Hiking Along Ireland's Scenic Grand Canal
Dublin to the River Shannon
November 2008 update
For at least three years I had itched for a bit of a challenge. I’m not sure why. Perhaps my upcoming retirement released an extra measure of wanderlust hormones and they needed some release. On one of my trips to Ireland I began to take note of a canal on the maps I scanned regularly. The Grand Canal snaked across the heart of the country, beginning in Dublin on the Irish Sea and reaching the River Shannon 80 miles to the west. The canal’s appeal may have come partly from my interest in our local Muscle Shoals Canal, built in the 1800s and flooded in the 1920s when the Tennessee River was impounded and the canal was no longer needed commercially. The Muscle Shoals Canal passed only a few hundred yards from my house, unseen 20 feet below the surface of Wilson Lake.
Whatever the reason, on a trip to Ireland in August 2001 and staying in a cottage a couple miles outside Tralee in County Kerry, I found that the most appealing route into town was along the local canal’s tow path. In a local book store I picked up one of the 1:50,000 scale Discovery Series maps from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland that covered part of the Grand Canal’s route. But as detailed as the map was, it still left a number of questions. This first map was an older one, and the hiking or walking trail, known as the Grand Canal Way, appeared to be broken into a number of non-continuous sections. It seemed to shift from one side of the canal to the other. The towns on this map sheet was quite small, possibly too small for commercial lodging. I hoped to find B&Bs or guest houses along the way.
Nevertheless, it seemed doable, especially since it was flat and from information I gleaned from many Irish web sites, it was reasonably well-traveled and safe. I decided I could hike the entire length of the canal by taking my time, setting a goal of about 15 miles each day. I would spend nights in B&Bs or small guest houses, visit a few pubs if I wasn’t too weary at the end of the day, and complete the entire 80+ mile hike in 5 days or so. Work obligations (out of retirement and back to work!) resulted in my plans to hike in May of 2003 being delayed until late September.
The hiking distance, based on the distance table in the Guide to the Grand Canal of Ireland (published by Duchas, The Heritage Service), is just shy of 82 miles from the Westmoreland sea lock at Ringsend harbour in Dublin to the River Shannon. I added a few more miles, continuing to Banaher to catch a bus back to Dublin.
September 24, Wednesday (miles 0 to 2.3)
Three hours after touching down at the Dublin airport on my mid-morning flight from Nashville I was on the Grand Canal. In fact, I was at its very beginning, the sea lock that separates Ringsend Basin from the River Liffey. Quite possibly, the Grand Canal technically ends as it enters Ringsend Basin, a man-made harbour lined with new commercial and high rise residential structures, with small boats tied up to the docks. Excited about my journey and wanting to start my hike where the canal’s waters enter the River Liffey I walked along the southern edge of Ringsend Basin, and then along its eastern edge. I didn’t have a detailed map with me and soon discovered I couldn’t quite reach the sea lock from this side of the basin. Buildings and other maritime structures hugged the eastern edge of Ringsend too closely for me to pass by. Nevertheless, I edged along taking care for my footing and got to within about 30 yards of the sea lock. Dock construction debris stood between me and the lock. In the water at this point was an abandoned barge of some sort, listing slightly. I took my time eyeing it, and deciding it was safe and stable, climbed aboard and took a photograph. I wanted evidence I had started at the beginning!
A week later, when I returned to Dublin after my canal hike, I took the harbour duck tour and after the pilot/driver heard my Grand Canal hike story and my lament about not getting close to the sea lock, maneuvered his duck right up to the lock for yet more photographs.
For the next couple hours I walked along the Grand Canal as it wove its way through the harbour warehouse district east of the heart of Dublin and along through light commercial areas to the south.
When the Grand Canal Way emerged from the warehouse area it began to pick up a tree-lined character, bounded by grassy strips that were tow paths many years ago.
One arched bridge after another carried the city’s vehicular traffic over the canal. From time to time locks broke the flat stillness of the canal’s waters. In fact, seven locks stepped the waters down along the 2.3 mile stretch from the former Portobello Hotel to the Ringsend Basin. The mellowness of the canal’s quiet wooded corridor contrasted with the hectic urban pace just a few feet away. The old grassy tow paths now contained 3- and 4-foot wide asphalt walking paths down their centers.
Benches and other street furniture made the Grand Canal corridor an inviting respite, not far from the middle of this world class city of a million or more people.
Jet lag was taking its toll on me as I continued my walk westward toward the old Portobello Hotel, now a business college building. I left the canal at that point, mile 2.3, and wandered back to my hotel near Grafton Street, getting lost a few times even though I knew I needed only to keep moving in a northerly direction.
September 25, Thursday (at mile 2.3)
Ah! This was my first real day of hiking. The day before was more of a stroll along the beautiful wooded canal, all within a couple miles of the city center. The words “urban center” and “hiking” strike me as incompatible.
I had long planned for this day. With maps and guide books giving me all the information I needed, I planned to walk an easy 10 or so miles to the Hazelhatch Bridge at mile 12.9 then take R405 north about a half mile to the train station and back into Dublin for another night in the city. The backpack I bought for the trip was a weekender, sizable enough for as many clothes as I needed, assuming I could find a laundromat from time to time.
