Cycling the Royal Canal, from Dublin to the Shannon

Camping gear strapped to our bikes, we headed off for a blissful weekend

 

After finishing work one Friday in high summer, my girlfriend Michelle and I left her house in Cabra, took a short cycle up to the Royal Canal, and followed it all the way to the Shannon.

It was a warm, grey evening. We left having done minimal research: we just knew that a cycling greenway was under construction along the canal, and that it was mostly complete. Camping gear strapped to our bikes, we would figure out the rest as we went.

But we soon learned – the hard way – that from Dublin to Maynooth the greenway is far from finished. And while some sections of towpath here are okay for cycling, others are not, and our dainty road bikes weren’t up to the rougher bits. So we followed the canal in parts, and then detoured on to roads when the terrain got rougher, cycling under pale skies through the city’s outer suburbs.

‘The canal started to feel something like a secret passageway’
‘The canal started to feel something like a secret passageway’

We eventually pulled up to a supermarket in Maynooth, and while I waited outside for Michelle, I thought about what an odd way to travel this was: finishing work and spending your Friday evening, under a darkening sky, racing through commuter towns and industrial estates, looking for somewhere half decent to camp.

But there was an understated beauty here too: the old canal, with its hedgerows, lock-cottages and limestone bridges, was holding its own among the housing estates, motorways and shopping centres.

‘We camped on the grassy embankment by Ferran’s Lock, a few kilometres past Kilcock’
‘We camped on the grassy embankment by Ferran’s Lock, a few kilometres past Kilcock’

From Maynooth west, the greenway is mostly complete. Waterways Ireland advises cyclists to start from Maynooth, so you could put your bike on the train and begin there. We cycled briskly, eventually camping on the grassy embankment by Ferran’s Lock, a few kilometres past Kilcock. We sipped some beers in the dusk, before sleeping deeply.

In the morning we made coffee in the sun, then followed the roads into Enfield for a hearty breakfast. Soon we were back on the towpath as the day grew hot and blue. Now the canal started to feel something like a secret passageway. West of Enfield, we could see cars on the motorway in the distance, but they could not see us.

We stopped for refreshments at the little harbour at the Hill of Down, Co Meath, and sat in the sun outside Moran’s pub and shop, which occupies the old train station that closed in 1947. The Midland Great Western Railway purchased the canal in 1845, to build the railway alongside it. Even by then, less than 30 years after it was completed, the canal’s days as a means of transport were numbered, as the railways started to take over.

Feeling lazy and tired, we stopped again 8km further on at Nanny Quinn’s pub by Thomastown Harbour for a cold beer in the heat. Something felt quite old about this mode of travel: cycling a little-used waterway, long past its heyday, stopping at old pubs and harbours. The canal was a hidden world: entirely its own, with little need to interact with modern life outside it.

We arrived into Mullingar after a lush and green stretch of the canal, darkly shaded by tall ash trees. Hot and sweaty, we cycled north to cool off in Lough Owel before coming back into the town.

We settled on a curry for dinner, and it felt surreal sitting in our dirty cycling clothes in an Indian restaurant among the neatly dressed couples and families out for a Saturday night meal.

Back on the towpath the sun was going down, and we pitched our tents under the trees at the gorgeous Coolnahay Harbour, with its neatly-kept flower beds and picnic tables, 10km west of Mullingar.

In the morning we made coffee and porridge and lazed like lizards in the sun. As we cycled on, the big productive farms of the east gave way to small rushy fields, hilly pastures, forest and bog. Towns on the canal became sparser, and the waterway began to feel wilder.

At Ballynacarrigy in Co Westmeath, we ate ice-cream on the sleepy main street. Sitting there, it felt as if there was something innocent and new about travelling through towns and villages like this, that see little tourism: where a cyclist carrying a tent is still a strange sight, where you feel you are seeing a place fresh.

Back on the canal, the waterway was still and green, fringed with reeds and rushes, its verges full with wildflowers: creamy meadowsweet, orange-red poppies, the blue-purple of tufted vetch, red clover, and common spotted orchids. We cycled on past the villages of Keenagh and Killashee, which lie just off the canal, and pedalled the last few kilometres to Richmond Harbour in Clondra in Co Longford, where the canal meets the Shannon.

It was a hot, sunny Sunday, and the picnic tables were full of cyclists and day-trippers eating toasted sandwiches and drinking cider. We had a celebratory drink, and cooked up some noodles on our stove in the shade of some trees by the 46th (and final) lock.

Then it was back on our bikes and on the road to Longford town where, exhausted and sweaty, we scoffed down takeaway pizzas and pushed our way through the wild crowds gathered for the Longford Summer Festival. We crammed our bikes on to the train for the trip back to Dublin, the canal gliding by beneath our noses as we slept.

How to . . . cycle the Royal Canal Greenway

The Royal Canal is 145km long. West of Maynooth the greenway is almost finished, bar a few sections. But work is still in planning and construction on much of it from Dublin to Maynooth. Find the latest updates at waterwaysireland.org/royalcanalstatus or royalcanalgreenway.ie

Be prepared to take road detours or walk sections where construction is under way or surfaces are unsuitable for cycling. Most of the finished greenway surfaces are dusty gravel or tarmac. We managed it fine on road bikes, though hybrid or mountain bikes would be better in parts. Note that no cycling is allowed on the narrow “deep sinking” section between Castleknock and Clonsilla.

Signage can also be poor in places. Make sure you are on the correct side of the canal before cycling each section.

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