Dragonflies, kingfishers and shades of green

The Shannon-Erne Waterway in Ireland links the north with the south. Peter Cunningham travelled along the 40-mile route, talking to people on both sides of the watery divide
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The back of the 45ft barge swings like a pendulum and hits the bank with a tooth-loosening crash. A kingfisher erupts from its nest and flashes like a transparent, blue dart along the water in search of safer lodgings.

"You'll soon get the hang of it," says Graham Thomas soothingly, regaining the tiller and pushing it at right angles to the stern. The nose of our long craft, Cuchulainn, comes around in the river as easily as the duck in your bath. As we make for the adjacent lock, a sense of approaching doom and continued incompetence, relieved only marginally by the beauty of Ballinamore, take root. Someone for whom the mastery of wind and water has always been as impenetrable as the ice cap, the coward in me begins to plan his escape.

Yet, one hour later, I am using my hip to steer the tiller and leaning back with the same imagined mixture of nonchalance and sexual arrogance that still persists in my mind from an old movie in which Robert Mitchum hammers his way up the Zambezi River.

The Shannon-Erne Waterway re-opened in 1994, 150 years after it was built. Sixteen locks have been constructed, eight to climb the 80ft from the Shannon to its summit at Lough Scur, and eight to negotiate the descent, some 70ft in all, along the Yellow and Woodford Rivers and into Upper Lough Erne. So, the entire length of Ireland is now navigable, from County Clare to County Derry, a water highway linking north with south, with no frontier signs or tribal iconography to bray about what jurisdiction you are in. In a country where symbols are agonisingly and universally paramount, none more hopeful exists than this enchanting and time-lost 40-mile stretch of untroubled water.

We're talking seriously altered perspective here. Not just swapping the visual surroundings of daily life, the inside of the London Underground for 12 square feet of sand in Benidorm, but the entire relationship between you and the way you steer your life.

Let me give an example. It takes 35 minutes to drive the 25 miles from Ballinamore to Enniskillen. The same voyage by barge or cruiser takes the best part of two days: that's a difference in the order of 100, by my reckoning.

The waterway noses through rushy meadows and tiny, sparkling lakes. Away from the roads and the bungalows, this is Ireland as it must have been found by Saint Patrick, an idyll of peace, of sweet country smells, of wild bog iris and waterlilies, of watchful grey herons, of greenly translucent dragonflies, of speckled cattle, curious goats, families of ducks and geese, and horizons that defy the eye to discern between the untold shades of green.

Geoff Dicks, 57, came from North Yorkshire in 1994 to work as the first lock-keeper at the Corraquill Lock. He exudes the same level of cheerful composure as a male nurse, indispensable for guiding middle-aged businessmen with delusions of seamanship through the whirlpool of the lock.

"The Northern Ireland people going south for the first time are genuinely surprised at the welcome they get in the Republic," says Geoff, who never set foot in Ireland before he got this job. "The same is true of those sailors from the Republic coming north."

Standing by the lock-side, whose gates are operated by the boats' crews using "smart" cards, Geoff could easily toss a coin across the fence into the Republic. What about the Brits and Continentals? Does the name "Fermanagh" resonate for them with same sense of doom as it did for, say, Churchill? Geoff beams the way they do when the strait-jackets are quietly being made ready. "No one ever asks," he explains. "The question of one country or another simply doesn't arise."

Inside, Cuchulainn is more like a train than a boat. There's a four-poster bed for the gaffer, a bathroom with a proper bath, another bedroom and a comfortable living area with a wood burning stove. If the furthest you've got in engineering is being able to dip an engine for oil, then you've landed on your sea legs, for this is certainly not a test for the mechanically challenged. Just play that tiller like Mark Twain. A little nudge of the bow, then a touch of reverse to bring in the stern and you're slotting this leviathan into berths the size of dental cavities.

"I think that children used to come down to places like this in the evenings, and think that they were seeing fairies," says Joan Bullock, with a smile. We're standing at the end of her fairy-tale garden in Aghalane, watching troupes of dragonflies performing along the banks of the river. In the uncanny quietness you can hear cattle munching before you can see them. Then you realise that these sounds of mastication are coming from the BSE-free Irish Republic.

In the really bad Trouble times, which were the early 1970s, nowhere was more troubled than this entrancing river bend. Joan's brother-in-law, Tommy Bullock, and his wife, Emily, were shot dead in their kitchen.

Their house over there, grey and stark, has stood empty ever since. Every family in the neighbourhood has known sadness arising from the political strife. For the border laid down in the Treaty negotiated between Lloyd George and Michael Collins back in 1922 runs along the centre of this waterway like the edge of a knife.

"We knew who the terrorists were," nods Joan, whose husband, Storey, died in 1992. With her three sons, Joan runs a 100-acre dairy farm along the Fermanagh river banks. She looks back down at her mesmerisingly pretty garden to the fairies' place near the water. "But if you wanted to live, you had to button your lip."

The bridge at Aghalane connected Fermanagh to the Irish market town of Belturbet, two miles away. In 1972 the British Army blew the bridge to smithereens, and also made Aghalane into a place at the end of nowhere.