But here was where I made the only major changes to my original plans. My son and brother had visited Dublin just 30 days before my trip, and in addition to picking up maps, guidebooks, and a good collection of brochures, they also tried to gather as much information as they could about my planned hike, a solo one at that, by someone over (ahem) 50. Maybe it was the dark atmosphere of the pubs, or possibly just their concern and the way they asked questions, but they came home with a real anxiety about my safety. They evidently expressed that concern to me sufficiently, because I did reevaluate my plans. The first reaction was to outline in some detail my plans and email them to the Inland Waterways of Ireland listserv, a discussion forum for boaters, primarily, and others who fancy the country’s wonderful network on inland rivers and canals. I found some Irish hiking club websites and sent them an outline of my plans. Universally I heard that along the rural sections of the Grand Canal, after leaving the western suburbs of Dublin, I should expect to be entirely safe. But two or three respondents suggested care walking through the western industrial suburbs, communities such as Clondalkin near the M50 motorway. It was even suggested I start my hike out beyond Clondalkin, out where the countryside begins, about 10 miles from the city center.
So I adapted my plans to my son’s concerns and to the advice of those experienced locals. I adapted in two ways. First, I decided to look as little like an American tourist as possible, so I put my weekend backpack in the closet for some future hiking adventure. Instead I decided to use a light daypack, a slightly used pack I bought for only $5 at Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Alabama. It certainly was small and extended only just above my shoulders, unlike the weekender which was almost a foot taller and reached the top of my head. While still at home, I tested its carrying capacity. I carefully rolled two sets of everything, from underwear to socks, shirts, hiking pants, maps, toiletries, a second pair of shoes, and other items I knew I needed, and neatly packed the daypack. I was amazed that everything fit! On my first day in Dublin when I saw every age, from kids to retirees, walking along the streets with their similar-sized day packs, I knew I made a good decision. I might, just might, look like an Irishman taking a casual stroll, and not an older tourist, an easy mark for some hooligans.
My second adaptation was even easier. I had no need at all to use that daypack for the 10 mile segment through the most risky section of the hike, the section through the industrial suburbs. All I needed was some drinking water and my maps and guidebook. For maps, I cut up the 1:50,000 scale Discovery Series maps into strips, showing only about 2 miles on either side of the canal, reducing the weight and size of the maps I had to carry. I laminated each map strip to minimize rain damage. I also photocopied and reduced to about half-size the 15 or so pages of the Guide to the Grand Canal of Ireland. These were placed in a large zip-lock bag which fit almost perfectly in a protected pocket inside my rain jacket. With not even a daypack, I would certainly not look like a tourist, I thought.
So day one of my hike into the countryside was more like a good long stroll. I planned to reach Hazelhatch and take the train back to Hueston Station, maybe 3 miles from my hotel.
After a light breakfast at 7:30 I walked due south to the canal at Portabello at mile 2.3. The day was a fine one—warm weather with only a few light wispy clouds in the sky. I worn jeans rather than hiking pants, to further disguise myself as just another Dubliner, and a sweatshirt under a very light waterproof wind breaker. I had a hat stuffed in one pocket, a small 35-mm camera and passport in another and the maps and guide book copies safely tucked away.
For the next hour or so I walked along a paved tow path, passing through a collection of urban developments, some upper middle income residential estates as well as a number of poorly-maintained apartment flats, clearly occupied by low income residents. Some sections of the tow path were well maintained by neighborhood groups who took considerable pride in this exceptional amenity in their midst.
All along the tow path I passed a number of casual strollers, often older men and women, as well as other neighborhood residents walking their dogs. A jogger or two passed me by.
Well before I reached Lock 7 (at mile 6) a sign on the tow path identified my first unexpected obstacle. (Nov 2008 update—This detour has long been rectified and now a walker continues along the tow path unimpeded, so disregard reference to the detour. I keep it here to keep the written record of my experience intact.) The sign warned that the tow path at Lock 7 was closed and to pick up the Grand Canal Way on the other side of the closure, walkers were to take Killeen and Nangar roads. I soon reached a bridge over the canal and saw that highway and bridge construction had made walking underneath the bridge unsafe, prompting the closure. I left the tow path and saw a pub a few yards away. Asking directions, I learned that I was on Killeen Rd, and had to follow it south to Nangar and then westward to a major intersection, and then north until I saw the canal. But the route was a mess, a real hazard to walkers, a narrow roadway with no sidewalk, filled with flying dust (no rain recently), fast trucks, construction vehicles and cars. After about a third of a mile of dangerous walking I left the construction hazard zone when I reached Nangar Rd. After about a half mile on Nangar I turned north and soon found my canal. The detour was over, but now I was a bit bemused when, after 20 minutes of searching I couldn’t find a path down off the road or bridge to the canal’s tow path. I was now at the edge of a large, very attractive collection of upscale office buildings, a planned office complex called Park West. After misjudging a shortcut some office workers used, for access to the canal, I finally backtracked to the south side of the bridge and slid and bumped down the steep slope to the tow path below. It wasn’t a graceful descent, but no one was looking.
