Archive for the 'Canoe' Category

Canal song – Part 1

[Before I even start, my dearly beloved Canon IXUS died, the lens won’t come out. 5 years isn’t bad for all the water, sand and dirt it had thrown at it. So all the pictures are from the iPhone and of dubious quality]

So it begins again. Off on another trip. Off on another paddle in the Ireland rarely seen. Kind of like lesser spotted ulster except without Joe Mahon.

This trip started as me and wee Phil wondering what to do with a week’s holiday at then end of September with him just back from 2 months saving lives (and maybe even the world) in Africa.

The original plan was to canoe from Lough Erne in Fermanagh all the way to Limerick. This was perhaps slightly ambitious.

It then became a 5 or 6 day trip to Athlone and then 4 days to Carrick on Shannon and now it’s 3 days from Ballinamore to Belturbet. Good call I say.


Took us about two hours from portadown to find Ballinamore. Down roads I’ve never driven before. Always a good experience.

Just as we’d organised supplies and got a bite of lunch the rain came on. Typical.


Though the silly misly type of Irish rain that makes you nervous that it might start pissing down any minute.

The shannon-erne waterway has a remarkable history. Originally planned to revolutionise industrial transport in the 19th century. In it’s 10 operating years it carried 8 barges. Not exactl profitable for having dug a 60km canal though the west of Ireland.

It’s introduction came just as the railways exploded onto to the scene. Hardly a fair fight. It took us just over 30 minutes to drive from the beginning to the end of our route that we planned 3 days for.

It got reopened for the tourists – mainly Germans (it seems) in rented cruisers in 1994 and seems to be popular enough to still be running.
The locks are automatic controlled by little pass cards and control panels. All very exciting. But we realised after the first one that it’s probably easier just to carry the canoes round them.

I thought I’d go gentle on phil to start with and we only had 6 mile or so for the first day, especially as we only started at 3 pm.

Tonight we’re camping on church island. A tiny place a few hundred yards across in the middle of Lough Garadice (never entirely clear if the Lough is meant to come before or after it’s name). There’s an old (proper old) broken down church and that’s it.

Lit the BBQ, drank some coffee and set the camp. Wonderful really. Just needs to be a bit wamer and it’s perfect. There’s a marina a few hundred yards across the lough and earlier a band was playing 80s rock classics at a quite phenomenal volume. The wind carried it well.

Read a good third of Gilead in one night by the light of the gas lantern and pondered how different a life we lead compared to a hundrd or so years ago. And indeed how different a life we lead compared to the majority of the planet.

22.45: Curled up in the sleeping bags hoping sleep comes easy and the zombies don’t rise from the graves of the abandoned church and gouge out our eyes while we sleeep. Not sure that’s gonna help me sleep thinking like that.

Incidentally – finally got the new David bazan album. About flipping time.


Saturday morning (who’s gonna play with me?)


It’s been a while since we’ve attempted the Upper Bann. There was the incident. It kind of put us off.


But our canoe evangelism has paid off and we’ve managed to get Leggy and Dave round to buying their own canoes.

So at 8.30 on a misty september morning we’re sitting in Leggys’s house watching him take the wrapping off his paddle. I love amateurs.


Leggy has the enviable pleasure of having a house that backs onto the river. I get very jealous.


Had the best of times paddling through the mist. Felt like somewhere nice and foreign. I.E. not Portadown.


There were no major incidents. Apart from the odd part being too shallow. Which is a bit embarrassing if you’re into canoeing – that your major trauma involved being in a river so shallow you could walk across it.

Made it to Portadown just as the sun was breaking through the mist.


August and everything after

So as summer comes to an end with a cold, damp, miserable thump (what a surprise) it’s time to review some of what i’ve been up to over august.


I was at a wedding in a castle in Edinburgh (though not edinburgh castle) where they had the most wonderful humanist wedding ceremony. (I think we need more humanist wedding ceremonies, but that’s another blog.)


There was great food, good wine and even some dancing – of which i did not partake i must confess. Even the Bon Jovi.

I picked up the guitar and grew some balls and played my songs in a wee cafe in Portadown. And after the first 4 songs i even started enjoying it.

And in a fit of musical enthusiasm I picked up the old electric again and played with the old band in church. Lamenting my dying guitar amp and how rusty I’ve got at playing the electric guitar.

I await my new valves in earnest in the hope i can resurrect the Hot Rod deluxe to do another 10 years of loyal service.

On a more positive not the new Pod X3 rocks. While a little on the complicated side to set up and run it does sound pretty sweet. These are the days i wish i hadn’t sold my strat to Woodsy.

