Waterways widdershins: how to do the Royal–Grand–Shannon ring

The Irish Ring, the Old Triangle, the Green & Silver Route, the Royal–Grand–Shannon looped route … whatever you want to call it. I wrote about its exploitation, and in particular about the need for hirers and hire-boats on the route, on this page. Here I want to make some practical suggestions for anyone thinking of travelling the route, and in particular anyone wanting to do it in a hired boat.

I should emphasise that this is not to be taken as definitive: I will be happy to receive comments, suggestions, amendments and so on, especially based on people’s experience. This page was written in March 2011, before anybody had completed the trip in one uninterrupted period and, as far as IWAI Dublin knew, only three boats had ever done it.

Update 20 April 2011

This page has information on the trip from the Liffey to the Shannon, along the Royal, undertaken by Clontarf Yacht and Boat Club in April 2011, with some useful tips (especially about the tide) and notes on the time taken.

Update April 2012

IWAI Dublin says that 29 boats did the round trip in 2011, 3 more had done it by April 2012 and 28 more intended to do it that year. I’m not sure how they classify those who did not intend to do it ….

They have some practical advice here, as well as links to logs from some boats that did the journey.

An experienced IWAI Dublin boater who took his barge around in 2011 told me:

Hard for me to comment on the time aspect as its written with hire (smaller) boats in mind; however 3 weeks seems reasonable for a typical 40 ft-ish wide beam narrowboat on holidays. […]

Tides/bridge lifts shouldn’t be an issue. We supplied the dates based on most suitable tides at weekends. One thing that the “only six lifts” gives rise to is more boats per lift. Getting fleets of boats in from Castleknock and across is much more difficult than one or two per day and does make a long day out to Castleknock, much longer. We’re hoping to experiment with some overnights in Spencer Dock this summer by bringing boats across the day before or after the bridge lift.

Two further items of news. One is that a suitable water supply for the Royal Canal has not yet been secured and a shortage of water caused the closure of the summit level in April 2012. The other is that Locaboat, who operate penichettes, have opened a base at Clondra, at the western (Shannon) end of the Royal Canal, and (I am told — but please check with them) are prepared to allow suitable boats into Dublin, across the Liffey and out again. It is said that they think the round trip will take four weeks, so it could be done over two years (which is allowable within IWAI Dublin’s award scheme).


When to do it

There is one severe limitation: the lifting railway bridge in Dublin, below Lock 1, which is lifted on only six days a year. The days should be the subject of a WI Marine Notice but I haven’t seen one for 2012 yet; there is a provisional list on the IWAI Dublin page (see above).

The lifting bridge below Lock 1

So there are only six days in 2012 when you can get through the lifting bridge (which is too low for even a canoe to get under. There is a description of the canal, from Lock 1 to Lock 5, on this page).


You will see, on that page, some photos of Lock 2 on the Royal. It seems to me that you need at least three people to get through Lock 3. As it happens, that is the minimum crew size Waterways Ireland asks for.


You have to plan your trip so that you will reach the lifting bridge at Royal Lock 1 on one of the six dates. That means that you have to have some idea of how long it will take to get from your starting point (hire base) to the bridge. And, in deciding on the length of the hire, you’ll also need to know how long it will take you to get back.


I also suggest that you should decide on the direction of travel well in advance; I suggest that you should travel widdershins (anti-clockwise), which means east (towards Dublin) on the Grand, west (towards the Shannon) on the Royal, south on the Shannon.

Doing it widdershins has two beneficial effects. The first is that it may help in summoning the daemons needed to raise the bridge. The second is that, if anything goes wrong with the bridge and you can’t get through, it’s a lot easier to get to a safe mooring (in Grand Canal Docks) from below the bridge than from above it, when you would have twelve locks to work through, many of them deep doubles (staircase pairs), to reach Blanchardstown.

Lifts are timed to ensure that (a) tides and (b) the attendance of Waterways Ireland and Iarnród Éireann [Irish Rail] staff will be at times that will make it possible to get out of Grand Canal Dock, in to Spencer Dock, under the non-lifting lifting bridge at Sheriff Street and up to the railway bridge early enough to make it possible to get through the twelve locks to Blanchardstown on that day.

Note this account of other Dublin obstacles on the Royal. The electricity cable has now been removed.