The Park West complex was quite beautiful. A shiny aluminum spiraling spire, maybe 80 feet or so tall, strikingly punctuated the office park landscape, showing the developers’ good taste in public art. The spire’s blue tint at its bottom faded to white as it gently wound upward toward the clouds. Many of the nearby buildings appeared vacant and there were few cars in the parking lots. This business complex had quick and easy access from M50, the major thoroughfare on the western edge of the metropolitan area. No doubt it would soon be a beehive of activity.
In a few minutes I crossed under M50, hearing the buzz of high speed freeway traffic above. A few yards on the other side of this noisy roadway, sitting in a folding lawn chair alongside the canal, was a solitary fisherman, seemingly oblivious to the hub-bub almost above him.
West and south of M50 and the canal was Clondalkin. Industrial housing estates and heavy industry were scattered throughout the area. Along this section of the canal I saw no one else walking, no one jogging, no one out for a late morning walk.
Walking about 3.5 miles per hour, I had reached an area of the tow path that appeared rarely used. Rubbish strewed the path, now grassy instead of paved. The water was crystal clear. From time to time I saw rusted bicycles, not only on the edge of the path, but on the bottom of the clear canal waters. I was saddened to see two junked car bodies along the edge of tow path, rusty enough to have been there for years. This was the section of the Grand Canal I had been warned about. Although no further evidence was needed, I began to notice how the warehouses and small factories whose property bordered the canal fortified themselves with high fences, often capped with broken glass, strands of barbed wire and even sharp upturned stones. The message was clear.
I wasn’t confronted with this distressing environment for more than an hour or so. Soon the quality of canal-side development changed and fields with cattle and sheep appeared bordering the canal corridor. Here I saw an interesting contrast. Close to the canal were the quiet green fields, yet a few hundred yards beyond might be a series of very sizeable industrial facilities, many quite tall and prominent in the landscape. Often they were actually attractive architecturally.
About a mile past Lock 11, the real Irish countryside began to emerge.
Wheat fields, more cattle farms, enticing views of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains to the south, and hundreds of birds. This was the first time I remember hearing any birds. But now I saw numbers of blue herons at water’s edge, always waiting to see if I was continuing toward them before lifting wings and flying away, squawking about my disturbance. In the city I had marveled at how many swans graced the canal waters. Now the swans were replaced with herons.
The remainder of my hike this day was probably the most awe-inspiring of my several days on the canal. Possibly it was because of how quickly I left a dreary part of western Dublin and moved into the strikingly idyllic, beautiful Irish countryside. From out of almost nowhere to seems, in a matter of an hour or two, I eased into a scenic landscape that had changed little in several centuries. This was the countryside I had longed to experience first hand, down at eye level, moving at a hiker’s pace, not a car’s speed. I also chuckled to myself that day about something I was calling “the exhilaration factor.” After years of planning and dreaming about this trip, I was now there! And it was everything I thought it might be. The exhilaration tended to obliterate any little discomfort, any clouds in the sky and any hunger in my belly.
It was not yet noon time and for that reason or the exhilaration factor I wasn’t hungry. But also along the tow paths out in the countryside, the fence rows were lined with blackberry bushes chock full of ripe blackberries. From time to time I stopped and collected some of the juiciest. They tasted just as good as the Tennessee blackberries I remembered from my youth.
Throughout most of the morning I appeared to be the sole hiker along the tow path. Other than an occasional casual walker, out with a dog, or on a short stroll, I was alone. But toward late morning, I began to catch sight of someone well ahead of me. With the gentle curve in the waterway and the path, from time to time I lost sight of the other hiker. Over a period of 30 minutes or so, I began to overtake him, probably because he stopped for more blackberry snacks than I did. As I got closer I saw a middle aged man with a small day pack. I greeted him as I overtook him and asked where he was going. He said he had just gotten off a boat from England and was on his way to Naas to join his wife and children. He appeared a bit worse for the wear, so I understood why he chose to walk. Naas was still another 12 miles or so. He was the only hiker I encountered, going in either direction, during my entire hike along the canal.
The countryside here was still quite beautiful. At lock 12 near Lucan Road Bridge a pleasant little village, Adamstown, lay a few hundred yards north.
The “exhilaration” factor was most potent here. The quiet beauty of the farmlands, the warm weather with no hint of rain, my rather steady progress and absence of fatigue, and lack of any knee problems, kept me moving along the green grassy tow path at a steady pace and a fine state of mind. At this point I began to question my plans to end the day’s hike at Hazelhatch. Ten miles on such a fine day seemed a bit too cushy.
Just after noon I saw ahead of me a small collection of boats lined up along either side of the canal and knew I was approaching Hazelhatch. The first boat I came to was clearly someone’s pride and joy. It was cleverly decked out with potted plants and flowers and its owner quite likely lived on the adjoining property, a few feet away on the other side of the path. There, too, were well-tended flowers and other plants. It was a splash of orange, yellow, red and other vibrant colors against the backdrop of Irish emerald.
