Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Spiritual Importance of the River Shannon

Lough Derg on the River Shannon from the 'Lookout', near Portroe 1 July2018
- a landscape of spiritual importance
Notes made in preparation for an interview with Anna Kavanagh on 10th November 2018 for the Athlone Community Radio series ' Taste the Pure Drop', to be broadcast in February 2019. Others interviewed with me were Donal Whelan (River Shannon Protection Alliance), Liam Minehan (Fight the Pipe Campaign) and Catriona Hilliard (Heritage Boat Association).

1.      I want to focus on the spiritual importance of the River Shannon, as a member of the Community of St Brendan the Navigator.
·         The river has had a spiritual importance from pagan times – it is named for the Celtic goddess Sionna.
·         For the early Celtic church, the Shannon was a great highway opening up the interior to the outside world. The saints travelled up and down it and founded monasteries along and close to it.
·         Among them are: St Brendan the Navigator’s first monastery of Ardfert, St Senan’s of Inis Cathaig (Scattery island), St Munchin’s of Limerick, St Molua’s (later St Flannan’s) of Killaloe, St Caimin’s of Inis Cealtra in Lough Derg, St Columba’s of Terryglass, St Ruadhan’s of Lorrha, St Brendan’s of Birr, St Brendan the Navigator’s last foundation at Clonfert, St Ciaran’s of Clonmacnoise, St Diarmuid’s of Inishcleraun in Lough Ree, etc.
·         Bord Failte are marketing the Shannon as ‘Ireland’s hidden heartlands’, but it should really be marketed as ‘The Saints' Way’, I think.

2.      For those like me who have been brought up close by, or live along it, and love it, the River Shannon is of great personal spiritual importance.
·         The part I know best is the stretch from Limerick City to Portumna including Lough Derg. I live in Dromineer on the Tipperary side of Lough Derg. I have known it all my life.
·         As a small boy I stayed for holidays in Meelick Cottage in Luska bay, reached only by boat. Later I brought my own children on holiday there, and they in their turn brought their children.
·         My mother’s family have an association with Lough Derg and sailing going back to my great-great-grandfather in the 1870s.
·         I have spent a lifetime looking out over the river and its lakes in all its moods, rowing and sailing on its waters, rambling along its banks, and being delighted by the plants and animals to be found there. For me and so many others it is a God-given gift. I feel as close to God as anywhere on earth when I am beside it. My heart echoes WBYates ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

3.      A key part of the Shannon’s spiritual importance is its unique and special natural heritage, which displays the amazing beauty and diversity of God’s creation.
·         The limestone shores of Lough Derg are unique ecosystem, like a rock garden supporting a wonderful flora, including Fly, Bee, Fragrant and Marsh helleborine orchids, Grass of Parnassus, Blue-eyed Grass and the Bloody Cranesbill, among a host of other more common species. One plant which grows on the banks of Lough Derg but nowhere else in the British Isles is the Willow-leaved Inula (Inula salicina) – I grow it in my garden, from a slip given me by the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, which collected it by the lake. Another unique ecosystem is the Shannon Callows which flood every winter, maintained by traditional agricultural practices.
·         Among the insects are Mayflies, which dance on the water and are imitated by anglers to catch trout by dapping on the wet fly. There are many species of dragon and demoiselle flies, as well as butterflies, including the rare Brown Hairstreak, Dingy Skipper and Marsh Fritillary.
·        Among the fish are trout, eels and salmon, all sadly reduced in numbers in recent years. The Pollan, an endangered endemic species, still holds on in the larger Shannon lakes, Allen, Ree and Derg.
·         Among birds, the Corncrake can still be heard in the Shannon Callows, but is in severe decline. The lakes are very important winter grounds for many migrating water birds, including Whooper swans. And it is wonderful to have White tailed eagles breeding again around Lough Derg, reintroduced after being extinct for 100 years.

4.      Of equal spiritual importance is the Shannon’s cultural heritage - the places, the buildings, the history, the stories and the people.
·         These include the surviving medieval churches and castles, the Georgian and Victorian buildings in river side towns, the 18th and 19th century navigations, and the early 20th century Shannon scheme.
·         We must honour the people for whom the Shannon has been a passion, and those who have created the communities along it, among them Syd Shine, a founder member of the IWAI who lived on a barge called the Fox, and Rick Boelens of the Lough Derg Science Group.
·         People like me who identify with the river have a real sense of belonging to it, memories of a home even when we are far from home. Such stable roots are vital to spiritual stability in our ever-changing world.

5.      For me it is a spiritual duty to preserve the heritage of the Shannon. So how should we do it?
·         Thank God, much of the Shannon is now protected as Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. But the river remains under threat in so many ways. We need to take very seriously the spiritual duty of protecting it and all its creatures, including ourselves.
·         We cannot try to wrap the Shannon up in a cocoon and keep it unchanged, because the river is always changing, and will always change. I know a sandy bay where I used to paddle and wade as a boy, but which has now turned into a marsh – this is a natural process.
·         The communities along the river too will always change. It is the people who live around the Shannon who carry with them the spiritual importance of the Shannon. They must continue to live and thrive in the environment, with good jobs which allow them to live prosperous lives, while enjoying, protecting and enhancing their natural and cultural environment.
·         Proposals have been put forward to pump water from the middle or lower Shannon to Dublin. Earlier proposals to pump from Lough Ree or the upper reaches of Lough Derg could have been disastrous for ecosystems, but happily the worst of them have been averted, in part because of the efforts of the River Shannon Protection Alliance. The latest plans are much more benign, though I do not think they are the best way to meet Dublin’s real needs.
·         I believe the best way forward will be to manage the entire Shannon corridor as an IUCN Category 5 protected landscape, with state-owned land (ESB, Coillte & Bord na Mona) designated as a National Park at its heart. This was proposed for the lower Shannon by the Waterways Corridor Study 2006, but so far as I am aware this never been progressed following the great crash.
·         It should be a key objective to resurrect this proposal. The focus should be to combine protection of sensitive ecosystems with support for development of sustainable spiritual tourism and eco-tourism, alongside sustainable added value farming through schemes akin to Burrenbeo, and sustainable development of industries in Shannon-side towns and villages.

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