Hire firms

As far as I know, these are the Irish hire firms with steel boats suitable for canals. If my list is wrong, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

Note that I did not ask these firms whether they wanted to be listed; their inclusion here does not mean that they are willing to hire boats to people wanting to travel the ring. If any firm wants to state categorically that it will not do so, I will annotate the list accordingly.

As well as these, some of Locaboat’s GRP penichettes are, it is said, available for hire.

Some basics

You need Waterways Ireland lock-keepers to get you through Dublin (many of the locks are, er, locked). By coincidence, the traditional starting point for a descent into the city on either canal is the Twelfth Lock. The general plan is to start as early as possible and get through the city, to the secure moorings in the Grand Canal Dock, in one day IWAI Dublin does have some suggestions for possible intermediate stopping points. My own inclination would be to aim to get all the way in one day.

As I have suggested entering Dublin along the Grand, I will confine myself to that (widdershins) route. You need to alert Waterways Ireland well in advance, tell them you want to start as early as possible and then get your boat to 12th Lock (Lucan Road) by the earliest time that WI will agree to turn up on the appointed day. People often spend the previous night at Hazelhatch, where there are many boats (and a pub) and thus a degree of security; it takes about an hour to get from Hazelhatch to 12th Lock.

Possible times

The figures given here are no more than a guideline. I show (below) the basis on which I estimated them, so that you can suggest changes or work out your own versions. I have not included Locaboat in the calculations; I understand that they recommend allocating four weeks to a (leisurely) round trip.

From hire base to Grand Canal 12th Lock

My estimates of the time required to get to Hazelhatch from:

On the day appointed for the descent into Dublin, leave Hazelhatch an hour before you’re due at 12th Lock.

From Grand Canal 12th Lock to Royal Canal 12th Lock

Three days:

  • one long day to get to Grand Canal Dock
  • one day of rest
  • one long day to get out of the city along the Royal Canal. This is the day on which the Royal Lock 1 bridge will be lifted.

The first page of this page has an outline of part of the trip from 12th Lock to the Circular Line below Lock 1. From there you have another seven locks along the Circular Line to reach Grand Canal Dock.

There is no reason why you could not spend more than one day in Dublin. But take advice if you intend to try the Liffey.

From Royal Canal 12th Lock to hire base

My estimates of the time required to return to base at:

Here is IWAI’s advice on travelling on the Royal.

Total times

Here are the totals:

Travelling times: basis of estimation

On the whole, I think my estimates are cautious. However, I have not included any allowance for the possibility of weather that would make it impossible to cross Lough Ree.

IWAI Dublin Branch suggests that the journey from the Shannon to Blanchardstown on the Royal should take about five days at eight hours a day. I put it down as six days at seven hours a day, but my total is very close to theirs. I counted 84.15 miles, 31 single locks, 2 double locks and 2 bridges (apart from the Lock 1 lifting bridge). Counting each bridge as requiring the same time as a single lock (an unproven assumption), each double lock requiring the same as two singles (probably a slight over-estimate), that gives 121.15 lock-miles. At three lock-miles to the hour (ie each lock or mile takes twenty minutes), that means just over 40 hours. A rate of three lock-miles may seem slow, but it accords with my own records for time taken on the Grand.

For the Grand, IWAI reckons ~3 days from the Shannon to Hazelhatch. My own records say 22 hours from the Shannon Harbour to Lowtown, and another (short) day from there to Hazelhatch, so I’ve used a figure of 4.5 days altogether.

For the Shannon between Clondra (Richmond Harbour, where the Royal joins the Shannon) and Shannon Harbour (where the Grand does the same), I’ve suggested two days. I suggest imitating Rolt (see below) and spending the night at Tarmonbarry, which is close to Clondra but on the Shannon itself. Mooring below the lock there would allow an early start next day: the wind tends to rise with the sun, with relative calm (most but not all of the time) in the mornings and evenings, so an early start from Tarmonbarry gives the best chance of getting across Lough Ree in good weather. Overnight at Athlone and then downriver to Shannon Harbour next day.

For the two firms based on the Shannon–Erne Waterway, I’ve allowed an extra day on the Shannon, from Leitrim to Tarmonbarry. And I’ve allowed 1.5 and 2 days for the Shannon–Erne Waterway itself, which means no hanging about.

