As of this week I hadn’t been in a canoe for, oh, about 25 years. That all changed on Thursday when my friend Jack O’Keeffe invited me along on a CORKumnavigation! I was a bit apprehensive but I needn’t have been – the trip was easy, my paddling skills were still intact and I felt very safe. Most of all, though, this was a terrific experience.

There are, in fact, very few cities in the world where you could do something like this. That’s because Cork was built on a marsh, with the the rivers that formed it gradually flowing around the reclaimed land, and joined to the land on either side by a series of bridges. The traces of that former city (above) are all still there, as both Brian Lalor and Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin pointed out in this post and this one.

There are complications for anyone wanting to navigate this river using the two channels as seen in the map above – the flow of the river is one and the tide is the other. There’s a hydro-electric dam upstream at Inniscarra and it can control the release of water that raises or drops the level of the river. And then there’s the tide – since the river here is tidal the water level rises and falls on every tide.

Why is this important? Because there are weirs and bridges along the CORKumnavigation route. The water has to be high enough to cover the weirs (which are a real hazard to small craft) but at the same time low enough to allow passage under the bridges. There are windows of opportunity in which the tidal level is just right, and the Inniscarra Dam isn’t affecting the river unduly. Several years ago, under an initiative managed by Meitheal Mara, all the weirs and bridges were surveyed and measured and thus it is now possible to work out the times in each month when it is possible to travel safely around Cork by water.

Jack takes all this information, calculates optimum times for the voyage, and spreads the word when those windows open. And magically, people gather in an astonishing variety of small craft – curraghs, skiffs, one and two-person kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, inflatable sit-upons. My partner in the canoe was the genial Cathy Buchanan who is the Manager of Meitheal Mara and a former National Rowing Champion. We proved to be a wonderfully compatible team, able to keep the canoe going in the direction we wanted, and chatting companionably throughout (first photograph in the post).

On this occasion, the trip was anti-clockwise. We launched at Crosse’s Green, right by the new half-built convention centre and under the looming walls of the 17th century Elizabeth Fort, and paddled downstream, passing first under the South Gate Bridge, the site of one of Cork’s original historic bridges, and from there down to the docks, past City Hall and the mid-century building where my father worked in the 60s. In the photo above the paddlers are passing the intersection of the South Mall and the Grand Parade.

Once around the Port of Cork wedge, we started upstream along the quays – Merchant’s Quay, Patrick’s Quay, Camden Place and under all the patriotic bridges – Brian Boru, St Patrick, Michael Collins and Christy Ring (legendary hurler). There’s a new one, a pedestrian bridge (below), that finally breaks the macho bridge-naming stranglehold to honour Mary Elmes, the modest self-effacing Cork woman who worked heroically to save Jewish children in France and Spain during WWII. The bridge has become a favourite strolling and sitting place for Corkonians and visitors and we were greeted with waving and cheering as we passed underneath.

Viewed from the water, with the docks (below) behind us, the quays are very fine examples of Victorian Commerce, with the most imposing edifice of all being the neo-classical St Mary’s Church, a monument to the rising power of a Catholic middle-class. Rounding a bed you come to the Lee Maltings where UCC students, including me, played raquetball in the early 70s.

Once past the Maltings, everything changes. The river seems to slow, the headwind stops, greenery appears and you float past lovely old Edwardian houses with their gardens sloping down to the river on the right, while the landscaped lawns of Fitzgerald Park and the Mardyke sports grounds stretch along the left bank.

This brings us finally under the fabled Shaky Bridge and on to the portage, a rather grand name for the act of hauling our boats over the Split Weir and an opportunity for a rest and a drink.

Then came my favourite part of the whole trip, as this smaller, south stretch of river meanders through the treed banks along which you are hardly conscious that you are in a city. The noise falls aways, green branches arch down to the water, Water-crowfoot provides a sparkling carpet to paddle through, a duck family swims leisurely aside and overhead in the canopy of leaves birds are singing their hearts out. You could be deep in the country, totally unconscious of the urban life all around you, until you emerge once again beside the River Lee Hotel. It especially astounds me as I attended UCC for five years, often walking in and around this part of the campus but unaware of the green and beautiful waterway below.

From there it’s a short paddle to the pull-out, and you’re done. The whole thing took about two hours or a little more but it felt like longer, I think because we had experienced so much in that time. We were lucky with the weather, as it was a warm and sunny evening. We were expertly guided by Jack, who quietly and unflappably sorted out any issues as we went along. It was, in fact, ideal. It felt privileged, too, to be along with a small group on such a unique trip.

My heartfelt gratitude to Jack, and to all the people at Meitheal Mara who worked so hard to establish how this route could be safely undertaken. Given that there are so few cities where this is possible, this is a world-class experience and deserves to be far better known than it is.

A word about the photographs – although I had my camera with me, I took no photos of my own, and am therefore relying on images captured by other participants in this and previous CORKumnavigations – thank you so much to Fabian Murphy, Brice Pvllnd, Ivan Cruseido and especially to Jack.