I wasn’t especially hungry when I reached Hazelhatch, the frequent blackberry snacks blunting my appetite, but lunch is a good excuse to stop and rest for a few minutes. The train station with service back to Dublin was about a half mile north, so I planned to eat and return to the city. On the north side of the canal, at the Hazelhatch Bridge, was a tempting-looking pub with its tables and chairs spilling out onto an open air patio right on the canal. How better to snare thirsty boaters!! I walked in and asked about food. Unfortunately they didn’t serve food and the bartender told me the nearest restaurant was a mile or two to the north. I thought about the additional walk up to the restaurant and back to either the local train station or the now more enticing option—walking on to Sallins and catching the train there. Here it was around 12:30 or so. The weather was fine today, but what would future days hold? I was still game for a few more miles today, I thought, so why not take advantage of my good fortune. I didn’t have to weigh the pros and cons for long. In a few minutes I was off along the tow path again, this time the town of Sallins my destination for the day.
Of course this decision was made consulting my maps and guidebook. It was clear that the Sallins train station was just a few hundred years from the canal, so I shouldn’t have trouble finding it. I passed more charming countryside, walking on a soft green path. More cattle farming and wheat fields alongside, scattered country cottages nearby. If I get a chance for a return walk along the Grand Canal, this section is one I certainly want to experience again.
The remainder of the hike that day was uneventful except for the beginnings of some muscular soreness on my left shin.
Mention of one of the lockkeepers in the guidebook piqued my interest. From my genealogy research I knew that the earliest Irish ancestor on my mother’s side we can trace was named Martin Fogarty. And there in the guide book, was a Martin Fogarty, shown as lockkeeper for locks 14 to 18, and showing he was based at lock 15. My notes (reviewing them now 60 days later) said that there was an old, recently abandoned lockkeeper’s house, at lock 14, but there was no house at lock 15. I didn’t inquire about Mr. Martin at the houses nearby.
By about 3:30pm I arrived in Sallins and looked southward where my map told me I’d find the station. As I left the tow path and walked south along the road I heard a train. For a few seconds I wondered if I could reach the station in time to catch the train. But when the station was at last in sight, I saw the train stop for what seemed like a few seconds and then move forward. It was heading toward Dublin. When I got to the platform and found the daily train schedule I learned that I had by just a minute or two missed the 3:38 into Hueston Station. Fortunately at that time of day trains passed through Sallins on their way into the city almost hourly. I was tired by this time, and took advantage of my missed connection to relax on a bench. For a time I was all alone. But soon others appeared, those on my side of the platform, waiting for the 4:38pm to Dublin. I didn’t have a ticket, the ticket window was closed, and didn’t know how to go about getting one. I approached a middle-aged lady who was waiting for the Dublin train and inquired, telling her also that I was coming back to Sallins by train the next day. She asked why I was in Sallins, and I told her I was planning to walk the length of the Grand Canal and I had just walked from Dublin. The surprised expression on her face was priceless. She may never have heard of anyone in recent years so foolish as to walk here from Dublin. After regaining her composure she told me I could buy a ticket on board, and I should ask for a return (round trip) ticket with a bus connector into city centre. I did, and paid 12.5 euros, about $14. The train trip back to Dublin was a treat. After the longest one-day hike or walk of my non-military life, I was settled into the comfort of a fast train, taking me in a few minutes what had taken me many hours and two days to complete. The contrast in speeds was not lost on me, as I dosed lightly on my way to Heuston Station. In front of the station I boarded bus # 90 which followed along the north side of the Liffey. I stepped off as it approached O’Connell Street. My first long leg of the journey was over, about 20 miles, but without a backpack.
September 26, Friday (at mile 20.8)
Another fine morning started with a quick breakfast of orange juice, croissant and a couple cups of coffee at 7:30. A bit after 8am I hopped aboard bus # 90 and a few minutes later stepped off the bus at Hueston Station. I arrived in plenty of time and caught the 9:05 for Sallins, arriving at 9:40. This was a little later than I wanted to start my day, but leaving from Dublin gave me little choice. By 9:45 I was on the canal again, but with my backpack for the first time. Now is the real test, I thought. Will I still make reasonable time? Will I tire easily? The soreness in my shin was still noticeable, but I assumed it would go away as I limbered up.
Soon I crossed the Leinster Aqueduct, the first of several aqueducts along the canal. I find the concept of water passing over but not mingling with other water truly fascinating. I have been in awe of such structures ever since I saw an historic photograph of Shoal Creek Aqueduct, dating to the late 1800s, not far from my home.
I continued my fairly easy pace, still averaging about 3.5 miles an hour or less. Underfoot was a nice soft grassy surface, sufficiently trodden to provide a solid and comfortable waking surface. The weather was nice still, a bit hazy with scattered periods of sunshine, but no rain. Temperatures reached to the upper 50s (12? C), ideal for hiking. By late morning I took off my jacket, slung it over my shoulder at times, and other times tied it around my waist. A floppy and decidedly cornpone-looking wide brimmed hat kept the sun off my face. The hedgerows on the north side of the tow path were still lined with blackberry bushes.