Some faster trips have been recorded on the Shannon and Grand Canal, including those of the Tuesday Night Club. IIRC, it reached Dublin from the Riversdale base in four days on one trip.

Rolt’s trip

When L T C Rolt did the trip, he seems to have spent nights on the Grand at Cornalour (Lock 31), Tullamore (where he spent several nights waiting for friends), Ticknevin (Lock 20), Robertstown, Lyons House (Lock 13) and Portobello on the Circular Line in Dublin, before moving down to Grand Canal Dock.

On the Royal, he spent one night in Spencer Dock, below the lifting railway bridge, then nights at Lock 14, Kilcock, Killucan (Lock 18), Mullingar, Mullawornia (Lock 40) and Killashee (Lock 44), After reaching Richmond Harbour, he spent the night at Tarmonbarry on the Shannon before exploring the north Shannon.

He spent another night at Tarmonbarry before crossing Lough Ree, reaching Athlone just before a gale; he then spent another day getting to Shannon Harbour, after which he went downriver to Lough Derg. We might say that he spent 17 days on the Grand–Royal–Shannon trip.

Comments please

I would be grateful for comments and corrections.

10 responses to “Waterways widdershins: how to do the Royal–Grand–Shannon ring

  1. What this shows is that the reality of canal restoration in an urban area involving tidal waterways and railway lift bridges is extremely complex. Yet in principle those factors are quite simple in concept. Policy makers ought to have been able to get their heads around them if the brains had been engaged. However in general what I get from this blog is that Irish policy makers (not unique to Ireland, I know of examples closer to home) are quite good at not engaging with critical detail, especially if in doing so, it imperils spending other people’s money. Increasingly I am getting very sceptical of the use of “grants” in culture and heritage. If it is worth doing, raise the commercial capital and do it. Otherwise leave it alone.

  2. Those timings are interesting.
    Having hired on the Royal before (see http://www.anzam.com/images/ireland),
    we had intended to hire from Royal Canal Cruisers this year but unfortunately our plans had to be scrapped.

    However our initial plans were to do the loop and allowing 4 weeks to do so (we like to sight-see along the way). But the hiring company were reluctant to allow us to do so due to the difficulties of arranging service if we had equipment problems when a long way from 12th Lock.

    To our mind what we saw of the Royal definitely encouraged us to return. We weren’t able to see nearly as much as we had intended, having been stopped dead by weed at Cloncurry Bridge.

    You people definitely have a difficult “chicken and egg” situation… To increase use you need more vessels available for hire, but hire companies can’t afford to provide vessels unless there is an encouraging market.

    In surer financial times I’d suggest it would be a good idea for the Government to maybe provide some means of subsidizing the hire companies in the short term.

    Brian Cleverly
    Sacramento, California

  3. I fear you may be right. bjg

  4. In December last year I asked the three hire boat companies at the SEW if they allow me to do the Royal Canal with one of their boats. Note I haven’t asked to do the triangle. You need too many weeks to do the ring and I believe and have been told by German hire boaters that is not of great interests for most hire boaters. Hire boaters are on average 4 hours a day underway. But there is no reason not to enjoy the Royal Canal for its own sake or at least a part of it.

    We are a small company operating just 4 Dutch Barges. We only have one base at Lock 1 on the Shannon Erne canal. So unless you were planning a very long trip – say 3 weeks+ it would not be feasible to take in the Royal Canal and return the barge to our marina.

    Riversdale’s answer:
    Of course we allow the Royal Canal with our barges, but you would need at least a two week rental to get the full benefit.

    Locaboat, which is not on your list, has written to me (answer in German) that there are theoretical no restrictions for their Pénichettes to navigate the Royal Canal but that they have – of course – no experiences. They estimated 15 hours from the hire base to Richmond and have given me a list of estimated travel times for the Royal Canal to Spencer Dock which seems to me very theoretical.

    The three hire boat companies which are based on the Barrow Line don’t allow the fun of crossing Lough Ree with their barges. And they usually don’t allow to bring their boats to Dublin, east 12th lock at Lucan. This navigational limit exclude Dublin and the Royal Canal. I think they will normally not allow the triangle.

