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THE SHANNON AND ITS LAKES
NO river in Great Britain, neither the Thames, nor the Clyde, nor even the Severn, equals the river Shannon and its lakes, either in length or in importance as an inland waterway. The native on its banks tells you that it rivals the Mississippi; but in what respect, Americans, at least, will wonder. Except that it broadens to perhaps a dozen miles in the widest of its lakes, there is, of course, no comparison whatever. The traffic on the river is of no great magnitude compared with that on the Thames and the Clyde; but, were there a demand for such, its capacity would be far greater than either.
Moreover, for beauty, either of the dainty and popularly picturesque sort, or of the supremely grand, it has preëminence, and one can journey its whole length, from Killaloe, practically a suburb of Limerick, to Carrick-on-Shannon, something over a hundred miles, in steamboats of really comfortable, if not exactly luxurious, appointments.
It is the tourist traffic mostly that is catered for; and the traveller, in the season, is likely to find the company mixed, though by no means is it of the “tripper” class.
The itinerary comprehends much that is beautiful and much that is historic.
From Limerick, one usually makes his way by train, although he may go by car or coach, — such a trip is well worth while, — and embarks upon the tiny steamer at Killaloe.
Here, at the lower end of Lough Derg, near Killaloe, stood in the ninth century Brian Boru’s palace of Kincora. The mound on which it was built is all that remains of a place that displayed, twelve hundred years ago, the greatest glory of the proud Irish kings.
THE SHANNON AND ITS LAKES
Many were the events of historical moment which took place here, though, as a palace of great splendour and magnitude, it may have been exceeded by Tara and Emania.
The memory of Brian Boru’s life here places him in the annals of the world’s great rulers as “every inch a king.”
Neither on the Irish throne, nor on that of any other kingdom, did there ever sit a sovereign more splendidly qualified to rule; and Ireland had not for some centuries known such a glorious and prosperous, peaceful, and happy time as the five years preceding Brian’s death. He caused his authority to be not only unquestioned, but obeyed and respected in every corner of the land. So justly were the laws administered in his name, and so loyally obeyed throughout the kingdom, that the bards relate a rather fanciful story of a young and exquisitely beautiful lady, who made, without the slightest apprehension of violence or insult, and in perfect safety, a tour of the island on foot, alone and unprotected, though bearing about her the most costly jewels and ornaments of gold. This legend will be further recalled by the memory of the well-known verses beginning “Rich and rare were the gems she wore.”
It was at Kincora that the following incident took place:
Mælmurra, Prince of Leinster, playing or advising on a game of chess, made or recommended a false move, upon which the patriotic Morrogh, son of Brian, observed that it was no wonder Mælmurra’s friends, the Danes (to whom he owed his elevation), were beaten at Glenmana, if he gave them advice like that. Mælmurra, highly incensed by the allusion, — all the more severe for its bitter truth, — arose, ordered his horse, and rode away in haste. Brian, when he heard it, despatched a messenger after the indignant guest, begging him to return; but Mælmurra was not to be pacified, and refused, and concerted and connived with certain Danish agents, always open to such negotiations, those measures which led to the great invasion of the year 1014, in which the whole Scandinavian race, from Anglesea and Man, north to Norway, bore an active part.
AN IRISH PIPER.
While Brian was residing at Kincora, news was brought of his noble-hearted brother’s death, whereupon he was seized with the most violent grief. Brian’s favourite harp — always a legendary and traditional symbol of Irish emotions — was taken down, and he sang that famous death-song of Mahon recounting all the glorious actions of his life. “His anger flashed out through his tears as he wildly chanted the noble lines,” say the chronicles.
“My heart shall burst within my breast,
Unless I avenge this great king.
They shall forfeit life for this foul deed,
Or I must perish by a violent death.”
Of the passionate attachment of the Irish for music, little need be said, as this is one of the national characteristics which has been at all times most strongly marked, and is still most widely appreciated, the harp being universally held as a national emblem of Ireland. Even in the pre-christian period that we are here reviewing, music was an institution and a power in Erin.
Few spots in Ireland are richer in historical and archæological interest than Killaloe. There is a fine specimen of sixth-century architecture in the well-preserved cell of St. Lua, with its steep roof of stone and cunningly devised arches. It is a venerable building, and nestles under the shadow of the present Protestant cathedral, built by O’Brien, King of Thomond, in the twelfth century. On a small island in the river Shannon are the ruins of an ancient friary, and at a little distance the remains of a small chapel. These are said to mark the position of a ford used by pilgrims who came to visit Killaloe before the bridge, which is itself ancient, was built.
