Ireland's Maritime Heritage
This July, a flotilla of Tall Ships will sail up the River Suir to line the quaysides of Waterford as the town hosts the staging post for the 2005 Tall Ships Race.
Their arrival will kick-start four days of festivities, with music and entertainments from around the world and exhibitions outlining Waterford's maritime history.
Waterford, like most of Ireland's coastal cities was founded by Norsemen. These raiders would sail around the coasts in their Longboats, looking for a nice inlet or safe harbour, from which they could pillage the locals. After a time the Vikings decided to extend their visits and in the 9th and 10th centuries established settlements at Vadrafjord - Waterford, Waesfjord - Wexford, Limerick and their chief city of Dubh Linn - Dublin.
Meanwhile further inland, Ireland's rivers and lakes provided the surest and safest way to travel. Ireland's inland towns were built around these ancient highways. Enniskillen in county Fermanagh originally stood on an island at the point where Upper and Lower Lough Erne meet, and Athlone in West Meath in the very centre of the county stands at an important junction of the River Shannon and Lough Ree. Many of Ireland's important early Christian sites are also built along the country's inland waterways. Clonmacnoise one of the most important churches of Celtic Christianity is situated overlooking the upper stretches of the River Shannon.
During the 18th Century, many of Ireland's natural inland waterways were linked by the Royal and Grand canals, which revolutionised trade and transport links in the country. Threading its way from Dublin through Co. Kildare and Tullamore on to the River Shannon, the Grand Canal opened in 1779, while the Royal Canal was built 14 years later and runs from Dublin to the northern reaches of the River Shannon in Co. Longford.
With a coastline of more than 3100km, boasting around 80 Blue Flag beaches and a large number of inhabited islands scattered around the coast of Ireland, it's natural that the sea has formed such an important element of Ireland's cultural history. Those cities founded by the Vikings developed into important trading posts linking Ireland with mainland Europe and parts of the Mediterranean and were joined in later centuries by Cork, the capital of Gaelic Ireland during the 10th century and Galway, which during the Middle Ages rivalled Bristol and London in its imports and exports. As well as overseas trading posts, Ireland's coastline is dotted with fishing ports of all sizes. Though the number of these ports has declined somewhat in recent years, many small ports around the island still thrive, from Howth just outside Dublin, Kilmore Quay in Co. Wexford, Dunmore East in Co. Waterford, Kinsale, Union Hall, Baltimore and Castletownbere in Co. Cork, Portmagee and Dingle in Co. Kerry, The Claddagh and Rossaveal of Galway, Sligo Town and the largest fishery in Ireland, Killybegs in Donegal.
Today Ireland's waterways and coastline are used as much for pleasure as commerce and watersports form a key part of the social calendar for many places, with towns holding colourful annual boating festivals, sailing races and regattas during the summer.
Ireland has a long history of pleasure sailing; the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Crosshaven dates back to 1720 and is the oldest sailing club in the world. The south west of Ireland is the country's most popular sailing location, particularly County Cork. As well as Crosshaven the county boasts a huge number of clubs registered with the Irish Sailing Association dotting its coastline at ports and marinas such as Cobh, Kinsale, Glandore, Baltimore, Schull, Crookhaven and Bantry. While in Kerry there are registered clubs at Dingle and Cahersiveen.
Along the western coast Ireland boasts some of the best scuba diving waters in Europe. These shores are massed with wreaks, many dating back to the time of the Spanish Armada and together with offshore islands, rock and cave formations, make an excellent environment for divers, particularly from March to October when visibility is at its best. The Irish Underwater Council lists a number of Dive Centres, many based in Dublin and many based on the western coasts.
As well as the coasts, the miles of lakes, rivers and canals that make up Ireland's inland waterways provide ample opportunity for ‘messing about in boats'. Power cruisers and Canal Barges offer a blissfully relaxing way of making your way around the central counties of Ireland. Ireland's larger lakes make for good cruising from Lough Erne spanning Co. Fermanagh, Lough Ree in Athlone, and Lough Derg in the east of Co. Clare. The latter are joined by the mighty River Shannon, before is reaches Limerick and to the north the Shannon is linked to Lough Erne by the man made Shannon Erne Waterway which stretches some 804km from Belleek to Limerick. While through the centre of the county runs Ireland's two greatest canals, the Grand & the Royal. These canals pass by some relatively unpopulated and wonderfully scenic countryside, stopping at finely crafted locks and sleepy hamlets. One of the highlights of a trip along the Grand Canal is the slowly chugging along the Leinster Aqueduct, whose graceful seven arches transport barges over the River Liffey, by the village of Sallins.
Discovering the waterways and coastal life of Ireland is like discovering a whole new country, one that's not all rolling green drumlins and farmland, but one that is dependant on and moulded by another part of Ireland's natural environment, that which is formed by the battering of waves and the flowing of rivers. These parts of Ireland are uniquely scenic and tell a story all of their own.
until this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.