Riverside Magic

To have been brought up on the banks of a river – for me, the meandering Shannon –
was a privilege granted to few only, I didn’t realise it as a child. To be sure, I had a
vague notion of the river’s probabilities – a place to paddle, swim, fish in, stroll along its
banks or picnic on the grass margins. But the river’s true magic, I didn’t really grasp.
Until now.
It took the passage of time, travel abroad and a raging pandemic for me to realise how
fortunate I was to have had Majesty on my doorstep. Mine had been a cosy childhood
world untroubled by war, famine, plague or any of the ills of the outside world. From a
window at the top of our house I had a view of the river at all times and in all its moods –
placid, still, hurried, choppy, even at times bursting its banks – but best of all with
ribbons of wispy mist suspended over its surface on early summer mornings.
Being in lockdown of late and living away from the sight or sound of the river I have
settled for a garden. But nothing to stop me closing my eyes and calling up old archival
footage: the river with moored boats bobbing on its surface. Locals strolling along its
banks. The bridge of Athlone spanning the river. Presiding over the lot and reflected in
the water the church of St. Peter and Paul – a perfect backdrop for early childhood
photos. Then, on the opposite bank, berthed beneath the shadow of our 12th century
castle, a pair of leisure cruisers – the St Kieran and St Brendan – which for a shilling or
two would ferry you down to Lough Ree cutting through the water like a scissors
through silk.
Cutting also through the water – dazzling in their whiteness – was a year-round gaggle
of those noble creatures the locals liked to feed – swans. Their grace and gliding
mystical beauty has come down to us in legend. Little wonder considering their beauty
they are associated with the gods and goddesses of the pre-Christian Celtic peoples.
They were thought to have had links to the Otherworld community which could only be
reached through waterways – lakes, ponds, wetlands, streams, cairns and mounds.
The Shannon itself is steeped in myth, its true name being Sionann, after the
granddaughter of the sea god Lir. The story goes that Sionann fled to the Otherworld to
visit the Well of Wisdom despite being warned not to go.
She caught and tasted the Salmon of Wisdom and became the wisest person on earth.
When the well abruptly burst Sionann drowned and was swept out to sea. She was
later proclaimed goddess of the river.
Local folklore has it that Sionann’s murmurings can be heard at certain times especially
if one lives close to a weir. Athlone’s weir wall to the rear of the old Franciscan Church
was, and is, not just a beautiful sight but also a beautiful sound.
The steel-grey water shimmering past the Friary, slips over the weir in a murmuring rush
turning frothy white as it bounces off the rocks beneath. One can easily imagine that
the murmur we hear is the sweet-tongued feisty Sionann, with her long kelp-like hair
swishing above and below the weir as she keeps up a flow of animated chatter.
The town is silent now and our world a little shaken. What the future holds is hard to
predict but some things will never change: the sounds, sights, smells and enduring
magic of rivers.