It was an inspiring walk to my next destination, Robertstown, just about 8 miles from Sallins. I felt my day’s trek must take me much further, but this little village, the subject of frequent comments in articles about the canal, stuck in my mind as a special place. So I approached it will a sense of satisfaction and anticipation. Here I was, backpack in place, almost 30 miles into my hike, visiting this quaint and historic canal-side village. Robertstown probably had little reason to exist other than as a minor crossroads community before the advent of the canal.
But the canal brought a flurry of activity in the early 1800s and a major hotel opened in 1801. It still stands as a proud sentry at the eastern end of the town, and now, according to the guidebook, is a community center. It was the first building of any consequence I came to as I entered the town. The canal offered the traveler a gentle curve as it passed through the town. Robertstown was quiet on this Friday. Strolling out of the small canal-side park that separated the water from the street was an older man. I motioned to him and asked about options for lunch. He suggested the Barge pub and restaurant, a popular place he said, only a block away and facing the canal. I walked in and passing through the pub area settled down at a table in the restaurant section to the rear. Both the pub and eating rooms were sizeable, suggesting a good business during the height of the season.
When I arrived I was the only customer but two couples arrived shortly. After a delicious lunch of Greek salad and a pint of Guinness, I returned to the canal, this time shifting back over to the northern side, having to assume my Discovery Series map was correct. And it was.
My guidebook told me that the highest point on the canal was near the community of Lowtown. Surely the name is in jest. Lowtown was only about a mile west of Robertstown and I must admit I never realized when I reached it, or passed it.
Just east of Lowtown two smaller canals enter the Grand, the Old Barrow Line and the main Barrow line.
The countryside began to change in character now as I entered a region of low-lying peat bogs. The scenery lost some of its charm and in fact appeared a bit dull and lifeless compared with the bucolic appeal of the past two days. The bogs, source of a healthy economy for many years, were mined for their valuable energy qualities, heating homes, businesses and industries for hundreds of years. Even today the distinctive scent of burning peat wafts over much of rural and small town Ireland. On a previous trip to Ireland one of my fellow travelers brought back a peat log as a souvenir. I often wondered if she ever decided to burn it in her fireplace.
The tow path along the canal here was wide and grassy most of the way. From time to time, the path faded into a single-lane road that hugged one side of the canal. In fact, this was a common arrangement for maintaining the continuity of the Grand Canal Way—incorporating the adjacent roadway into the Way when needed. Over the several days, my walk shifted from grassy-green paths to gravel or paved roads and then back again to soft grass.
I made no reservations for overnight lodging on this hiking trip. I was unsure about how far I would hike each day and what kind of weather Ireland would treat me to. If I experienced some discomfort in my knees, as I expected, I would travel fewer miles each day. And I gave myself enough time in Ireland, a bit more than two weeks, so I could sit out a spell or two of bad weather. I also assumed there would be a number of B&Bs and guest houses located along the canal to serve canal travelers. So I planned to trust to luck when mid afternoon arrived, and seek out a place to stay in the nearest village or town.
My research showed me this segment of my trip—between Robertstown and Tullamore—was quite likely the only place I would have trouble finding overnight lodging. The countryside along the canal is sparsely populated, although my maps showed some villages two, three and four miles away from the canal.
By early afternoon on this Friday I started to think about laying my now well traveled bones on a nice soft bed in some gentle lady’s quaint B&B. It was a comforting image. I hoped to find lodging somewhere around Allenwood, although I was disappointed that the town was just a couple miles west of Roberstown and barely 10 miles from my day’s starting point in Sallins. But leaving Sallins so late forced me to reduce my planned mileage for the day.
At the Bond Bridge near Allenwood, I left the canal and walked north to the village center and finding a grocery store across the street from the post office, walked in and immediately found my way to the pastry counter. I deserved a couple delicious pastries to restore my energy, I rationalized. By now I was a little short on cash, so I used the ATM and joined the queue at the checkout counter. I asked some middle-aged ladies in the queue for directions to local B&Bs. One lady said she knew of none, but another told me she thought there was a B&B operating this time of year about 20 minutes walk south, back over Bond Bridge and across yet another bridge. She could offer no more precise directions. So I struck out again, and walking south for what certainly was 45 minutes, I could find nothing. I stuck my head into a pub just over the Old Barrow line bridge and asked if anyone knew of a B&B in the area. No one did. Well, I was getting quite frustrated. The walk south of the Grand Canal was on a well-traveled road with cars speeding by every minute or two. The road side shoulders were skimpy, barely wide enough for walking and sloping sharply downward into a ditch that was often three and four feet deep. Footing was treacherous. A misstep could send me sprawling down into the ditch or worse, lurching into the path of a passing car. Pedestrians along country roadways are a commonplace in Ireland, and I found drivers displaying great courtesy to us less fortunate foot travelers, shifting to the far lane when possible. Nevertheless, I was anxious to get back to the green grass of the way.
