Irish public transportation can be frustrating and disappointing for visitors because it is so limited. Driving can be equally intimidating for those accustomed to driving on the right-hand side of the road, although mercifully sat-navs have made it easier to actually find your way from one village to another despite the absence of clear signage. But there is another option for those who want to explore Ireland independently. You need not worry about road or rail if you rent a boat.
When people think of Irish boats, the images that first come to mind might be a Galway hooker or a little curragh fishing boat. Perhaps you think of the famine ships bearing people away from these shores. But those are boats for the sea. We’re talking about boats to explore Ireland’s heartland. Cruisers navigate the network of inland waterways that crisscross this little island.
Cruisers range in size to accommodate from two to eight people. They include sleeping berths, kitchenettes and bathrooms. An Irish inland waterways cruise can be a dream honeymoon or a fantastic adventure for the whole family. You don’t need a license to drive a cruise boat in Ireland. Unlike the country roads, it’s hard to get lost navigating the rivers and canals. Cruising through the countryside gives everyone a change to soak in the stunning scenery as you glide past fields, forests, fairy rings and ruins. Most boat rental companies offer weekly rates and shorter options such as three or four days.
Exploring Ireland’s Rivers
Where can you go on a cruiser? Several of Ireland’s inland waterways are passable by cruiser. It comes down to what you want to see along the way, both in terms of scenery and specific sites. Here are a few options.
The River Barrow: From its source in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, the Barrow flows for 192 kilometres through Laois, Kildare, Kilkenny, Carlow, Wexford and Waterford, where it reaches the Celtic Sea. Boats can pass through 65 kilometres of this river. It is a largely very rural route – good for spotting wildlife and fishing.
The River Shannon: Ireland’s largest river runs from County Cavan to County Limerick, passing through the scenic village of Carrick on Shannon in County Leitrim and Athlone city, with straddles Westmeath and Roscomon. Along the way, it offers views of Athlone Castle, Clonmacnoise, and McDermott’s Castle.
Cruising the Canals
The Royal Canal: Beginning on Dublin’s north side, the Royal Canal stretches from the Liffey to the Shannon, winding through Meath, the royal county where the High Kings sat at Tara and passing the National University of Ireland Maynooth in County Kildare. The canal was used for transport from its creation in the 1800s but was closed to traffic due to neglect in the 1960s. It was reopened in 2010, and the tow paths along the canal are now popular walking routes.
The Grand Canal: Created in the 1700s, the Grand Canal goes from the south side of Dublin to the River Shannon. It also connects to the River Barrow. This canal was once vitally important to the production of Guinness because it was a cheaper way to transport both the ingredients and the finished product. Today, you can cruise along stretches of it and visit the historic city of Tullamore, famous for whiskey production.
While you don’t need a license to operate a boat on Ireland’s inland waterways, you do need two adults. Both must be capable of navigating the boat, mooring it properly, and negotiating locks, gated sections where the level of the canal changes. Boat rental companies will show you how to do this, and some are electronic and operated by card. In some places, you simply need to phone the lock keeper who will be on hand to assist you.