know he wants more.Swans often greet boats at moorings on the Shannon. One in particular is said to hang around the marina in the town of Banagher where boaters like to give it sips from their glasses of beer. From what I have seen of the geniality among boaters docked for the night, that elegant bird must have been one ugly duckling by the end of the evening.

Boating on the Historic River Shannon

Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon flows south in the Midlands through several lakes, or loughs. It once was the main form of transportation through the heart of Ireland. Vikings navigated it, plundering as they went, and the great Irish King Brian Boru used his fleet on the river to take on invaders and rival clans.

In Your Bucket Because . . .

  • You want to see a little-known part of Ireland well off the tourist track.
  • You want to enjoy Irish pubs, meet local people and listen to Irish music.
  • Good for independent travelers who are comfortable navigating a rental boat.

Days on the river are more tranquil now—and a lot friendlier. Locally owned pleasure boats and rental boats manned by vacationers share the river in easy camaraderie. Boaters help each other maneuver into locks where a fee of few euros is handed over to the lock keeper, often with a bottle of liquid gratuity.

Easy Experience for Novice Boaters

A license isn’t necessary to rent a cabin cruiser. While rental companies claim no prior boating experience is necessary, I felt overwhelmed by my rental agent’s brief tutorial on the mechanics of the vessel. I was happy one of my fellow renters has some knowledge of how boats operate and felt confident enough to keep us running.

The Derg Inn in Terryglass welcomes diners who’ve been boating on the river. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Most of the rental boats range from around 29 feet to 38 feet with sleeping space for two to eight. They don’t go more than 12 mph, so cruising the Shannon is a leisurely excursion on a slow-moving river past pastures and woodlands with stops in quaint small towns. Once on the boat, navigation proves a cinch. In a car, I drive on the left in Ireland, but on the boat I hug the right bank leaving plenty of room for oncoming boats to pass on my left. The loughs, of course, give more room to navigate. On the Lower Shannon, I boat through Lough Derg, which at its widest point measures about 10 miles across. On the narrower Middle Shannon I cruise past fat cattle in the fields and hillsides studded with sheep. Farther north, the Shannon connects a necklace of lakes as it flows from its source in the Cuilcagh Mountains.

Sightseeing and Pub Crawls

For a diversion from boating, we hired a car to go sightseeing at Birr Castle. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

During my week’s rental, I have plenty of time to see the sights, often using the bicycle the rental agent stowed aboard. Though boaters can arrange to play golf and fish, my fellow renters and I are content to poke around the towns, mixing some sightseeing with eating and drinking. At the Derg Inn in Terryglass, I dig into a salmon entrée I will dream about when I get home. In Shannonbridge I treat myself to a fine dining experience at the Old Fort Restaurant, occupying a fortress built to fend of Napoleon’s troops. The night begins with a cocktail next to a peat fire and ends with a five-course gourmet meal.  In every town along the river we do a pub crawl and enjoy the local craic. Pronounced “crack,” it’s Irish gemütlichkeit, a relaxed camaraderie punctuated with traditional Irish music. We walk into Hough’s Pub in Banagher, an agreeably dark and dingy place packed with patrons downing pints of Guinness and engaging in Irish banter. We dock in the middle of the day in Shannonbridge and stop by Killeens Village Tavern, winner of a James Joyce Pub Award for its authenticity. I order an oozing toasted cheese sandwich and an Irish coffee, heavy on the cream.

Clonmacnois is a seventh-century monastic settlement. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

For a little diversion from boating, we hire a car and drive to Birr to tour the castle with its 100-acre garden and Birds of Prey Centre. As we leave the grounds the Irish mist turns to rain and we seek shelter in Kelly’s Bar where the proprietor amuses us by teaching us how to pull a perfect draft of Guinness with the head of foam just so.

Visiting a National Heritage Site

The Midlands are rural, don’t attract a lot of international visitors and have few attractions. One, though. is a must-see: Clonmacnoise, a national heritage site. I walk through the ruins of this monastic settlement founded by St. Ciaran in A.D. 548 and imagine what it might have been like when it was a great center of learning. Today it’s known for the high crosses found here and moved indoors to preserve them. I marvel at the elaborate carved figures of biblical scenes on the 13-foot Cross of the Scriptures.

The sky is blue and the air is crisp, so I enjoy a stroll through the grounds looking at the ruins of a cathedral, early Christian grave markers, eight churches and two round towers. The monks climbed to the top to keep watch here for marauding Vikings passing on the river. I take a moment to give thanks that all I have to contend with on my river journey is a hungry swan.


  • The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland has a list of boat rental companies operating on the Shannon.
  • Summer is peak season for boating on the Shannon while spring and fall aren’t as crowded.
  • Boat rental rates depend on the size of the boat, season and duration of rental. Expect to put down a damage deposit and pay extra for fuel.
  • Boats usually have an equipped kitchen, bathroom, heating, radio, towels and bed linens. You’ll likely find safety equipment, navigation charts, binoculars and a mobile phone for emergency use.
  • Pack rubber-soled shoes, raincoat or windbreaker, sunglasses and a hat.

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