The estuary of the river Shannon stretches from the city of Limerick for almost 100km to Loop Head in Co. Clare and Kerry Head in Co. Kerry where it opens up into the Atlantic Ocean. Together with the Fergus Estuary which joins the Shannon between Shannon Town and Kildysart, it forms one of the largest estuaries in Europe.
The Shannon makes a first historic appearance in the 1st century where the river and its estuary appears on a map by Claudius Ptolemy. From the earliest times the Shannon Estuary was one of the main trade routes into Ireland as well as one of the main invasion routes that could bring hostile troops right into the center of the country. It is not surprising that the shore of the estuary is still dotted with defensive structures from different ages including medieval tower-houses and Napoleonic batteries.
One of the invaders that left a lasting impression were the Vikings. They arrived in the 9th century plundering what would become the city of Limerick and its surrounding area. By the 10th century the Vikings had started to built a permanent settlement on King’s Island. With the development of a walled city also came extensive trade and for centuries up to the present days Limerick would be one of the major trade centers in Ireland.
This trade not only brought wealth to Limerick city but also provided jobs for the inhabitants of the many small villages and islands along the estuary. The small boats of the Shannon pilots, which were based mainly in Kilbaha and on Scattery Island near Kilrush, guided the big cargo ships from the Mouth of the Shannon all the way to Limerick. The pilots have long been gone but the big ships are still sailing up the estuary bringing their cargo to Foynes and supplying the power stations at Tarbert and Moneypoint.
With its heavy shipping traffic, large ports and power generation plants and other industry it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Shannon Estuary is also a haven for wildlife. The so called Shannon Dolphins are probably the best known. This resident group of over 100 bottlenose dolphins has been around for a long time:
The Cata devoured the saint’s smith, Narach, but Senan brought him forth again alive. The subsequent combat promised great things, but ended tamely. The Cata advanced ‘its eyes flashing flame, with fiery breath, spitting venom and opening its horrible jaws,’ but Senan made the sign of the cross, and the beast collapsed and was chained and thrown into Doolough near Mount Callan.
This sea monster makes a regular appearance in folklore and some descriptions sound very much like an oversized bottlenose dolphin. The dolphins are however not the only wildlife that thrives at the estuary: Common seals and otters are a regular sight and the sheltered bays along the estuary are rich in birdlife especially in winter when brent goose, whopper swan and lapwing join the resident curlew and oystercatcher (to name but a few) on the extensive mudflats. In spring and summer the cliffs around Loop Head and Bromore become busy with fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes and a variety of wildflowers add some extra colour to the shores of the estuary.
For the photographer the estuary offers a variety of subjects. The lower estuary from Loop Head to Kilrush with its cliffs and sandy beaches offers some of the most dramatic sceneries in Ireland. The upper estuary from Limerick to Kilrush is less dramatic but the saltmarshes and mudflats have their own special kind of magic especially when the tide is out. Small harbours, old castles and monasteries and the rich wildlife do the rest to keep any photographer busy for a good while.