What is the most meandering bit of waterway in all Ireland? Obviously it would be a river. And surely it would have to be a river trying to get across a very large area of flat country where, over the centuries, indeed over very many centuries, it has slowly carved out a channel which twists and turns back on itself in the best style of the mighty Amazon at its most tortuous?
Not so. For if you rule out Upper Lough Erne - where the myriad-like waterway is finding its path through natural drumlin country with many islands involved - the length of waterway which seems to come top of the bill in the maze-like meandering stakes seems not to be in a large open plain at all, but rather in a relatively small area of presumably alluvial flat land at the north end of Lough Allen in one of the least-known parts of Ireland.
There, the meandering waterway is the infant Shannon, finding its route south to the first of its many grown-up lakes, Lough Allen in the depths of Leitrim. And Lough Allen is a very grown-up lake indeed - definitely not to be trifled with.
In fact, Lough Allen has such a reputation for the dangers of its wide open water and sudden storms from the brooding hills and mountains about it that for long enough there seemed to be a reluctance by the Powers That Be to acknowledge that it was a proper part of the Irish Inland Waterways system at all.
A clinching argument against making it popular was that when the main system is low in water, Lough Allen is seen as a reservoir of very handy spare power by the engineers way downstream at the Ardnacrusha Hydro-Electric Dam just above Limerick. There, the sudden use of the far northern lake to boost the system might lower Lough Allen’s level enough to cause damage within a short time to any boats which were berthed in any harbour that they – the Powers That Be - might care to provide on it.
But as the popularity of Ireland’s inland waterways grew, the folk on the shores of Lough Allen stepped up their demands to be included in the big holiday afloat picture, and though there were few enough of them pushing the case - for it’s not exactly a densely-crowded region - in the end they won through.
Lough Allen officially became part of the big scheme of things in the recreational waterways network, and a permanent harbour was installed at the site of the old barge-using Spencer Harbour in the west shore, a summer harbour was made available at Cleighran More on the east shore, and down towards the south of Lough Allen where the now substantially larger Shannon exits the lake at Drumshanbo, it became a veritable Riviera with all sorts of facilities on the shores and in the river alike.
But the one fascinating feature which was very determinedly excluded from the new dispensation of accessibility was the baby Shannon coming into the top end of the lake. For it appears into the lake out of unknown roadless territory, with reportedly impenetrable forest, until suddenly it could be sighted again something like two or three miles away northwards as the crow flies, coming through under the bridge in a place called Dowra.
Now Dowra really is a place apart. It is one of those villages where the highlands meet the rest of the country, cramped in under the hills with the street bustling with mountainy men driving battered 4X4s with old trailers full of sheep in tow, and ever-alert collies beside them. It’s very workaday and not picturesque in the official sense, and about as different as possible from the smooth style which you get not so very far away on the inland waterways at Lough Key or in the high-tech affluence of Carrick-on-Shannon.
In fact, there’s a sense of the frontier about it. Not in the official border way, but rather in the feeling that just beyond Dowra as the hills close in, you’ll find ancient signs warning that Here Be Dragons….. At least, that’s the impression it made on me first time I drove into the village from the southwards, coming along the gentle lakeside road to the east of Lough Allen. It seems to be an attitude generally shared in the administration of Waterways Ireland. For when you’re out on Lough Allen and wonder what it might be like to wander up the young Shannon and see where it has come from out of all those hills and mountains, there’s a very clear sign telling you to stop thinking any such thing.
Needless to say such signs are seen as invitations to explore by any curious boater, and I’ve no doubt sundry small craft and kayaks in particular will have found their way up the winding rive and under the trees – in some places the Irish equivalent of a mangrove swamp - to within at least shouting distance of Dowra, and probably all the way to the place itself.
Certainly the Drascombe Association – with whom we were last cruising about a year ago, when they were right up the Slaney to Enniscorthy and then out into the wide expanses of Wexford Harbour as part of their Golden Jubilee celebrations – felt that the mysterious north end of Lough Allen was exactly the kind of place their characterful selection of boats were made to explore. So last weekend they made something of an expedition to Lough Allen and nearby Lough Arrow, and the one and only Jack O’Keeffe of Cork takes up the story:
“On Saturday a fleet of ten Drascombes sailed north up Lough Allen past the "End of Navigation" notices and into the Shannon river that feeds Lough Allen. They discovered that having negotiated the final completely unmarked approach to the river, they entered a deep meandering waterway, beautifully wooded and isolated from roads or and sort of commercial or farming activity.
The fleet explored the unused river to within a mile of Dowra village, at which point the tress merged overhead, and masts would need to be lowered to pass. With ten boats in the fleet and picnic time approaching, the best option was to find the true limits of navigation on another visit.
There is plenty of water in the river - 3m to 6m - and enough width to turn a 7m Drascombe. (Ed’s note: Detailed maps suggest there is a handy “turning pool” almost at Dowra itself). The fleet stopped off at the entrance to the lake for our al fresco feast, and then returned to the Lough Allen Centre at Drumshanbo via Spencer Harbour on the west shore, an all-weather amenity in a seemingly unpopulated area.
Then on Sunday the fleet were well hosted by Bryan and Crea Dobson at Cleighran More Harbour on the east shore, and took in a visit to the nearby sweathouse, unfortunately not in use since the 1700s - a slight disappointment for anyone who wanted to try a traditional ancient old Irish-style sauna.
Certainly the fleet included people with a lively interest in the past, and our flotilla of ten included two specimen boats, Bill Lart’s Orca from the UK which was John Watkinson’s prototype Drascombe Longboat, and Kim Roberts from Kilrush on the Shannon Estuary with Sanderling, a beautifully restored and maintained wooden Drascombe Lugger, now over 40 years old.
Some of the fleet came to Lough Allen after first taking a road-trailered diversion to sail the notably attractive Lough Arrow over the hills to the west towards Sligo, something which became a bit of a spectacle as there seemed to be no local recollection of sailboats on Lough Arrow any time before”.
In fact, the Varian sailing family of Dun Laoghaire had a fishing lodge on Lough Arrow, and it’s believed they’d sailing boats there, including perhaps a Shannon One Design.
Before this joint expedition, many of the Drascombe sailors knew little of Lough Allen, and some from the UK had never even heard of it. They say that when you visit somewhere interesting and new, you should always leave something still to be seen on a next visit.
Now that they know what might be needed to get all the way up to Dowra, it will be kept in mind by the Drascombe folk for some future date. Meanwhile, they suggest that Waterways Ireland should think about providing a landing place at Dowra, as the thick undergrowth makes it very difficult to get ashore anywhere near that remote village.