With no luck finding a B&B I turned around and followed R415 back to the Grand Canal Way. By now it was late afternoon. The weather was still favorable, cool and mostly cloudy, with patchy sunshine from time to time, so I continued to hike westward. My Discovery series map, at the scale of 1:50,000, was sufficiently detailed to show individual structures and I noted that I was approaching an area that was sparsely settled. I was making excellent time and the exhilaration factor still influenced my mood. The shin splint was bothering me, but I managed to overlook the discomfort.
I continued to hike on into the early evening, and seeing no villages along the canal, began to wonder how I’d find a place to bed down for the night.
This was mostly peak bog country, quite flat with low-lying hills visible in the distance from time to time. Along the canal in many places hedge rows with sizeable hardwoods and tall shrubs broke the monotony of the more mundane scenery just beyond. The canal was a bit narrower here. I enjoyed the quiet and the solitude. I saw no one. I walked for miles and miles and heard just the songs of playful birds and the sounds of my feet striking the grassy path.
A few miles west of Allenwood once again I pulled my laminated Discovery series maps from my jacket to review my progress and see what lay ahead. But this time I was puzzled by a lack of continuity in my maps. Maps for the full distance of the canal were cut into strips covering a mile or two each side of the canal. Up until now, when one map strip ended, the next strip continued the route unbroken. But now, I couldn’t find the strip that should have started about five miles west of Allenwood and continued on south of Edenderry, ending about three miles east of Daingean. A bit tired, I assumed I just was overlooking it. Returning to my maps from time to time over the next couple hours I finally had to admit I didn’t have that strip. My guide book had a different type of map, without topographical and other details, but it was nevertheless still easy to determine my location within a mile or two. The guidebook maps and the Discovery series maps clearly identified each structure crossing the canal so reading the bridge’s name, long ago etched into its surface, gave me my precise location. But I certainly hated to be without my valuable map strip.
I continued my steady pace, still relishing the exceptional autumn weather. I was now well over 15 miles from my starting place at the Sallins train station at 9:45 this morning. But the thought of finding lodging for the night was always on my mind. Maybe the evening Irish air was getting to me, but I began to wonder if I could just continue to hike all night. It actually was a pleasant thought and I caught myself grinning at the audaciousness of it. I continued walking. With no signs of a village in sight, and presumably no lodging either, I decided to simply keep walking. As dusk took over and then night, the tow path continued ahead of me, soft and easy walking in a star-lit sky. I was oblivious to the light weight of the daypack on my back. The moon was not shining that night; it was the wrong phase of the lunar cycle, I thought. I slowed my pace to accommodate the reduced visibility and became intensely conscious of the rhythm of my foot steps, ensuring that each footstep hit the ground solidly. The worn center of the tow path was clear beneath my feet and it was easy to keep my footing with only starlight showing me the way.
I had absolutely no fear of encounters with hooligans out in this remote area. No town or village was nearby and no one had any reason to be here. I did pass a few cottages, with dim lights shining through curtained windows, and farm dogs barking at my approach. Both the dogs and I knew a fence separated us. And since I heard St Patrick chased all the snakes from Ireland, there were no critters to fear. So I continued my pleasant hike in the starry night.
For a couple hours or more the stars kept my way reasonably well lighted. At about mile 44, I noticed cloud cover slowly spreading overhead. Visibility soon diminished to a level that made walking difficult. Between the canal and the tow path was a line of tall sycamore and other hardwood trees, offering a canopy overhead to intercept the dew that certainly would fall during the night. The ground was dry and covered with thick grass. So in the dimming light I looked for a comfortable place to make camp. I use the phrase loosely. I had no camping gear—no tent, no sleeping bag. I did though have plenty of clothes in my daypack, so I dug in and pulled out two pairs of hiking pants, my long sleeve shirt, my woolen sweater and an extra pair of socks and tee shirt. I donned three layers of clothes, put the windbreaker hood up over my head, and settled into the soft grass underneath the protective sycamore just a few feet from the canal. I was quite comfortable. I did wake regularly, moving occasionally to softer turf and trying to fluff up the almost empty daypack that was my pillow. But it was a reasonably good rest after about 25 miles of hiking on an adventurous Friday.
September 27, Saturday (at mile 45)
Saturday I awoke a bit after twilight and slipped off my extra clothing. The skies were overcast but cleared up as the morning drew on. My shin splint wasn’t particularly bothersome initially, but the soreness came back after an hour or so of walking.
This was still bog country and for many stretches of the waterway its color showed the dingy gray cast of bog field run-off. The countryside appeared pleasant enough, even with broad expanses of scrubby vegetation on either side of the canal.
At mile 47.4 I saw the second of the light rail bridges used by small gauge rail cars hauling turf from the bog lands.
Now some stretches of the canal were arrow straight and I could see the waterway almost disappearing into the horizon a few short miles ahead. This was a bit disconcerting because I seemed to walk and walk, making little headway. The canal still stretched straight ahead.
My destination today was Tullamore, a sizeable town of 7,000 or more straddling the canal and the hub of a large trade area in the midlands. I planned to spend at least two nights there. My intermediate goal though, was Daingean at mile 50.9. So the sight of the manicured lawns and sand traps of a Daingean golf course on the northern edge of the canal lifted my spirits and quickened my pace.