Lough Derg is reputedly one of the prettiest pieces of water in Ireland. Its shores are well wooded, and the background all around is made up of swelling upland, dotted here and there with the white houses of the peasantry, while in the far distance are the heather-clad hills of the Counties Clare, Galway, and Tipperary.
In Lough Derg, on Station Island, is the reputed entrance to St. Patrick’s Purgatory. A wide-spread superstition accounts for its popularity, but whether as a purely “tourist point” or as a place of pilgrimage for penitents, it were better not to attempt to judge.
Tradition has it that St. Patrick had prevailed on God to place the entrance to purgatory in Ireland, that the unbelievers might the more readily be convinced of the immortality of the soul and of the sufferings that awaited the wicked after death. A few monks, according to Boate, an old Irish writer, dwelt near the cavern that formed the entrance. “Whoever came to the island with the intention of descending into the cavern and examining its wonders had to prepare himself by long vigils, fasts, and prayers, to strengthen him, as we are told, for his dangerous expedition; but, in reality, by reducing his bodily strength to make his imagination more ready to receive the impressions which it was thought desirable to leave upon his mind. He was then let down into the cavern, whence, after an interval of several hours, he was drawn up again half-dead, and, when he recovered his senses, mingling the wild dreams of his own imagination with what the monks told him, he seldom failed to tell the most marvellous tales of the place for the remainder of his life. It was not till the reign of James II. that the monks were driven away from the place, and the mystery of the dark cavern dissolved.”
From Killaloe to Portumna, the Shannon flows through Lough Derg, a wide-spread waterway, an elaborate expansion of the river itself. This lake, which is twenty-five miles long and from two to six miles in breadth, has an average depth of about fifty feet. Close to Portumna is the Castle of Ballynasheera, said to have been once the residence of Ireton, Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law.
From Ben Hill, a few miles below Portumna, near Woodford, is a splendid view of Lough Derg and the surrounding country. The lake here stretches along between the Slieve Aughty Mountains on the Connaught side and the Arra Mountains on the Munster side, whose lofty summits tower up high into the clouds. The shores, sloping gradually down to the water, are covered with luxurious foliage, through openings in which may be seen the ruins of many an ancient castle and once stately mansion.
Portumna itself is a flourishing town, but of no great antiquarian interest. The population of town and district is about two thousand.
Near by is Victoria Lock, Melleek, adjacent to which are two strongly built towers, which formerly mounted eight guns, and which, in more romantic times, were erected to guard the pass of the Shannon between Connaught and Leinster.
The Stone of the Divisions, Westmeath
Shannon Harbour, at which the Grand Canal joins the Shannon, is situated on the river about six or seven miles from Shannon Bridge, and is immortalized by Charles Lever in “Jack Hinton.”
As a tourist resort the town appears to have degenerated sadly, a pretentious hotel establishment having been converted over into barracks for the constabulary.
From Shannon Harbour the steamer passes Shannon Bridge, and in due course reaches Athlone at the lower end of Lough Ree. “Population, seven thousand. Industry, manufacture of the celebrated woollen tweeds, which provides employment for several hundred operators, both male and female; there are various other smaller manufacturing industries pursued by the town population. In the rural districts, cattle rearing, both in Westmeath and Roscommon, and the pursuit of general agriculture is principally followed, and the inhabitants of these rural districts are generally comfortable and fairly well-to-do.” Such is the usual guide-book information concerning Athlone, which lies at the juncture of Roscommon and Westmeath.
As a matter of fact, however, almost every stone in the prosperous little city has a historic interest and value, from the ruins of its former splendid ecclesiastical establishments to its old houses and still more ancient fortifications, and the castle erected in 1215 by King John, — a counterpart in every respect of a similar establishment at Limerick. Queen Elizabeth made Athlone the capital of Connaught. After the battle of the Boyne, it underwent two sieges from the forces of King William. Some traces of the old fortifications may be seen, and the castle is still in perfect repair.
Just north of Athlone, where the Shannon joins Lough Ree, is Auburn, more popularly known as “Sweet Auburn,” whose old ruined parsonage is famous as the early home of Oliver Goldsmith.
