The decline of the Shannon

The number of lock and bridge passages for the Shannon, in the first five months of 2013, has been just a little over half what it was in 2003.

Shannon passages

Shannon passages as percentages of the 2003 total

The usual caveats apply: the underlying figures (kindly supplied by Waterways Ireland) do not record total waterways usage as, for instance, sailing, fishing or waterskiing on lakes or river stretches, which did not involve a passage through a lock or Portumna Bridge, would not be recorded. The passage records are our only consistent long-term indicator of usage of the Shannon but they would not show, for instance, a change in the balance of types of activities from those in larger cruising boats to those in smaller (sailing, fishing, waterskiing) boats. On the other hand, they do include the Shannon’s most significant tourism activity, the cruiser hire business.

Cruiser hire activity, January to May 2003–2013

Cruiser hire activity, January to May 2003–2013

Over eleven years, the number of hire-boat passages has fallen from 11440 to 4781, a drop of almost 60%.

There are some minor inconsistencies in the Waterways Ireland figures, but they’re not large enough to affect the general picture.

Another caveat is that the picture to the end of May doesn’t predict the outcome for the year. Things like the weather and the date of Easter can cause boating activity to occur earlier or later in the year. In the first year of this series, 2003, private boaters seem to have been slow to get started; the number of passages in the first five months was lower than that for 2004. However, private boaters’ total for 2003 was higher than that for 2004.

Private boats January to May 2003–2013

Private boat activity, January to May 2003–2013

But 2013 is the first year in the series in which private boat passages have fallen below 3000.

Total Shannon passages, January to May 2003–2013

Total Shannon passages, January to May 2003–2013

And there are the totals: 51.15% of the 2003 figure.

We’re still in the first shoulder season; if the peak season is better than usual (and if the weather is good), the final figures for 2013 may end up looking more cheerful.

One small point, if I may: this sort of decline makes it pretty well impossible to justify increasing the cruising area by building sheughs in Cavan, Monaghan, Longford or anywhere else.

Addendum: if this story is true, we won’t be needing any increase in waterways capacity for quite some time to come.

15 responses to “The decline of the Shannon

  1. Not necessarily – could mean Irish network not big and interesting enough to compare with England, or mainland Europe, and so vital to invest and expand. Hirer’s like to see circular routes, or bases where they can pick up and drop off without having to retrace steps

  2. I invite you to subscribe the capital for any of the proposed sheughs.


  3. Very telling indeed. Is it European recession or high Irish hire rates?

  4. I don’t know whether anybody has actually done a proper study. If, say, IBRA has commissionerd any research, I haven’t seen it published.

    I suspect that the decline in numbers of passages by private boats reflects the state of the Irish economy. The hire business might be suffering from a combination of problems, and I think they predate the recession (or depression): high costs of capital investment required for fleet renewal, more opportunities (for fleet owners like Le Boat as well as for hirers) elsewhere in Europe, heavy marketing costs for small firms …. But that’s really just guesswork. Maybe the nature of the market has changed: firms have always had to cope with a very short season (19 weeks), but now rising customer expectations require greater capital investment (in bigger and newer boats) and thus greater firm size while competition from a wider range of holiday options (not just boating and, within boating, not just cruising: Greek flotilla sailing and so on) has limited the potential gains. I’m not sure that Irish inland boat-hire has established itself as a niche market in the same way as English narrowboat hire has. bjg

  5. Irish hire market needs to up its game. I live in England at the moment. Last two seasons, I did look at hiring on reopened Royal Canal… could only find one hirer’s website, which was 3 years out of date and didn’t even mention the reopening, plus prices were more expensive than most of what was on offer in England. Waterways Ireland’s main map didn’t mention reopening either!? Absolutely no info on potential Royal > Shannon > Grand cruising ring, other than this very blog site which suggesting it would be nigh on impossible and require scuba equipment. Add to all that the further cost of flight or car ferry to Dublin, just gave up and hired in England as usual, about half a £grand cheaper!

  6. That’s interesting. The canal-based hire firms are not in IBRA, the Irish Boat Rental Association, which has (or had) a minimum fleet size of 10 to qualify for membership. That excluded all canal-based firms except Celtic Canal Cruisers, which is now no longer with us, although I understand that in practice some smaller firms have attended IBRA meetings. As I understand it, the main state tourism bodies deal only with IBRA; if I’m wrong on that, perhaps someone will correct me. But the canal product has not been defined and developed, even by Waterways Ireland; I don’t see anything to suggest that they have a vision for the canals, or a reason for having reopened the Royal. Most canal hire firms are small, with several single-vessel concerns amongst them, and I don’t see much sign of any large, well-capitalised [ie English] canal hire firms being willing to enter the market. With no major interest from either public or private sector in promoting intensive boating use of the canals, as opposed to restoring more of them, it seems to me that the canal hire business will remain on a small scale. bjg

  7. Googling for “narrowboat hire Royal Canal” only brings up
    It’s a modest no-frills website, says “© 2008” and they have a single boat for hire.
    Nothing inherently wrong with this little hire company, of course, I’m sure their boat is very nice! But they appear to have the canal to themselves.
    Where do the other hundreds of prospective hirers with their fat tourist wallets go when this boat is booked? :)

  8. Here. Note that they don’t seem to encourage hirers to go east of Lock 12 (into Dublin).

    Some of the Barrow Line hire firms, and the Shannon-Erne Waterway firms, would permit suitable hirers to do the whole Grand-Royal-Shannon route, but you’d need a good crew, good weather for Lough Ree, good timing and a few weeks. bjg

  9. But is it not the case that there’s a swing railway bridge on the Royal Canal which is only opened twice a year on alternate Wednesdays when there’s no R in the month and it isn’t an leap year (Julian Calendar, naturally)?
    Also, from what I’ve read, sounds like there really needs to be a pilot service available if narrowboats want to traverse Lough Ree.

  10. Not swing: lifting.

    Narrowboats can safely cross Lough Ree in calm weather.


  11. But if you’ve been on a narrowboat for the past week, are you going to know what the weather forecast is? A Waterways Ireland pilot/station at either end to advise boaters would seem a basic safety feature.

  12. There is a newfangled wireless broadcasting service that carries weather forecasts. It may even be possible to receive the BBC National Programme on the Long Wave, thanks to that nice Irish chap. Those without such modern devices could talk to the lockkeepers at Shannon Harbour, Athlone or Tarmonbarry — or look at the sky. bjg

  13. tsk, these days, da kidz don’t have *radios*, and certainly not with longwave!! They have exciting 4G smart phones that unfortunately can’t get any signal at the moment.

  14. Gracious. How do they follow the test matches?

    The old ways are best, I feel.


  15. Pingback: The decreasing importance of cruising | Irish waterways history

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