Tadhg is a ROP instructor and former Rutabaga manager
Ireland is perhaps best known for its pubs, but have you heard about the paddling? Everyone talks about the lush green of Ireland, yet there are many shades of blue that surround and cut across the countryside. Just like here in Wisconsin, the paddling community in Ireland is small and everyone knows each other. The entire country is smaller than Wisconsin population-wise with 4.9 million people as compared to Wisconsin's 5.8 million or so. Of course the proportion of pub goers to paddlers is likely much higher in Ireland, leaving the hidden gems of rivers, lakes, and coastline pristine for paddling.
Born and raised in Ireland, I first developed my love of whitewater paddling on inland Irish rivers, while I became a sea kayaker (and kayak surfer) thanks to the island's wild coasts and bays. In Ireland, you're never more than two hours from the coast. These formative experiences of my youth prepared me to work as a paddling instructor in the UK, a whitewater canoe guide in the Ardeche in France, a youth paddling coach in Australia, and a sea kayak guide in Alaska - all before joining the team at Rutabaga and teaching in the ROP Program! Join me as I reflect upon some of my favorite Irish paddling spots that don't show up in the Irish travel guides.
Whitewater (WW) paddling has been a common type of kayak paddling in Ireland for some time, though when I was growing up there in the 90's there weren't many people or clubs that offered paddling. Most of the clubs were based near Dublin alongside the Liffey River, a river that has been controlled by humans for donkeys with a series of weirs/dams from near its source to near where it meets the sea - which is coincidentally in front of the Guinness factory. These weirs and lock gates were used to hold the water back so they could be used to bring coal on barges inland from the sea to communities around Dublin. The weirs remain as relics of the past, but they are held in high esteem amongst paddlers as some great WW play spots. It was on the Liffey River that I first discovered my love of WW paddling through my local high school kayak club. The Liffey Descent is a 17.5 mi/30 km marathon race held each year on the Liffey River, including 10 weirs and a portage. While some folks are competitive, most enter to have fun on the river during higher water levels. Other popular WW spots include the Class 4 Jackson Falls in Co. Wicklow, very near where I grew up in the Wicklow Mountains and the popular Glendalough tourist destination, as well as plenty of good gnar at high water levels in Co. Kerry.
Sea kayaking in Ireland may be one of the best ways to circumnavigate the Island and to see the southern and western coasts up close - though it is by no means without its challenges. Strong tides and storms hit the southern and western shores of the island first. Day trips abound in West Cork and Co. Kerry at the southern tip of the country, a place I have fond memories of both sea kayaking and sailing. The Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre is run by a well-known Irish paddler and is a great place to start if you want some local guidance and perhaps some instruction. If you're up for a bit of adventure, La Hinch beach in Co. Clare further north and Bundoran beach in Co. Donegal both offer some excellent kayak surfing. There are 12 Outdoor Education & Training Centres throughout Ireland, which serve as great paddling resources for both locals and tourists alike.
Canoeing is probably the least popular paddlesport activity in Ireland. Multiday trips are possible yet fairly uncommon. Most of the canoeing rivers are inland, away from the biggest tourist traps. More popular ones include the Nore, the Suir, and the Barrow. The Shannon is the largest and longest river in Ireland and has many sections that can be traversed either by canoe or sea kayak. When I was a child, I tempted my mum, my best mate, and my brother on a canoe trip down the River Barrow near where I grew up. As you learn when you shop at Rutabaga, the gear makes a difference. I also made the mistake of putting my mum and best friend in the same boat...neither of whom communicate well in a boat apparently as their lefts and rights got confused. We all got down the river safely despite the poor steering. This was just one of many a childhood adventure of mine in Ireland.
As is the case with most things in Ireland, the best way to see the country is with a local. If you happen to be heading that way (post-pandemic of course), feel free to reach out for advice about the best places to paddle. Another general resource is www.canoe.ie, a resource for not just canoeing but also whitewater and sea kayaking in Ireland, similar to the American Canoe Association here in the U.S.