Fleeting time has changed this modest mansion — whose ruin was deplored by Goldsmith himself — but little. It stands about a hundred yards from the public road at the end of a straight avenue bordered with ash-trees, — a plain rectangular, two-storied house, built in the ugly and uncompromising style that was popular in Ireland in the early part of the seventeenth century. The roof is off, but the walls remain, and seem still to be haunted by the shade of the Rev. Charles Goldsmith, the original Doctor Primrose in “The Vicar of Wakefield,” while his wife, hospitable as of yore, still seems to invite the passing stranger to taste her gooseberry wine. The famous inn, — since rebuilt out of all resemblance to its former self, — immortalized by Goldsmith, and known as the Three Pigeons, where were drawn the “inspired nut-brown draughts,” and “where village statesmen talked with looks profound,” is but a little distance from the house. The country all around Lishoy — for that is the name of the townland in which Toberclare, this Mecca of the Goldsmith student, is situated — is well wooded and cultivated. The drive from Athlone to “Sweet Auburn” is one of the most delightful in Ireland. As the reputed locale of “The Deserted Village,” Auburn, or Lishoy, as it was formerly known, has an unusual share of interest for the literary pilgrim.
Goldsmith was not born at Lishoy, as is sometimes stated, but in Pallas, a village in the County Longford, his father being at the time a poor curate and farmer. The infancy of Oliver was, however, spent in Lishoy, and there is little doubt but that the scenes of his childhood became afterward the imaginative sources whence he drew the picture of “Sweet Auburn,” though it is doubtless true that the descriptions are general enough in character to apply to many localities in England as well as Ireland:
“Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheer’d the labouring swain;
Where smiling spring its earliest visits paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delay’d.
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please;
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endear’d each scene!
How often have I paused on every charm!
The shelter’d cot, the cultivated farm:
The never-failing brook, the busy mill;
The decent church that topp’d the neighbouring hill;
The hawthorn bush, with seats beneath the shade,
For talking age, and whispering lovers made.”
Attempts have been made from time to time to justify the procedure, which is customary here, of stripping the hawthorn of its blossoms to sell to tourists; and to explain that it is a perfectly legitimate and artistic thing to have hung the old broken plates and cups of the erstwhile Three Pigeons on the walls of the new inn. Sir Walter Scott attempted to justify all this as “a pleasing tribute to the poet,” but there is a hollow mockery about it all that will make the true pilgrim hasten to commune with“The never-failing brook, the busy mill;”
“The decent church that topp’d the neighbouring hill,”
all three of which exist to-day, and bear a far greater likeness to the description of the poet than does the reputed inn.
Through Lough Ree one journeys along historical ground. Rindown Castle was built, it is said, by Turgesius, a Dane, who made of it an impregnable stronghold, as may be readily believed when one views its rocky promontory.
The island of Inchcleraun, commonly called “Quaker Island,” is associated with early Celtic Christianity, and has on it the remains of six churches. On this island, Queen Meave is said to have been killed, while bathing, by an Ulster chieftain, who threw a stone from a sling while standing on the shore.
Knockcroghery Bay leads to Roscommon, the chief town of the county of the same name. It had its origin at the time when St. Coman founded a monastery there, and to-day may still be seen elaborate remains of a former Dominican establishment of the thirteenth century, and of a fortified castle of the same era.
At the head of the eastern arm is All Saints’ Island, on which are the well-preserved remains of a church and monastery, — an ancient foundation which, in the seventeenth century, was occupied by the nunnery of the Poor Clares, but was burnt by the soldiery in 1642. It is recorded that the peasants of Kilkenny West retaliated by killing the destroyers.
Inchbonin, the “Island of the White Cow,” contains the remains of a church and monastery, the foundation of the religious house being attributed to St. Rioch, a nephew of St. Patrick. Here, also, are the remains of several Celtic crosses.
Entering the Shannon proper again at Lanesborough, one finally reaches Carrick-on-Shannon, in itself uninteresting enough, but a centre from which a vast amount of profitable knowledge may be obtained. It is the gateway of the pretty valley of the river Boyle, where stands the pleasant little town of the same name, with its famous abbey, which is in rather a better state of preservation than many “chronicles in stone.” The choir, nave, and transepts are all in existence, and show, in their construction, all the elements of the West Norman and Gothic work of their time. The nave, with its hundred and thirty-five semicircular arches, which separate it from its aisles, is perhaps the best and most characteristic Norman feature, if we except the square heavy tower. In 1235, the English sacked these sacred precincts, and even — it is said — stripped the monks of their gowns. In 1595 it was turned into a fortress and besieged by the army of the Earl of Tyrone.
From the “Hibernia Illustrata” we learn that, “In the cemetery of Kilbronan, not far from Boyle, was buried the famous Carolan, one of the last of the veritable Irish bards; and here for several years the skull that had ‘once been the seat of so much verse and music,’ was placed in the niche of the old church, decorated, not with laurel, but with a black ribbon. He died in the neighbourhood in the year 1741, at a very advanced age, notwithstanding that he had been in a state of intoxication during probably seven-eighths of his life.”
From this we may infer that, if liquor was not more potent in those days, it was at least less expensive.