In between I have actually enjoyed my work. Which is kind of new for me. I have found myself too often pisssed off and frustrated in work so it’s nice to have a wee bit more enthusiasm and positivity about the whole thing. being there less helps. Which i know sounds weird – “I love my job as long as I’m not there…” – but when I do less hours I sleep better and am more sane than usual. This has got to be a good thing.

I look forward to dropping a day a week in the middle of september and going back to cutting up dead bodies with the students.


And then most recently was Jonny and Lynne’s wedding. Dear Jonny, whom I’ve known since I was 6 when he arrived in P2 and stole my lego. Not that I’m bitter. Dear Jonny, who I shard houses with and tears and joy with and made 9 platiunum selling albums with in the Turf Brothers. Good times.

Great wedding, though running around doing musical stuff all day. Including the first ever live turf brother’s performance.

And it was mighty craic playing in Nice Guy Eddie again (my old wedding band) and even nicer to move from dance floor to band and back to dance floor again getting to play just the songs that i remembered.

There was dancing. There was me dancing. There was me enjoying dancing.  But i blame Transfarmer for that. I blame her for everything really.

But above all else what made the wedding was the fact that we didn’t have to drive the 1 1/2 hours back from the Killyhevlin at midnight. Instead we sat about the hotel till 0130 and then dandered back to our little chalets at the riverside for a cup of tea and a nice kip.




And so began our little two day holiday in damp fermanagh. Like the donegal trip simply transplanted to a pre-fab chalet on the bank of the river.

I took the good ship pudge out on my own for the first time but was slightly annoyed that the brisk wind meant that i couldn’t get the thing turned and embarassingly had to reverse the canoe to shore just to turn it.


Everyone else seemed to enjoy their trip too. No one got wet anyhow.


We visited an ice-cream shop, just for the adventure of getting lost in the Fermanagh countryside. Sat-Nav is great and all that but only if you tell it to go to the right place.


Extended weekends rock. And it’s still only sunday morning.

How to dissappear completely – part 4

Slept very, very well.

Massive fry up for breakfast which seemed like a good idea at the time until bacon’s revenge caught up with me and you’re downing water within 5 minutes of starting.


Passed through two lock gates and some pretty annoyed salmon fishermen – apparently they paid 150 quid to fish on the river and now on one of the best days fishing days of the year their day is being cut short because they’ve opened the flood gates at Toome and the river level is rising too high for fly fishing.


Good example of all the competing interests on the river. There’s a big drive for tourism but the need for the lock gates and the weirs leads to big safety issues. One time a boat lost power and drifted against the flood gates at the cutts and Coleraine and the people had to scramble onto the gates before the boat was pulled under. So the lock keeper guy told us.

There’s a big demand from the fishermen, who at least pay large sums on money to use the river, and naturally they get a bit miffed at all us boaters and paddlers coming down and disturbing the water. In fact Griff Rys Jones is in the Times yesterday arguing just this point from the canoeists point of view. Instead of a right to roam it’s a right to float.

And then there’s the farmers who must get annoyed when the level of the river pops up and down like a yo-yo depending on what someone somewhere wants the level of the lough to be. The lough trumps all it seems. And I think that law was originally made in the interest of the farmers.

Everyone wants a bit of nature, a bit of the countryside to go play in. It’s hardly wilderness with so many people fighting over it. It’s the big thing that you just can’t get in Ireland – the whole place is too packed with people and too easy to access.

The longest you could get lost in the mournes for is just over a day.

Back to the trip.


Gorgeous paddling up around Loughan and coming into Coleraine. Trees on both sides and the kingfishers everywhere. With the sun shining through the trees you could be anywhere in the world.


Just as last time the flood gates were open at the cutts in Coleraine, creating too much of a draw to safely approach the canal round them. So we stopped just before at Castleroe forest and phoned the ‘support team’ – or wee liz and morsies. We said we’d get them t-shirts with ‘crew’ written on them for next year.

Good trip, good times. Pulled out the old hip flask and poured into the river a libation for the gods and one for ron and thanks for a trip well done. Not the same trip. Not the same life. But good bits remain none the less.


How to dissappear completely – part 3

I take it all back. Tents are great places to sleep.

Lights out at 2230 last night and after a few pages of Winston I was out like the light. Woken only by a car alarm going off at 0130. Simy looked up briefly and mumbled a confused “but I don’t have a car” and rolled off to sleep again.

Morning refused to bring with it the long promised rain but did bring a brisk easterly wind and a dank grey morning.

