A Clonmacnoise confession, some redemption in Shannonbridge

 


Shannonbridge just 8km from Clonmacnoise is a lovely stop-off. Its 16-span bridge across the River Shannon dates back to 1757 linking the village's past and present, it's interesting heritage as well as it's vast potential to welcome visitors.

I have a confession to make. I committed a mortal sin. A mortallar I tell ye.

Twenty years ago or more we hired a boat for the first time ever to take the kids away for a week on the River Shannon. It was a great adventure. However, our departure from Coosan Point near Athlone was delayed that Saturday afternoon and as we cruised up the river in the fading light I had to make a decision to make for Shannonbridge and its facilities, leaving the more meagre ancient settlement of Clonmacnoise in our wake.

I have always regretted missing out on Clonmacnoise and it has taken me until this week to make amends for this sacrilege.

Established by the monks in the 6th century, Clonmacnoise continues to take the passing of time in its stride. Shannonbridge is still figuring out how to cope with the changes thrust upon it, and while there are some casualties there are encouraging signs too of redemption, revival and renewal on the banks of the broad majestic Shannon.

I’ve been running late all my life but fortuitously on this occasion in Clonmacnoise, where time has stood still, it played out to my advantage.

Arriving after 5.30pm the site was officially closed and the guided tours, souvenir shop and café are closed due to Covid restrictions in any event.

Therefore we had the monastic heritage site, which dates back to the 6th century, all to ourselves and the setting sun. It was majestic.







Later we were joined by a couple who were taking their moorings for the night on the jetty below, deservedly chuffed with the smooth berthing on the first attempt on their very first trip in their boat. A hilariously curious herd of cattle also showed up and I was waiting for artists Dermot Seymour, Mark O’ Neill or Gemma Guihan to pop out from behind one of the headstones to capture the ancient agrarian aspect, with their brushes and canvas.






I’m still trying to get my head around the scale of the cultural importance of this special place. If my memory serves me right the Christian Brothers drummed in to us that St Patrick landed on his own journey to the Emerald Isle around 432 AD, with Clonmacnoise being founded by St Ciarán about one hundred years later.

The monks certainly knew how to pick a good spot - if you consider places like Glendalough also - no matter what your beliefs there is a solitude and sanctuary to this settlement, once a seat of learning for students from all over Europe and today the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers, three high crosses, nine churches and over 700 early Christian grave slabs.















It was a humbling and moving experience. All the more so bizarrely to have the place to ourselves, due to a fluke of circumstances, as this national heritage site is usually thronged with overseas tourists.

Every bit as central to the soulful experience at the ancient monastic settlement was the poignant social history etched in to the headstones of the past century. Bearing the names of those from surrounding townlands and parishes, their ages, their deaths, their relatives, are all frozen in time here, the brief inscriptions only the tip of the iceberg of their life stories, setting my head racing as to what may have happened, what might have been …















Clonmacnoise certainly left its mark and I could only mull it over as we made for Shannonbridge in the dusk, a horse chestnut tree already shedding its conkers in the empty car park.

The popular Polish Pope, John Paul Paul II visited Clonmacnoise in September 1979 when he was joined in prayer by 30,000 faithful. That evening we were on a pilgrimage of our own as we left the stillness behind us, with only a couple of swans, a flock of lapwing along the Shannon callows and a solitary tractor chugging a few fields away making any stir.

It’s only 7km from Clonmacnoise to Shannonbridge along a bog road where the trees form a tunnel-like effect to provide a habitat for the bats that flit about as the light fades.

In Shannonbridge I make the mistake of seeking out the past, but that boat has sailed.

Killeen’s, once the social hub and a hive of activity in the village, is shuttered. The only hint of life a faint light in a back room.

The times have caught up with the bar and grocery. In its heyday Killeen’s was packed out the doors as German, French and English anglers rubbed shoulders and sang songs with the locals and other visitors in off the boats. If you were in Shannonbridge you had to hit Killeen’s. That’s where the craic was. You could get your groceries and provisions for the week before settling in for the session. Pints, batch bread, butter and pounds of ham to bate the band and the band hurling out ballads in the corner; the strains of the sing-song echoing up in the harbour.

On summer evening’s children would wrangle a lolly or choc ice from the HB fridge as fishermen debated between rounds which bait was best to lure the pike on the river the next day. Killeen’s, still an imposing presence on the village thoroughfare is for sale.



Across the other side of the village the lights are on but there’s no one home at Shannon Bridge Power Station. You can smell the last of the turf billowing in the night air as, like Killeen’s, it too is destined for closure and being wound down. The word on the ground is that the plant will be dismantled and shipped to India.

The undertow from the current of the past certainly weighs heavy in these parts, but Shannonbridge hasn’t lost any of its charm, appeal or potential.

Even without foreign visitors this season the jetty and moorings down at the harbour are busy.

Luker’s public house and restaurant like a lighthouse on the banks of the river, a beacon of hope, serving up refreshments and replenishing the weary traveller. It’s a smashing spot, steeped in history. There remains some incredible memorabilia still stored in what was the old shop and grocery, including Tide washing detergent, a jar of Bullseye’s sweets and a Luker branded Guinness label, dating back to God knows when.





Luker's stands out light a lighthouse on the Offaly side of the bridge in Shannonbridge, it's warm hospitality and progressive approach a beacon of hope for the future of the village.

Luker’s is a fascinating spot. Well run and friendly it is easy to see why it’s so popular. Its progressive proprietor, who completely revamped and reopened the premises in 2015, has plans to further develop the waterfront emporium, with talks even of a motorhome parking facility. That would be a great addition.

It would also be great if the tourist office and the public toilets here could be opened even at the weekends. It’s hard to understand what Waterways Ireland have in mind by providing such fabulous facilities otherwise for the boats and then boarding up the toilet block?

A stroll down the street brings you to the bustling Fallon’s, another busy spot with quality food at the heart of its offering and a hint of something else that we’re told is coming soon in Seven Churches Whiskey, a clever nod to the heritage of Clonmacnoise.








Early next morning a shoal of noisy fishermen put paid to the Saturday morning lie on. In camouflage fatigues, reflective shades and armed to the teeth with rods, baits, lures and the like, the pike stood no chance against these marines, other than it’s all  thankfully catch-and-release these days.







The other end of the town has a fine playground right opposite the church and it’s in as good a condition now as it was when opened ten years ago. It’s a credit and so well maintained.






Across the impressive 16-span bridge which dates to 1757 and you are now in Roscommon (with Galway not too far away either).

There is lots of space here in front of The River Café, which is located in part of the old Napoleonic era fortress, established by the British Crown forces in the early 1800’s as they feared another French attempt to aid the cause of Irish rebels just as General Humbert had with his ill-fated expeditionary force in 1798.









This is a fine edifice, worth exploring and with ample parking, although it appears the café has not opened in quite a while. Also, in stark contrast to the Offaly shore on the opposite bank which is well fitted out, the Roscommon side does not have a single bin, fresh water point or even a life buoy, even though there is easy access to the river’s edge which is prone to flooding and strong currents. The historic narrow bridge itself is a one-way system controlled by traffic lights.







Clonmacnoise is a revelation, a must visit. And while it is changing times in Shannonbridge, a lot of it is for the good and with vast potential for the better. Vanhalla will be back first chance, but next up, we checked out the marina and Aire in Portumna … 

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