I was hungry. My last meal was really just a few bites of pastry back in Allenwood yesterday afternoon. I continued to snack on blackberries into the evening, but I had nothing substantial to eat.
So approaching the Molesworth Bridge in Daingean, on the other side of the canal I spied a row of buildings including a Spar, a convenience store sure to have coffee and some sort of vittles for hungry locals. Crossing the bridge and walking past the small village park, I entered the store and found a hot food counter in the back. I ordered a chicken pie and jambon with coffee. I took the food back out to the bridge where I sat on a stone wall and virtually inhaled my first meal in the past 24 hours.
I rested more frequently today, stopping under bridges for short breaks. I napped for a half hour or more under the Born na Mona railroad bridge near mile 53. I woke to the sound of voices when two men and a woman got out of their car and set up chairs and paraphernalia for a morning of canal fishing.
The remainder of the walk to Tullamore was quite pleasant, past peat bogs, small cottages, and on a walking surfaced well-maintained by regular cutting. Possibly the close proximity of these two sizeable towns, a bit less than 10 miles apart, made it a popular local walking route and encouraged a high level of maintenance. At some point I passed a group of teen aged girls from the local rowing club out in their sculls, enjoying the cool morning.
This morning I also saw for the first time, a canal barge underway. I had expected to see boaters plying the smooth waters of the canal all up and down the waterway, but this being off-season, the waters were quiet.
A charming waterway without boating activity was entirely unexpected. As I approached the homeport for the Celtic Canal Cruisers I saw two of the company’s rental boats out on short runs, and I knew from my map I was only a couple miles from my day’s destination. A tall radio or television tower off to the southwest was another landmark telling me I was closing in on Tullamore.
I was now 60 miles from Dublin and it was time for a well-deserved rest. I left the canal and walked across Bury Bridge into the heart of Tullamore and spotting a colorfully decorated pub, went in for a pint of Guinness and directions. The bartender directed me to a 30 euro a night B&B and by mid afternoon I began my weekend visit to this agreeable little town.
September 28, Sunday (in Tullamore, north of mile 59.4)
For the next two days I relaxed at the Hillview B&B about a mile north of the canal just off the road to Mullingar. The owner, Martin Moran, was a gracious host and drove me into the town centre on Sunday where I looked for an instant cure for my shin splint pin but found nothing more than an ointment that had no apparent effect.
I wandered through the attractive in-town shopping centre, drawing cash from the ATM, enjoying some delicious Irish stew and indulging my craving for ice cream. Back at my room I showered long and slept well.
September 29, Monday (at mile 59.4)
It was time to leave Tullamore, at least temporarily. My shin splint was still a bit painful, and I wasn’t sure about how to find the two B&Bs the guidebook listed for Ferbane, about 16 miles west, so I decided to exercise caution. I asked Martin if he would pick me up in Pollagh, only 10 miles west, and return me to his B&B, giving me a short walk and another chance to let my leg improve. He agreed and in fact, knew an ideal meeting place in Pollagh, Gallagher’s pub, situated right on the canal.
So after breakfast, at about 8:40, Martin drove me the mile or so to the canal in the heart of town and I struck out for Pollagh without my day pack, not needing it since I would return that evening to Tullamore. It was drizzling, the first rain of my walk.
My rain gear repelled the light rain and the foot path was draining well so I didn’t have to walk in puddles or mud. During most of the walk the rainfall was so light that it was the stippled water in the canal that told me it was raining. For only about 15 minutes did I have more than just a easy rainfall, a soft day, the Irish call it.
The countryside here was more remote than I had yet encountered. Cattle farms and numerous farm buildings…barns and other out buildings… hugged close to the fences lining the canal tow path. There were a few farm houses. The path surface continued to be wide and grassy.
The canal crossed over two aqueducts, over streams called rivers but narrow and more on the order of minor creeks (to a Tennessean). For the first 5 miles or so my leg seemed almost healed. But as the morning drew on the soreness returned and I looked forward to reaching the village of Pollagh and my pick-up.
On the north side of the canal about mile 62.5 I saw ruins of a large old building, shown on the Ordnance Survey map as a fortified house, and the Guide as Ballycowan castle, built in 1626. Immediately in front of the castle was a farmer’s house, barn and other out buildings. With no clear unobstructed view of the castle, I walked on and from the aqueduct took a less than satisfactory picture of the top of the castle peeking above the trees.
As the bridge over the canal as Pollagh drew nearer and I saw the church spire to the right of the bridge, I felt considerable relief. Gallagher’s pub came in sight too, but it was on the other side of the canal. Tired and a bit damp, I looked at my watch and noted that it took me another 10 minutes to get to the pub after it was directly across the canal from me. I crossed the bridge and back a few hundred yards to the pub, and seeing a man come out of one of two doors, entered the same door. I took off my rain gear, selected a booth not far from the bar, and asked if they served food. They didn’t, the bar tender told me, but he said he could fix me a sandwich and soup. In not more than a couple minutes he brought me a home-made ham sandwich on white bread and a cup of delicious vegetable soup. And ah, did it hit the spot.