After a quick brekkie and clear up we paddled out of the harbour at the marina. After some water over the deck and a shift of 100 yds towards shore wisdom got the better of valour and i made the gentle suggestion to simon that maybe we don’t do this at all. This was followed by a hasty “I concur” and we headed back to the harbour with our paddles between our legs. (now that would have been most impressive…)

A full 10 mins canoeing we got in. All just to go 3.5 miles across the top of the Lough and we couldn’t manage it.

We could have done it. say if I was carrying vital plans to destroy the death star or there was a man with a pointy stick chasing me then no worries, I’m your man in a canoe.

But since “the incident” we’ve both grown rather cautious. Too scared of the newspaper headline – “idiot brothers die in stupid frigging canoe accident leaving behind distraught family members and pretty but entirely unaffected black Labrador”. I can see them already.

Seeing as the Neill family is already down to 3/4 strength (well maybe 4/5 if we count morsies, or maybe it should be 5/6 if we count the dog, maybe I’m just confusing things…) I would feel mighty silly if we lowered the ratio any further.

I have, over some 28 years, become really quite attached to the older brother and would be really quite upset to lose him at this juncture.

So with all that going through our heads I think we made the right call.

That left us in Ballyronan with no transport and having to wait 3 hours for Simon’s most wonderful of wives to come pick us up and drop us in the river at Portglenone so we could continue the trip.

It’s not that Ballyronan doesn’t have it’s charms (the mace, three pubs, the arch that was put up special for the twelfth, the LOL, the filling station) it’s just not really a place to spend a wet and windy Saturday morning.

Now normally I’d be as happy as a pig in it’s own excrement to sit in a pub and read the paper but at 1030 in the morning even the punters in Ballyronan haven’t the stomach for a pint and watching the horse racing on the telly.

I walked round it twice. Bought the paper. Went down to the marina and tried to read a broadsheet in the wind with predictable results. Made some coffee. Tried to find somewhere out of the wind. Simon kept trying to entice dogs over so they might play with him, like he was the dog whisperer. Listened to some radio 4. Went to the mace again to buy ham and bread and lo and behold morsies has arrived. Wa hey.

Not wanting to give up on the day entirely we went back on the river at Portglenone where the wind couldn’t get at us. It still gave us half a days canoeing in one of the prettiest bits of the whole river.


Just before our last stop we came to Portna locks. One of five lock canal and lock gate systems on the lower bann. Put in the fifties to allow boats to get up and down the bann avoiding the positively lethal flood gates and weirs that were put in to control the level of lough neagh.


Even the sight of the lough gates makes me think horrible thoughts about getting sucked under them and pinned against a tree or something. We asked the guy at the lock had that ever happened and he said no but every now and again you get the odd cow pulled in.

The whole system seems a bit lethal if you ask me.

No doubt some mentalist kayaker has ran them before. I must check YouTube.

But anyhow. Now in the Portneal lodge in Kilrea. Some kind of odd travel lodge type place that happens to have a jetty at it so we can just stop and lift out the canoes and book in.


We stayed here two years ago when it was pissing down and we were looking for somewhere to camp and then out of the storm this place appeared like in a vision.


It’s pissing down again here so I’ve maybe not got pleasant things to say about Kilrea.

We dandered into town to find some where to get some food and found two chinese take aways and a chippy and a variety of pubs. The whole place was a bit empty

There was a police land rover sitting in the square and seemed to be overlooking a group of about 15 men putting up a few union jacks around the war memorial. I’m pretty sure you don’t normally need 15 men and a police land rover to put up a few union jacks but when there’s a sinn féin and SDLP office staring at those flags then maybe you do.

Back in the travel lodge we are still the only people staying here. As we were two years ago. I have no idea how this place stays in business. As the rain lashes the window I am terribly glad it does.

Spent the evening watching T in the park on tv (I know, crazy isn’t it) and I now feel culturally relevant as I could pick katy perry out of a line up and I know who Calvin Harris is. I could still punch lady gaga in the face mind you.

2158. Both boys tucked up in bed. Rock on.

How to dissappear completely – part 2

I sleep fitfully in tents. Time passes. I’m not sure I really sleep. Otherwise it’s a wonderful experience.

Didn’t get up till after 9 and fought the chickens off to get at the food to make the breakfast. By time we had the bacon and eggs and potato bread down us and camp cleared away it was after 11.

Thankfully the wind had died a bit and we made it across the open bay of the Lough on calm water with nothing but the flies for company.


The silence is overpowering. You have most of Northern Ireland all round you (we never decided if it was 4 or 5 counties) and you’re here in this tiny wee boat in the middle of it all. Good times.

Lunch was at Ardboe below an old ruined church. Pot noodles aren’t as good as I remember them.

