The River Shannon to Galway Bay

In mid-May 2004 I struck off to finish my planned solo hike across Ireland, traveling on foot from one coast to the other.

Six months earlier I started the hike in Dublin, not knowing whether I’d get 10 miles and be forced to quit from bad knees, or would get to my destination for that trip, the River Shannon, 85 miles away.  But I did it.  Over 10 days (with a couple rest days mid-way) I hiked along the Grand Canal from Dublin to the Shannon.  I felt so energized by the experience that I put up a web site about the experience (www.grandcanalhike.org).

That first leg of the cross country hike ended at the Shannon for two reasons—I was dog weary, and I couldn’t find a safe route to take me the rest of the way.  The rest of the way meant another 55 miles from the River Shannon to Galway Bay, which opened into the Atlantic and would give me that Irish Sea (at Dublin) to Atlantic Ocean (at Galway Bay) hike I wanted to attempt.

After more research and the benefit of my first trip’s experience, I felt I found a reasonably safe route.  But unlike the hike’s first leg, there was no official hiking trail for these final miles.  I had to put together bits and pieces of hiking paths, fields, back country lanes and roads. 

So on May 11, 2004, I flew to Shannon, boarded bus after bus until I finally got to the little village of Banagher, where I completed the first leg of the hike the previous October.  I rested there for two nights, getting a bit more accustomed to the time change and talking with locals about a sticky segment of my hike.  I needed advice about a good, fairly short way to get to a flood levy that bordered the far or west side of the River Shannon.

The River  Shannon at Banagher

My research and maps showed a hiking path along the top of the levy.  The levy protected the pastures and sheep herds from flooding, which occurred most every year.  So after a several conversations with locals, all encouraging, I struck off early on May 13 for the first day of my hike. For several miles I followed country roads, glancing frequently to my detailed maps as I approached an intersection.

My first hazard came as I approached the Shannon, which was quite wide and shallow at this point.  I found a path leading through the woods down to the river.  But the path ended at the water’s edge and a gate with a “No Admittance” sign.  Beyond the gate was a long walkway, two boards wide, with a guard rail, suspended a few feet above a weir, which led to the opposite shore, maybe two hundred yards way.

The weir over the River Shannon

 The weir was a low-level dam, probably only three feet high.  Water runs over it like a low waterfall.  I presume its purpose was to raise the level of the Shannon, upstream from the weir, just three feet.  Well, I had walked all morning and abruptly ran into that warning sign. I didn’t want to turn around and go back, adding another 10 -12 miles to my trip.  At least two people I had talked with mentioned taking the walkway over the weir, but no one mentioned the “No Admittance” sign.  I looked at it carefully for a minute, while also eying the walkway and shore on the other side.  The gate wasn’t locked so I opened it and gingerly made my way over the weir, staring down at the water rushing under me, to the west side of the Shannon and into County Galway. 

 After a mile or so on a back road, I passed an historic stone church, which the guidebooks said was the oldest in Ireland still with a worshipping congregation. 

 

Historic church just west of the R Shannon

From there my map had me walk through what truly appeared like someone’s pasture.  Ten minutes later I knew it was someone’s pasture; a farmer in a small truck approached me, stopped and said hello.  I told him I was looking for the levy and planned to hike on to Portumna. We engaged in a congenial conversation for a couple minutes, and he cautioned that while I could walk the levy all the way to the town, the trail was not “walker-friendly” as he put it.  Shortly I found the levy and began my trek south, a bit less than 10 miles from my destination for the night. 

The first mile or two was quite easy.  I was about 6 feet above the river, and sometimes separated from it by a hundred yards or so of pasture.  The pasture sloped very gently to the river. At other times the river was close enough to the levy for fishermen to fish from the levy in their folding chairs.   I saw several anglers and talked with a few as I walked past them.

