The River and The Sea

There is a certain point in any conversation with a local, where my lack of knowledge of a particular
person or place makes it obvious that I am not a native of these parts.
“Where are you from?”
“What part?”
“You must miss the sea…”
Of course, I do miss the sea – never more so than in this strange year of 2020, when even traveling
to it has become temporarily impossible. But, while I might have lost the ocean, what I have gained
in Athlone is a river. Yes, Galway has the Corrib, but its usual manner is that of a person who has
just realised they are very late for an important appointment – forever on a mad dash to the sea.
Though it can occasionally demonstrate its own power, the Shannon as it flows through Athlone is
an altogether more stately affair. By this point it has become one of Europe’s great waterways; its
humble origins left well to the north, Lough Ree a recent memory, Clonmacnoise on the horizon.
The Shannon doesn’t just bisect a town when it flows through Athlone; it separates two provinces.
The story of our island means that natural act of division will always evoke memories of Cromwell’s
dire edict, and of later castle sieges, where it can be reasonably argued that the unusually low level
of the river at Athlone over a particular Summer had a decisive impact on Irish history. It’s quite the
thing to contemplate as you cross Custume Bridge – the name itself straight from that history – with
nothing more urgent to do than buy postage stamps on the Connacht side.
For a Galwegian, the bridge across the Shannon in Athlone has another significance. It represents
the end of a sporting famine, with either Liam McCarthy or Sam Maguire being carried triumphantly
back home. To hell – or to Connacht! It is a pity that the Galway hurlers dispensed with that tradition
after their last success – though it was understandable that they wished to celebrate on home soil at
a reasonable hour. I am sure they at least slowed their coach as it crossed the newer bridge on the
But can the River Shannon really serve as a substitute for the sea? For me it can, except in one key
respect. While I will happily walk by the Shannon, sit by the Shannon, and take a boat up or down
the Shannon, I’m not sure I would ever consider swimming in the Shannon.
Of course, the sea demands absolute respect, but I feel I know its moods well enough to judge when
it is safe to venture in and when it is wiser to stay clear. Over recent years, it has become a staple of
news reports to travel to Salthill on stormy days and criticise – in an implied or explicit way – those
taking to the water. Now, nobody should go swimming during a hurricane but, when I watch those
broadcasts, I usually find myself thinking ‘that doesn’t look too bad; I’ve been out in worse’.
On the other hand, give me a perfectly calm river on a sunny day and I would still be very reluctant
to take the plunge. It is just not what I know; it’s too far from my comfort zone. My suspicion would
be that the cold would numb me, just as some previously unseen weeds reached up to grip me.
Irrational? Maybe, but it seems there are some things that are not so easily shaken from the coastal