Cruinniú na mBád – the Boat Gathering

It only happens once a year! During Ballydehob’s Summer Festival traditional sailing boats gather in Roaringwater Bay and when the tide is right they sail up the shallow waters of Ballydehob Bay to the quay.*

This is a tidal estuary and normally not deep enough to be a reliable port of call for boats, especially those with keels. But during the high summer tides the waters become navigable, provided you time it right, and Ballydehob breaks out the band, fires up the barbecue and invites all sailors to the quay for a gathering like no other.

The Cruinniú na mBád (pronounced krinoo nuh mawd) is part of the village Summer Festival so from year to year it’s a real community affair. The vintage cars and tractors (my goodness there’s a lot of them in West Cork) parade behind a marching band to kick off the week of festivities. The week is filled with music in the pubs, guided walks around the village, charade competitions, and an evening of street sports where we cheer on the youngsters in the madcap turnip race and a completely socially irresponsible event involving chugging beer and pushing a wheelbarrow with an occupant (only in Ireland!).

Turnip races down the main street and crab fishing at the quay

On the weekend the whole village takes to the Pier. The kids compete for medals in crab fishing, there’s a “world famous duck race” (I have no photographs as it’s been cancelled due to bad weather so often), there are fireworks (when it’s dry enough) from the Twelve Arch Bridge, and we await the arrival of the Old Boats.

This year’s entertainment was the fabulous East coast Jazz Band. We catch up on the chat, and look out for one of our popular locals sailing in

It’s an oddly emotional experience to see the boats appear, one by one, and round the bend into the last stretch to the quay. Emotional because this is essentially a re-enactment of what was commonplace in former days, when the quay at Ballydehob was a bustling hive of commerce. Bigger boats would anchor at the entrance to the Bay and lighters would haul the cargo to the quay.

Not all the boats are old – some have come just to be part of this unique gathering – but most are traditional and many of them have been lovingly restored. Some, like the Ette, have been rescued from extinction and reconstructed from crumbling derelicts by master boatbuilders Anke Eckardt and Rui Ferreira – check out their site for an illustrated guide to the slow and skilful processes involved.

Anke and Rui arrive in their Ette-class boat

At this year’s gathering Anke’s parent, Dietrich and Hildegard, our neighbours and friends, were there with their classic fishing boat, the Barracuda.

The whole Levis family sailed in on their beautiful Saoirse Muireann (seer-shuh mirren, Freedom of the Seas), a traditional Heir Island Lobster Boat. Cormac has written the book, literally, on these boats: Towelsail Yawls: The Lobsterboats of Heir Island and Roaringwater Bay. He started this gathering way back in 2004 and it’s been going strong ever since.

Saoirse Muireann coming in to dock. The term towel sail comes from the Irish word teabhal (pronounced towel) meaning shelter, as the sail could double as a kind of tent in wet weather.

Another traditional boat was An tIascaire (on tee-skirruh, The Fisherman), a traditional mackerel yawl. Like many boats in these parts, this one has benefitted from the extraordinary knowledge of the boatbuilders at Hegarty’s Boatyard at Oldcourt – regular readers will remember Robert’s post about this wonderful place.

It’s also lovely to see a Galway Hooker, An Faoileán (on fwale-awn, the Seagull), participating – their black hulls and red sails are instantly recognisable. This one has quite a history – and reading it educated me as to the difference between sails that are gaffe-rigged, versus a traditional Irish rigging known as pucán-rigged (puck-awn). Of course all you sailors know this already, right?

Our friend Jack O’Keefe organises a rally every couple of years for Drascombe Luggers and they joined the gathering en masse in 2014. Unlike 2013 it wasn’t the best of weather, but that did nothing to dampen the spirits of the sailors. It was lovely to be there on the dock to cheer them in.

The Drascombes raft up alongside. Jack O’Keefe and  keen sailor Sheena Jolley

It takes lots of sailing know-how to get up the Bay, but even more to manoeuvre into the tight spaces along the quay, or raft up alongside. By the time everyone’s there, they are rafted up four and five boats deep. 

Then it’s up on shore to partake of the music, the food and the friendly camaraderie that is so typical of both the boating community and the village of Ballydehob, until finally the word goes around that the ebb tide has started and it’s time to carefully push out and take to the seas again – until next year.

 I’ll finish with a video. Sit back and enjoy it, and think about the hundreds, no thousands, of years of history that is evoked by the sight of boats sailing up Ballydehob Bay.

*The photographs in this post are not all mine. Barney Whelan (friend and follower of Roaringwater Journal) was in one of the boats and sent me some taken on the water. Thank you, Barney! Some were shamelessly stolen from the Fastnet Trails Facebook Page, and are the work of the indefatigable Margaret McSweeney (great people shots – thank you, Margaret!). The video is by Tom Vaughan of Oakwood Aerial Photography – he makes West Cork look even more beautiful than it is (and that’s saying something) in his amazing drone footage. The rest of the photos are mine and were taken in 2013, ’14, ’16 and this year.