On a small barrage by the river, a heron stands motionless. I feel a quiet reverence as I slide into my kayak, propelled by the fast-moving River Suir. It’s a bright morning and I’m getting back to nature, kayaking from Clonmel to Kilsheelan Village in County Tipperary.
I am exploring a stretch of the Suir Blueway Tipperary – which runs between Cahir and Carrick-on-Suir – with a 53km children’s track and a 21km cycle and pedestrian path along the river between Carrick and Clonmel. It is one of three Irish Blueways opened earlier this year. The others are the Lough Derg Blueway (also partly in Tipperary) and the Boyne Blueway in County Meath.
Greenways – traffic-free routes, usually built on disused railway lines or towpaths – have become popular in Ireland in recent years for walking and cycling. A Blueway introduces the element of water, encouraging the use of rivers, canals, lakes and coastlines for activities such as kayaking and paddleboarding, engaging with nature and heritage.
There is plenty of both on the River Suir. The banks are flanked by a riot of trees, the branches of the willows descend to the water and birdsong can be heard all around. We see the swifts and my kayak guide, Philip McCormack, explains how the sand martins make their nests in the muddy river banks. He tells me that people often see kingfishers here for the first time.
Three mallards drift as if escorting us. Later we are accompanied by mute swans, who display the power of their wings as they slowly – and noisily – take off on the water right in front of us. We pass more gray herons; otters are often seen here as well. I didn’t expect the river to be so full of life.
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“It’s nice to kayak here for the quiet, to see everything from a different angle, at the water level,” says Philip. “Nature is right in front of you. It is birdlife and animals and an opportunity to relax. You can just sit there and let the river take you with you and enjoy the view. “
This quiet stretch is perfect for inexperienced kayakers. After three hours of leisurely paddling, we step out of the water under one of the three arches of an old stone bridge in the village of Kilsheelan, and Philip tells me about the Butlers, a powerful Anglo-Norman family who owned land in the area for hundreds of years.
Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir, a 10-minute bus ride from Kilsheelan, had been home to butlers since 1309. It had a strategic location on the river. The Tudor Manor was added in 1565 by Thomas “Black Tom” Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond and cousin (and known lover) of Elizabeth I. The house still has much of the original stucco decorative stucco from the 1500s, so I drop by here for a tour before cycling back to Clonmel along the Blueway trail (approximately two hours).
The towpath along the river dates back to the 17th century. Before the roads, the river was the primary means of transportation and horses hauled yawls – shallow barges up to 18 meters long – along the waterway, carrying goods from the tanneries, distilleries, mills and bakeries on Clonmel Quay in Carrick -on-Suir and then to the Port of Waterford, to travel to the rest of the world by sea.
Local records show that in 1835 there were 93 boats employing 200 men along this stretch of the river. Now, its banks offer hikers and cyclists access to a peaceful world of nature. The path is lined with woods: beech, ash, elder and elm full of songbirds. In summer there are all kinds of wildflowers; in autumn it is a riot of red and gold.
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I pass fishermen’s huts with ladders leading down into the river, each belonging to a different fishing club. During the season, wading fishermen stand in the middle of the river in shallow, clear water. They come here for wild salmon and brown trout – the fishing is done on a catch-and-release basis.
I see stone boathouses, churches and, across the river, spying on Castle Gurteen de La Poer, an Elizabethan manor now home to Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein, and the neat rows of apple trees of the Bulmers (Magners) orchards . The company was founded on this lush land in 1935 and grows 17 varieties of apples on 101 hectares (250 acres) and on local farms to make its cider. The name Clonmel derives from the Irish cluain meala, honey meadow.
In the distance are the Comeragh Mountains on the river side in County Waterford and Slievenamon (Irish Sliabh na mBan – women’s mountain) on the other. Kilsheelan Bridge is a good halfway stop, so I pop into Maher’s grocery store for refreshments. A cafe has recently opened, ready for new Blueway visitors. Its owner, Miriam Maher, says the Blueway is a great convenience for locals and visitors alike.
The medieval town of Clonmel is a pleasant base to explore the river more, so I stop and wander around its pretty streets. Phil Carrolls, a traditional pub with soft lighting and cozy corners filled with memorabilia, is a good place for a drink. The next day, at the Tipperary Museum of Hidden History, I learn about the siege of Clonmel in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell’s army, as well as tales of local history and folklore, and the importance of the River Suir as a trade route.
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Other sites worth visiting along the way include Cahir Castle further west, which dates back to the 13th century and was another stronghold of the Butler family. It is still well preserved, with original towers, portcullis and tonnara, and there are guided tours. Just upstream, Swiss Cottage is an ornamental thatched-roof cottage covered in roses, built in the 19th century by Richard Butler for the nobility to spend pleasant summer days in. There are tours of the restored interior and walks in the forest and river outside.
Linking important cultural sites, as it winds its way through the best of the countryside and riverside settlements, this Blueway offers a relaxed way to explore. There are plans to eventually connect the Suir Blueway Tipperary to the Waterford Greenway and South East Greenway (currently under construction) and a possible future connection from Cahir to Cashel. This river once played an important role in connecting places like Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel with the rest of the world, and it’s nice to think this historic waterway has a future of new links and connections to continue its fascinating history. .
The trip was provided by Tipperary Tourism and Blueway Bike Hire. Three-hour guided kayak tours cost € 50pp with Pure Adventure (off-season excursions on request, subject to availability); half day bike rental € 15 and full day € 20 with Blueway Bike Hire. For maps and examples of Blueway itineraries, visit tipperary.com