Before I analyse and reflect what Claire and I have shared on this venture, my total suggestion is, get out there onto the Irish Waterways for a vacation, holiday, hobby and to feel whole again.
You can do this from now rather than wait for "improvements"
Through this blog you may have read some of my woe tales about clogging weed and other obstructions wrapping around the prop, needing to be aware of vandals and other hooligans, some irritating red tape situations, places to slow you down like the effin bridge that only opens five times a year, and water levels that go shallow, but ...
On any vacation and adventure there are niggling risks such as airport hold ups, luggage going astray, watching out for pickpockets, hotels losing arrangments, rented cars breaking down and so it goes on.
In comparison, I prefer the things that may go wrong on the waterways, compared to what may go wrong elsewhere, so lets set this aside now ...
So why worry, go ahead and do this :-)
What the Waterways of Ireland opens to us is an Ireland few visit. The Royal and Grand Canals may not take us through the lands of leprechauns, big fairy hills and epic myths but, instead, through the true rural Midlands, a land of wetlands, peat bogs, wildlife, and best of all, the incredible genuine hospitality, very real Irish pubs, small shops with real people who serve you with smiles, care and genuine appreciation.
When people return home from Ireland very few actually remember the myths and legends, but they do remember the smiles, care and hospitality, which are especially abundant at these forgotten places by the canals.
Irish Waterways is really still a new brave tourism industry initiative. I have every confidence that it will build into something very special. Well it is special now, but what we see being developed, even in austerity Ireland at present, are more and more comfort services moving into the system without making it too comfortable. The adventure element is still needed on the waterways.
The Irish Waterways are really composed of River Ways and Canal Ways. The River Shannon has built up an incredible tourism industry and the very beautiful Lough Erne is now not far behind in popularity. The restored Shannon-Erne Waterway that links the Shannon and Erne with a network of a re-opened canal, lake channels and the Woodford River made navigational, is a very advanced state of the art and easy to use waterway.
Meanwhile, the Grand Canal and Royal Canals are now in a state of upgrade, but there is no need to wait for more to be done to enjoy them. It has been difficult to find rental boats prepared to allow their boats to use the canals due to licence and insurance issues but these barriers are breaking down quite quickly.
On the Royal Canal there are now renters licensed from the Shannon to Talbot's Bridge in Blanchardstown and on the Grand Canal licenced from the Shannon to Tullamore, and I suspect the Grand canal will soon be licenced for rentals to the very pretty Robertstown.
On the Royal Canal, beautiful harbours with facilities have been created in Maynooth, Enfield, Mullingar, Coolnahay and Cloondara. I suspect more will soon come to Leixlip, Moyvalley, Longwood, Hill Of Down, Killucan Thomastown, Ballynacargy, Abbeyshrule, Ballymahon Ballybranigan, Mosstown and Killashee that already have lovely harbours.
Growth of waterways tourism would bring back economic and community life to these beautiful midlands. It would keep the shops, pubs and maintenance services alive. It may also stop the drain of young people currently emigrating to Australia that is breaking up the local cultures, starting with the crumbling of local Gaelic Games teams.
One thing to be dealt with is the destructive vandalism to boats that sometimes happen in these beautiful harbours of Maynooth, Enfield and Mullingar. One solution is to involve the young people in the waterways and not make it an exclusive Dublin initiative that drives them away. Survival of Waterways In Ireland much be a network of community initiatives to survive and sustain pride again.
The Grand Canal is a different culture and not so developed yet, but is getting there.
It only has expanded facilities at Shannon Harbour, Tullamore and Lowtown but these places are also congested with houseboat communities that leave little to no mooring spaces for the passing tourism boats.
There are Dublin initiatives to move these houseboat communities that is almost like the driving out of traveller communities. My own feeling is for more mooring and more facilities to be made so houseboats and touring boats both have a place.
The houseboat people, I feel, should have more say, management and care of the waterways too as they know them. The houseboat people are also the ones who have been preserving and sharing the beautiful heritage boats that are now featured in rallies around the country on waterways.
Perhaps the biggest problem, which is currently being tackled by Waterways Ireland, are the many boats moored at free public moorings by people that are absent for weeks and maybe months, and sometimes their boats sink and block up the waterways. We did find we could not pull in and moor because of too many boats abandoned this way.
The solution is simple, if you have a boat you supply or rent a place to put it when not using it, just like we have to do with our cars, or it gets "clamped" and impounded.
The Grand Canal needs much more attention to creating harbours, mooring and facilities that boost local economies, than the Royal needs so that local small businesses can thrive again. Where we stopped we found it hard to do basic shopping and get decent meals or even a chance of a shower. Yes, there were pubs, struggling pubs, and these places need to be encouraged to invest in providing more
Places worth developing waterways tourism along the Grand are Milltown at the Lucan Road Bridge, Hazelhatch near Newcastle, Sallins, by lock 18 at Landerstown near Prosperous, Robertstown, Lowtown made better, around lock 20 a remote place but worth developing more, Edenderry improved, Rhode Bridge, Daingean a beautiful town but little for waterways people, Ballycommon, Tullamore could be improved more, around Ballycowan Castle is nice, Rahan around the Thatch Pub area is full of potential, Pollagh is not bad but a bit modern for my tastes but could offer more too, Armstrong Bridge for the Gallen Priory, Belmont has great potential, and there's a lot more could be done with Shannon Harbour.
I will close this with sincere thanks for help that Waterways Ireland has given us. We did find that the more west of Dublin these people were the more personable and helpful they were. To be frank, some of the Dublin area staff were a bit too cranky, too "work to rule". Many Waterways Ireland staff were eager to please as they want more people and more boats to use the waterways as this is the future of their jobs. For some reason, some Dublin area staff were more concerned about their overtime being taken away rather than work out ways to make the waterways more prosperous so overtime pay can come back to them
Last but nor least are the passionate IWAI, Inland Waterways Association of Ireland who work hard, often long hours without pay, to keep the waterways open, lobby the government to keep them open and developed, encourage more people to use the waterways and are really the reason we have a stunning waterways network today.
Check out the IWAI vast pool of information here