In the afternoon the wind picked up and thankfully more in our backs. Unfortunately this drew up a bit of a swell which kept trying to send us more west than north west.

The waves have a tendency to catch your tail end and spin you whichever way they want you. It is possible to surf them but it takes a lot of effort to keep yourself in the right direction.

In the end it was quite hard work but we made pretty impressive speed across the lough with only eel boats and sand dredgers for company.

Ended up on Ballyronan marina at 5 pm and got a 99 from the bored teenager at the ice cream stall.


I’d tried to book a space in the camp-site about 5 days ago but was told that it was fully booked.

When we arrived there were 2 caravans on the site with at least 10 empty bays. Maybe people had cancelled. We chanced our arm with the lady in the office and gave her our sob story about canoeing for 10 days solid and how we had to eat the ships dog and she felt sorry for us and let us squeeze on the site.

We were ever so grateful.

It’s now 10 pm and there are now 3 caravans and 9 empty bays. Now either people here turn up really late to their caravan site or someone is telling little fibs.

But oh the joys of a shower. Only two days without washing and it was still so good to stand under the shower and feel it burn on the sun burn on your face. A shower is one of life’s great pleasures. So’s a ‘shar’ – which is the same thing but with a northern Irish accent.

For some reason the shower curtain was covered in images of little yellow ducks with the slogan ‘bobbing along’. Seemed a tad out of place in a council public toilet.

The main reason we choose Ballyronan marina is that it has a great Chinese restaurant. Every marina should have one.

We asked for a table for tea near a plug socket so we could charge the phones. Just like Ray Mears does.

Starters and main course and some Tsing Tao later we’re having a wee dander round the marina wondering what the earliest acceptable time to go to bed is.

About now I reckon.

How to dissappear completely – part 1


Two years ago we did this trip. Canoe from Portadown to Coleraine. 4 days on the river and the Lough. Outdoors, doing manly things.

Two years ago I’d just arrived back from my little escapist adventure to NZ. Two years ago I looked at my life and kept repeating to myself that I was the luckiest man alive. That no one alive had the opportunities and options and experiences that I had. All of which undeserved.

Two years ago we did this trip with Da and he’s declined to make the repeat trip with us. Some lame excuse about being dead and all that.

Two years ago and now everything is changed. So it goes.

Nice start eh? It gets better honest.


Spent all day yesterday packing and repacking trying to think of all the things we might need, trying to see if everything we need might fit into the two canoes. Being hopeful that simon’s somewhat damaged canoe might be up for the job.


Credit to Liz for our new addition of braces – old man braces from Matalan – that keep the spray decks high enough to stop the water leaking in.

My spraydeck is made by perception – a respectable name in canoe circles. According to the lapel the model is ‘gaybo’ which is I suppose not so respectable in many circles. Mine is ‘gaybo’. Simy’s isn’t. Read into that what you will.

The other useful addition is 3G (or more likely GPRS) and facebook which enables me to post lovely photos while the rest of you are skiving in work on facebook or reading blogs.

Hence why I’m lying in the tent at 2345 writing this while the waves lap at the shore of the island.

Anyhow. By the time we’d eaten the requisite poached egg and bacon and remembered the stuff that Simon had forgotten we were on the water shortly after lunch.

There’s nothing that exciting on the upper Bann between Portadown and Lough Neagh. It’s nice from Banbridge to Portadown as previously noted. And it’s lovely on the lower Bann. But this bit is mainly flood plains and cows staring at you. Simy loves cows. I don’t.

It was windy. Wind is hardly the canoeist’s friend. It just means you have to paddle twice as hard for less progress. It was a northerly wind. Kind of unfortunate seeing as we were paddling basically due north. Apart from the brief bit when due to the nature of meanders we were paddling south at one point.

The tough bit was getting out to Coney. There was a fair ould swell on the Lough with the wind casting up waves the full length of Lough Neagh. We were stuck paddling across them and it left us feeling more than a little nervous and twitchy if we were truthfully honest.

We’re into this canoeing for the scenery not the adrenaline. Waves aren’t really our thing.

But we made it. A tad damp from the splash but we made it.

Set up camp and sat round a picnic table while Peter (the warden who lives on the island and a bit of an all round legend) greeted us with beer and good conversation. The man has such good stories I could listen to him all day.


BBQ and some time at the camp fire and look at the time it’s dark and we’re shattered and it’s off to bed for the Neill boys.

I haven’t even had a second to read more Churchill or try and sew my sandals back together.

Unless the lough rises 4 feet by morning or we’re killed by swine flu then we’ll still be here and I can tackle those really pressing issues then.


August 2019
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