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You can never tell where a chance meeting in an Irish pub might lead. This time it led to an enchanting adventure on the Anam Cara, a traditional, 40-foot barge that sleeps four in comfort and convenience. Anam Cara means “Soul Friend,” and we were ensconced in her bosom for the better part of a week. (Be sure to visit the Anam Cara website, RentMyBarge.com)
The adventure started more than two years earlier in Galway, December 2014. Sarah and I were enjoying a traditional Irish music session in a pub called at Tig Cóilí (pictured here). We shared a table with a friendly Irish couple, Mary & Pat. We told them about our blog, and they told us about the the Anam Cara. We kept in touch, and some time later, Mary suggested that a barge trip might make an interesting story.
Early in 2017 a couple of old friends were visiting us in Apalachicola. We talked about traveling together, and agreed that a barge trip on Ireland’s Royal Canal would be fun.
We met up in Dublin and spent a few days there together before beginning our excursion on the Anam Cara.
The intrepid crew at our Airbnb apartment in Dublin. L to R: Charlie, Sarah, Raelea & Rick.
Despite spending weeks in Dublin on previous trips, we’d never visited the famous Guinness Storehouse. Sarah snapped this photo in the brewery’s Gravity Bar, a rooftop lounge offering 360-degree views of Dublin. (For more on Dublin, see our 2015 post, Past and Present Meet in Dublin.)
We also had never toured the famine ship, the Jeanie Johnston, which we did on this trip. It seems there’s always more to do in Dublin.
We visited The Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub (circa 1198).
Inside The Brazen Head, we all enjoyed some pub grub and a pint.
Our Barge Adventure on the Royal Canal
The red lines in this composite map show the part of the Royal Canal on which we traveled. The red pointers mark the places where we stopped along the way. Click the map to see it larger.
After a short train ride from Dublin, Mary picked us up at the Maynooth station and took us to the barge in Enfield, just east of Johnstown Bridge. This is roughly the halfway point of the area we traversed, so we first traveled west, then back east again to Maynooth. To get the barge back to its home berth, we again headed west to a spot near Kilcock. For a more detailed map of the entire Royal Canal route, visit the “Where Can I Go?” page of the Anam Cara website, RentMyBarge.com.
The Anam Cara
Pat gave us a thorough orientation to the barge. It is powered by an inboard motor and operated using a throttle and a tiller in the stern (pictured here). Pat showed us how to start, steer, stop and moor the barge, as well as how to operate the electrical, water, heating, and waste systems. He also showed us the excellent guidebook to the Royal Canal that is kept on board. It let us know where we were on our journey, where we could find a pub, where we would encounter locks, and where we could turn the big barge around.
The Anam Cara is very much like a houseboat or a spacious motor home. It has a small but complete kitchen, a head with a shower, a double berth aft, and a comfortable common area toward the bow.
The cozy common area (saloon, pronounced “salon”) has a peat-burning stove and converted into a berth for two at night.
In addition to providing the practical necessities of a home on the water, the Anam Cara has been lovingly and tastefully decorated. We appreciated the many small pieces of art on the walls and especially the stained glass kingfisher doors leading out to the bow.
Raelea and Rick enjoying the saloon.
We bought food and other provisions in Enfield, and the next morning headed west. We took turns driving the barge. Here I am at the tiller.
Mornings were especially lovely on the Royal Canal. The canal is over 200 years old. After many years of commercial use, then many more of general disuse, it has recently been improved and re-opened for recreational use. We seemingly had the canal to ourselves: On our entire trip, we didn’t encounter another vessel underway. For more on the history of this waterway, visit the Royal Canal page on the Anam Cara website.
Rick was a natural maneuvering the barge, having grown up in the Florida Keys. It’s not difficult to steer the barge, but the driver must pay attention at all times, making constant small corrections to keep the barge in the middle of the canal.
The slow pace of the barge — about a fast walk — and being completely surrounded by nature engendered a feeling of otherworldliness. Bridges became thresholds into the unknown.
We learned it’s impossible to get lost on the Royal Canal. Even when we didn’t know exactly where we were, we got to the next town or landmark soon enough. The water is generally smooth and placid, with virtually no current. We traveled in late March, so the weather was cool and brisk. Many trees were just beginning to bud out. Later in the year, this scene would be the lush, verdant green for which Ireland is famous. We were lucky with the weather on our trip: it didn’t rain until the last day.
We had to take extra care when passing through bridges to make sure we didn’t bash into an abutment. It helped to have crew members ready to push the boat off with the long poles provided for this purpose.
Our first stop was at Moyvalley. We didn’t see much of a town there, but it’s a popular spot for mooring canal boats.
