Eighty years ago the writer, actor and singer Richard Hayward set out on his journey down the River Shannon for a bestselling book published in 1940. For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey down the Shannon following in Hayward’s footsteps by retracing his route. He recounts highlights of his own trip carried out over a twelve-month period from late spring 2017 to early summer 2018.
In the 1930s, Ireland was a young country still trying to find its feet in the decade following partition. Richard Hayward (1892-1964) was noted for his travel books on the country and explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of the second World War.
He set off on his famous journey from the Shannon Pot in Co Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan hired from the Irish Caravan Company at a cost of £10.
His book, Where the River Shannon Flows, topped the Irish Times non-fiction charts when it was published in 1940. The title came from a song written by James Russell, sung by his brother John, as well as John Count McCormack, and was first issued around the turn of the twentieth century; in those days, the Shannon was known as ‘The Irish Swanee River’.
On his journey Hayward was accompanied by a photographer and cameraman who made a film later shown at cinemas all around Ireland. He presented a snapshot of social history, portraying families living on remote islands and secluded shores. It was a countryside with few cars and no tractors, where people worked in the fields.
Hayward was a fluent writer, highly regarded by critics and the public, and his book was written with candour in a bracingly honest style. Three men in a car, towing a caravan with their cameras, gear and supplies, were a novelty and sometimes locals trailed along behind them.
On the eve of momentous world events, Hayward presents a startling pastoral contrast in the preface about their departure: “A warm sun in the sky, a genuine thrill of expectancy and joy in our hearts, and many a song in our mouths as we sped past the sweet fields of Ireland.”
Many people today are not aware of Hayward’s legacy, although one man likened his Shannon trip as though he were, “The first man up the Nile.” For my journey by car, bicycle, boat and on foot, I wanted to see what traces, if any, of him were still visible. I was also keen to explore as Hayward would have done, and to try to understand his motivations and love of the Shannon.