    Also Riversdale don’t allow Lough Ree. See their terms and conditions: “Under no circumstances may the craft be taken below Lanesboro bridge on the Shannon”.

    I think that will usually apply to all of the hire companies with barges. Only the two SEW based hire companies Locaboat and Corraquill Cruiser have boats with the capability to cross Lough Ree. But the triangle will not be on the table for hire boaters as long as Dublin remains a no-go area for hire boats.

  5. I have to correct a sentence in my last comment, apologies.
    Only the two Ballinamore based hire companies Locaboat and Riversdale have boats with the capability to cross Lough Ree.
    Only the two SEW based hire boat companies Locaboat and Corraquill Cruiser have boats with the capability to cross Lough Ree.

  6. OK: done, I hope. bjg

  7. I tried to contact six companies altogether. I omitted Locaboat as they are not steel boats, but if they’re happy for the boats to be used on the Grand and Royal then that’s fine. I was unable to contact one of the companies by phone or by email; another noted my queries but did not respond.

    I imagine you’re right about German hirers (whom you know better than I do), but British hirers often do very long days on British canals. Still, my own timings suggest that Riversdale and Corraquill are right to warn that many days would be needed. The number of days would obviously depend on the number of hours per day: Dublin days would be particularly long as it is essential to get to secure moorings by the end of each day. On the other hand, the security issue might not unduly deter some British narrowboaters.

    Those companies (including Barrow Line companies) to which I did speak expressed some of the concerns I have tried to represent. I don’t think any of them would be terribly enthusiastic, but they might be willing to hire boats if they were convinced they could rely on the hirer to be sensible. They certainly wouldn’t let first-timers do it but, as you know, experienced hirers can sometimes persuade firms to allow them to go to places that are usually forbidden.

    Narrow narrowboats can cross Lough Ree safely if the weather is right, but I think they have to wait if conditions are too rough. Even those British narrowboaters who have river experience may not have crossed lakes in rough weather, so a hire firm has two worries: on the one hand, the hirer may try to cross in bad weather and run into difficulties, while on the other the boat may be stuck at one side of Lough Ree for some time. Again, it seemed to me (and I recall writing as much some years ago) that, if Waterways Ireland wanted a successful hire industry on the canals, it would have to work with the firms to provide solutions to that problem. Riversdale, by the way, has at least one “Dutch barge” as well as wide-beam narrowboats.


  8. My general impression reading all the above is that attempting to do this Ring sounds a bloody nightmare! Read the website blurb of pretty much any narrowboat hirer in Scotland, England or Wales and it’s nearly always “Boating is easy! Fun! Relaxing! No, you don’t need any previous experience! Travel at your own pace! Moor anywhere along the banks and step off to admire the countryside” etc etc…
    In stark contrast, this ring looks like it needs 3 week’s hire time to be attempted in leisurely fashion, or else you’ll be slogging along the cuts 8 hours per day.
    Dublin sounds a total ordeal – Waterways Ireland assistance needed at every lock, and only four days per year (!?!?) when you can get under than railway lift bridge! Contrast this with cruising around Birmingham.
    And even if you could schedule all that – what do you do about Lough Ree if the weather turns bad?
    Sounds like a much more enjoyable holiday would be just to go along either the Royal or Grand in one direction and then back again.

  9. I agree with all you say. I have been arguing for some years that WI had to manage the boaters’ experience properly, which means making it easy for people to travel the system. I’ve been through the Huddersfield Narrow when BW was towing everybody; even then, you had to book, but you weren’t confined to a few days a year. And I’ve read about BW’s staffing of the Liverpool system, and the Forth and Clyde, which seem to work well. I don’t see why WI can’t get boats through Dublin more easily.

    For the Lough Ree end, I thought of two possibilities: (a) the boats used should be small Dutch-barge type boats, which could cope with the lake as well as with the canals; (b) there needed to be provision for leaving a boat at Shannon Harbour OR at Clondra, if weather made the lake impassable, and for the next hirers to start from wherever the last trip ended. But it would all need a well-capitalised hire firm with a proper marketing arm.

    I doubt if many penichettes will make it as far as Dublin.


  10. Incidentally, Waterways Ireland has just announced that the summit level of the Royal has been closed because of water shortage and the 34th and 35th levels have been closed for emergency repairs. bjg

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