Furey’s, a cozy pub located right on the canal, is one reason why Moyvalley Bridges is a popular place. After a hearty lunch (and the requisite pint of Guinness) we continued our journey west.
We tied up for the night at Boleykeogh, near where the Royal Canal passes high over the historic River Boyne via this aqueduct. It seemed odd to be on water ourselves, passing over a river below.
From the aqueduct we were treated to broad vistas of the Boyne Valley, with sheep grazing on the distant hills. The famous Battle of the Boyne was fought downriver from this spot in 1690. The battle, won by William of Orange, ensured Protestant rule in Ireland for more than 200 years.
We spent the afternoon exploring the area and chatting with folks who were out walking. Raelea talked with this charming local lady named Kathy, whose family owned most of the surrounding land. Early the next morning Rick and I hiked to the village of Longwood, a couple of miles from the canal, to pick up some more supplies. (Photo: Raelea Phillips)
Barge travel is a slow and peaceful way to enjoy Ireland’s rural countryside. Here Raelea makes herself comfortable atop the barge.
Much of our route took us through lovely, rolling farmland. Sheep and cows took notice of us all along the way.
Spring is a wonderful time to see frisky little kids, most staying close to their mamas.
We traveled as far west as the harbor at Nanny Quinn’s, another fine pub on the canal. Just west of this point, a series of nine, closely spaced locks takes the canal up into Ireland’s central highlands. Rather than spend a day negotiating these locks, and another day on the return trip, we turned around and headed back the way we came. There was more to explore east of our original departure point.
Wide paths run alongside the canal for most if its course. In early times, teams of horses or mules hauled barges using these towpaths. All along the way, we were greeted by people out enjoying the towpaths.
The towpaths are popular places for people to walk their dogs.
Dogs were almost always interested in the big hulk of the barge skimming by in the water. Here this young master tries to get his dog to come home. (Photo: Raelea Phillips)
Waterfowl and other wildlife are plentiful along the waterway.
We frequently sighted Grey Herons, similar to Great Blue Herons in the U.S.
Heading back east, we began to encounter locks. Lock technology has remained pretty much unchanged on this canal since the Royal Canal was opened in 1796.
Pat, who along with his wife Mary, owns the Anam Cara, met us at the locks to help us through. He’s holding the key, or crank, used to open and close the sluice gates.
To go to a higher water level, the barge enters the lock; the wooden gates are closed behind the it; and the sluice gates are cranked open to let water in.
The barge rises as the lock fills….
Once the water level is equalized, the gates are opened, allowing the boat to exit the lock.
It’s all-hands-on-deck when it comes to lock operation. Here Rick steadies the Anam Cara as the water level drops.
The Kilcock lock is located right on a main street in the heart of town. Because the canal had not been usable for many years, the sight of a big barge coming through was still a novelty. We attracted quite a crowd of helpers and onlookers. That’s Pat in the Anam Cara. Sarah is manning the heavy swing gates.
Most of the younger folks had never seen the two-centuries-old lock in operation.
We arrived in Kilcock as a lively game of what they call “canoe polo” was taking place. Kilcock’s canal harbor, which also features a small park, is a center for community activity.
We spent a couple of days exploring and enjoying the little town. Who knew that Kilcock is the home of “The World’s Tallest Barber Pole”?
In Kilcock, we discovered a delightful little clock-themed restaurant called the Timeless Cafe. The food was unique, excellently prepared, and nicely presented. The staff is friendly and attentive.
We liked the food so much, we had lunch there both days. Sarah’s salad had roasted butternut squash, couscous, fresh cranberries, feta cheese, toasted almonds and other fresh ingredients. She liked it so much, she ordered it again the next day.
The Anam Cara in Kilcock harbor.
Sunset at Kilcock harbor. Our adventure was nearing it’s end. Raelea and Rick had to leave a couple of days early to catch their flight home. They took the train to Dublin from Kilcock station, located right beside the harbor.
Sarah and I took the barge east to Maynooth. This beautiful swan has a nest in a small island right in the middle of Maynooth harbor. An intermittent soft rain had begun to fall.
Maynooth is a bustling college town, with lots of shops and eateries. We had lunch and walked about under the shelter of our umbrellas. This is Geraldine Castle, ancient home of the Fitzgerald clan.
We had several more locks to negotiate before we returned the Anam Cara, this time without the hands of Rick and Raelea, and in the rain as well. But the ever-helpful Pat was there to get us through each one. By the time he drove us back to the train station, poor Pat was soaked to the bone! We said goodbye in Maynooth, hoping to see Pat and Mary on our next trip to Ireland.