Larry Lee, 27, is the son of a dairy farmer on the Republic bank, a holler away from the Bullock household. "Myself and Christopher Bullock used to canoe together as kids," says Larry, a Catholic like everyone on this bank. "Now the only time I might see him would be in Ballyconnell." He scratches his head. "I know every single soul between here and Belturbet, but apart from the Bullocks, I don't know a solitary one over on that side."

Christopher Bullock agrees. Whereas his father would have slipped across into Belturbet for a pint, Christopher and his brothers, who like most of the families near Aghalane are Protestants, now drive to Derrylin which lies in the opposite direction. And in a symbol even more potent than the blown bridge at Aghalane, you suddenly realise that these two young men, brought up in the years of no bridge, speak in different accents: Larry in the flat vowels of County Cavan, Christopher in the honed lilt of Fermanagh. For centuries, the granite spans of the bridge at Aghalane allowed the commerce and the vowels of the two counties to mingle. Now the bridge is gone and the river has cut a ravine not just between childhood friendships but across the very language they share.

"Sure, Storey Bullock had an accent as thick as me own," says Charlie McKeown, a small farmer and county council worker on the Republic bank. He looks north. "Every weekend I'd see them folks yonder when they'd come this way for their shopping. Now there's some of them that I haven't seen for as long as 20 years."

Yet there's hope, in the form of a proposed new bridge, a project born during the fragile peace and still tenderly wished for by everyone. For if boats can sail unhindered east and west, unmindful of their status under the Geneva Convention, then why not likewise cars and bikes, north and south? And people?

Pondering these matters we creep ever eastwards. The enigma of arrival is never felt more keenly than on these waterways. After hours and hours of river bends, the tiniest town suddenly appears in the way a new civilisation does to the Starship Enterprise. Most moorings are equipped with clean, serviced and efficient shower and toilet facilities, operated in many cases with the same plastic card that opens and closes the no-longer-intimidating locks. Having docked, we walk up through the town, our children forging ahead, all of us with that slight list of seafarers. We feel different from the people who live here or the countrymen who've come into town on mere tractors. It's fun to slip off the coil of everyday identity so easily, to become a boat person.

The soft drub of our engine seems to echo evermore with the gathering dusk. The deserted jetty in the lee of a tiny lake island is too tempting to ignore. Cattle have been shipped over here and they come to peer at our bonfire. Later, the moon sails over the borderless sky and makes plate glass of the water. It's a thrilling time of no noise. Of eventual darkness. It's as if we've shrunk ourselves into a world within a world.

By six in the morning on these lakes, the birds who've sung the dawn chorus are already in rehearsals for the matinee. To the saliva-curdling smells of rashers and sausages from the galley, we slide away from our island. Although boats come equipped with copious maps and charts, navigation is simply a matter of being able to follow the signs on upright girders and to steer on the white (safe) side of them.

We slip out of the mouth of the river on to a widening lake as the sun's heat burns mist from the water in great, theatrical billows. Suddenly a tower appears on an island, and then, through the rising mist, a castle behind it.

It's as if we've come into another kingdom, which in fact we have: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

John and Margaret Burke have lived a few miles from the lake and the border all their lives. Catholics, they're both 83. John's family came here from the west of Ireland before the famine. The clan his grandfather left behind did well: one of the daughters married a man named Robinson and is now the President down south. "Oh, dammit, I'm an Irishman!" John cries in answer to a question and butters himself another slice of toast.

Outside, the farmyard is bright with Margaret's flowers. They blossom from pots and teapots and old troughs and give the white concrete of the yard a surprising warmth.

"Even Mr Paisley says he's an Irishman if it means getting around the BSE," says John's daughter Rosaleen with a twinkle. "Money speaks every language," John avows, repeating a theme heard frequently in these parts, where money is seen as the only argument that will convince Catholics and Protestants to bury their differences.

We head north into the Upper Lough Erne, bound for Enniskillen. It's a thriving, busy town where the currencies of both parts of Ireland are traded interchangeably. After Enniskillen you have a choice of heading north for the Lower Lough and its many islands or of retracing your steps and leaking, as it were, with the Upper Erne, back down through Fermanagh, Cavan and one of Ireland's loveliest counties, Leitrim.

We slip off west again and enter a new lough which in turn leads to an inlet and a little jetty. We probe a few miles up honeysuckled lanes in search of a shop. In a little field a bearded man and his wife pick weeds from a field cut just that day for hay. They wave, and we wave back from the boat. Who are they? What countrymen? In what church do they worship? We'll never know, or want to know more than their affirmation of friendship.

Later, we pass the river banks and locks and houses that are now suddenly familiar. It's impossible after a few days not to feel a kinship with these border people. We know the folks behind those doors on each bank of the river, north and south. We've drunk their tea and sat in their front rooms, and listened as they opened their hearts to the crew of Cuchulainn.

Peter Cunningham was a guest of Riversdale Barge Holidays. Barges and cruisers are available from Riversdale Barge Holidays, Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, phone 00 353 78 44122, fax 00 353 78 44813; Emerald Star Line, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim, phone 00 353 1 679 8166, fax 00 353 1 679 8165. For general information, call the Tourist Information Office, Carrick-on-Shannon, 00 353 78 20170.