My sheep-trod path along top of the levy

The levy was eight feet or so wide, and for about two hours of walking, I followed a narrow path, trod down the middle from the hoofs of sheep by the thousands.  This was sheep country.  The pastures to the west of the levy were full of grazing sheep.  They seemed to prefer walking along the top of the levy and as I hiked along their path, they kept moving ahead of me, never letting me get close.  Their generosity in creating that easy path was tempered by the mess they left behind, as my shoes and jeans showed. 

From time to time I came to fences I had to cross.  After about two hours on the levy I found myself in pastures with no sheep. So instead of the closely sheered levy top, with its narrow sheep-trod path, I was in lush green grass, knee high or higher.  I was still walking along the top of the levy but now each step was laborious.  I had to lift my feet up a foot or more to make my way through the deep grass. Not “walker-friendly.” It was tiring and I had already walked for several hours. 

About 3 pm I approached Portumna, my first day’s destination.  It was a good first day with a variety of scenery and a challenge or two.  My guidebook gave me some recommended B&Bs so I found a map of the town and knocked on the door of a modestly priced B&B.  It was full, and the proprietress said the one next door was full as well.  She recommended a third, a few streets away.  I was shown to a neat clean room on the second floor and took it.  After showering and putting my feet up for a few minutes I walked back into the middle of town for a late afternoon lunch.  Later that evening I joined one of the other guests, a PhD candidate in glacial sedimentology from a British university, in a dinner and a few Guinnesses at a local pub. With the Guinesses and good conversation for stimulation, we closed the pub at 2 am.

Bridge House B&B in Portumna

When I was researching this trip, there was one segment I was concerned about, and it was the hike westward out of Portumna.  Scouring through all the County Galway lodging and tourist websites I could find before leaving home, I could find no lodging at a convenient 10-15 miles out of the town.  When I told the owner of the B&B in Portumna about my quandary she offered to call a friend who often opened her home as a B&B during certain seasonal events.  She was only about 6 miles to the west, not as far as I would like to get on that second day. And it would mean that day three’s hike would be 14 miles, an easy walk.  So on day two, after a wonderful full Irish breakfast I strolled out of town, stopping by Portumna castle for a short self-guided tour.

Portumna Castle

 Since it was such a short distance to the lodging near Tynagh, and the hostess there had a day job away from home, I took my time. The route was a country road which generally paralleled a much busier highway.  Traffic was light enough that I had no trouble making way for the few vehicles, and quiet enough to hear them approaching from some distance. At noon I stopped by a pub near Kilcorban (my map showed it as Tooreen), had a ham and cheese sandwich, and talked with some of the customers.  I didn’t leave until mid-afternoon and walked to Mr. and Mrs. Moran’s B&B. After coffee and a sandwich I rested a bit, watched TV and just before bedtime was treated to a drink of his favorite whiskey by the host. 

The next day bright sunshine streaming in my window woke me at 6:30. It was another road walk, following this same back road from Portumna to the west.  On this, my third day on foot, my destination was a fairly large town, Loughrea. It was sizeable enough to have a number of lodging options, so I wasn’t worried about finding a place to sleep.  But I was wrong.  A major equestrian event was taking place there, and after getting politely turned down at several B&Bs and finally the main hotel, I learned the town was fully booked.  It was just after lunch and now I was only about 20 miles from my destination. It was further than I wanted to walk since I already had 14 miles on my feet that day.  I wondered about taking a bus into Galway, then walking back to Loughrea the next day.  I was in luck.  A bus to Galway came by 30 minutes later and I was on my way to the city. 

So my final day was a backwards hike, along another narrow rock wall-lined country road, from near Galway back to Loughrea.  The 55 miles were finished with no shin splints, no blisters and no nights under the stars. 

 

Galway Bay in low tide--the end of my hike!

Planning the trip from home I had given myself plenty of time for the hike, assuming I’d need to take a day or more off to avoid rainy weather.  But there was no rain, and I completed the final leg of the cross Ireland hike in just over four days.  With several days remaining before my flight back home, I took trains and buses to parts of the country I had not seen.  And just before leaving for home, took a ferry to the Aran Islands, several miles out into the Atlantic, and hiked another 10 miles on the largest of those three islands. 

On the Aran Islands after completing the hike