I had arrived at 12:30pm and my pre-arranged pickup by Martin was for 2:00pm. So I lingered and enjoyed the food and pint of Guinness. He walked in just after 2:00pm and offered to buy me a drink. I took him up on it, but down-sized to a half-pint.
It was good to get back to Hillview B&B that afternoon. Knowing that I had a longer walk the next and final day, I put my feet up in my room and watched television the rest of the day.
September 30, Tuesday (at mile 69.4)
My final day on the Grand Canal started back in Tullamore at the Hillview B&B. After another of those hearty full Irish breakfasts of rashers, sausage, fried eggs, black pudding (which I left on my plate), toast, orange juice and plenty of coffee, Martin drove me back to Pollagh. It was about 9:40 when he dropped me off at Plunkett Bridge at mile 69.4, where I had gotten the day before. No rain, but a bit overcast.
I had two destinations today. To complete the Grand Canal hike I had to reach Shannon Harbour, the modest little village located just a half-mile from where the canal meets the River Shannon. Secondly, I needed to reach Banagher, a town just south of Shannon Harbour and large enough to find overnight lodging. Banagher also had bus service that would get me back to Dublin.
On this final day I was driven by the two distances I had to cover. First, the Guide showed Griffith Bridge in Shannon Harbour at mile 81.3, so I had 12 miles to cover to reach my first destination. My map showed Banagher about 3 miles south, so the total distance for this final day of my Grand Canal hike was 15 miles. This was the distance I expected to cover each day when I initially planned the hike, but I didn’t factor in the discomfort of a nasty shin splint.
Again for the first 5 miles my lame leg felt fine. I was re-invigorated by the destination now being so close at hand. And the weather was decent: cloudy and in the upper 50s.
By the time I was close to Ferbane, about 7 miles out of Pollagh, I began to feel the leg discomfort coming back. The village of Ferbane was far enough north of the canal that I couldn’t see it. But for its reference on the map and in the Guide I wouldn’t have known it was there. I was glad I didn’t try to walk directly from Tullamore to Ferbane and attempt to find one of the B&Bs. After walking the 16 or 17 miles and then still having to search for sleeping quarters, I would have been more than a bit weary.
I continued on the Grand Canal Way, well marked with short squared posts about 5 feet high and engraved with the silhouette of a hiker. Also strategically placed, usually at a decision point, such as a bridge, were the larger 8 or 9-foot high directional sign posts pointing the way for the Grand Canal Way.
I was always encouraged to see either of these markers. I was concerned that at a bridge over the canal, the improved foot path would move to the other side of the waterway and I wouldn’t realize it, and travel miles only to come to an obstruction that would force me to retrace my steps back to the bridge to get back on the foot path on the other side of the canal. From what I could observe, this is unlikely to occur. Along most of the canal, the old tow paths on both sides are in reasonably good shape, and in fact, through the towns and villages it was common for both sides to be improved.
I must admit I was more focused on reaching my goal on this final day than I was on enjoying the pleasant character of the countryside along the canal. I passed the village of Belmont, not clearly visible from the way, but houses lined up along the road leading north from Belmont Bridge hinted to a town just beyond. At mile 78.1, Belmont Bridge was in striking distance of Shannon Harbour, just 3 miles and one hour’s easy walk beyond.
Passing Belmont, I now turned to the final strip-map page of my Guide. Turning to that final page was a bit of a victory in itself. Soon I crossed L’Estrange Bridge and the road leading north to Shannonbridge. Early during my trip I had trouble distinguishing between the villages of Shannonbridge and Shannon Harbour, confusing one for the other.
For me, one of the grandest sites on this fine Grand Canal was the image of the old buildings of Shannon Harbour looming in the distance. Approaching the village, I saw a number of canal boats lined up along both sides of the canal.
I left the way and walked up the south side of Griffith bridge and took photos of the grand old buildings and the village.
I saw a little eatery of some sort on the southeast side of the road. A table or two were outside so I assumed I could find something to eat there. It was about 2:30 and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
A lady whom I believe may have been Vietnamese was inside, painting around a fireplace in a room off the bar. She fixed me a ham sandwich and I guzzled a large Coke.
My goal was met. I had reached Shannon Harbour!
The final leg of the journey was a road walk of about 3 miles to the town of Banagher. At mid afternoon, traffic was light. I walked due south from Shannon Harbour to its intersection with R356, a fairly wide and busy roadway. Within a half-mile or so of the center of Banagher, sidewalks began to appear, easing my walk.
On a little concrete median in the heart of town was a collection of signs pointing to B&Bs, hostels, the marina and other local points of interest.
As tired as I was after this 15-mile leg of the hike, I decided to stop at the first lodging I saw. Not more than 100 yards toward the river I came to the Crank House Hostel, which shared a three-story building with the tourist office, a restaurant and other businesses. I checked in, got a room to myself (with bath down the hall), and put my feet up in the common room. The hostel’s lone staff person on duty at the time noted how tired I appeared and offered to fix a foot bath for me. I relented and enjoyed being pampered for a few minutes. It was quite appropriate—I was at my destination and I had achieved my goal!
At 8:30 the next morning I was on the bus back to Dublin.