22 February 2020

How one man managed
to cross the Shannon
Estuary on a bicycle

Tom Mangan cycled across the Shannon Estuary from the pier at Glin, Co Limerick, in July 1902 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The rains that have been brought in by the latest storms seem unremitting in the past few days. At times, they have turned to hail and sleet, and sometimes it even takes careful planning and timing to know when to venture down to the local supermarket to buy the daily newspapers.

Standing by the banks of the Shannon Estuary, watching the swells on the water, feeling the strong winds and watching the grey clouds mass overhead, it is hard to imagine how anyone could take out onto the river in a small vessel.

So, I was surprised earlier this week to hear the story of one man who not only tried to, but also succeeded in peddling across the Shannon Estuary from Glin in Co Limerick to Labasheeda in Co Clare, and cycled back again the same day.

Tom Mangan was a resourceful man who was born in Cahera in 1871 and who lived in Glin all his life. At a time of hardship in Ireland, he had the good fortune to work as a clerk with the Shannon Steamship Company which collected and distributed goods all along the Shannon Estuary from Limerick to Kilrush, serving the ports along the way, including Glin.

During the course of his work, Tom Mangan saved a man from drowning at Glin Pier after he had fallen between a boat and the pier.

Tom set out to build a pedal boat. He put his cycle, whose frame he had built himself, on two flat boards like a raft, one under each wheel.

A crack in the boards formed a crevice that allowed the wheels to touch the water.

After a trial run, he set off on a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in July 1902, watched by a crowd on Glin Pier. People lit bonfires to alert the village of Labasheeda of his expected arrival.

Despite the bonfires and the warnings, Tom Mangan caused a huge stir and furore in Labasheeda and the local RIC sergeant sent to Killaloe for reinforcements, before people realised this was not some demon or monster coming over the water but a man.

When he staggered ashore, a crowd of people cheered and a bottle of brandy was pressed to his lips.

The local sergeant thought of arresting him for public disorder, but he cycled back to Glin again later that day.

The day was recalled 70 years later by John B Keane, a regular visitor to Glin, in his column in the Limerick Leader on 14 August 1971.

Inspired by John B Keane, a local man, Kevin Reidy, designed yet another specially adapted bicycle-boat and the late Bill Culhane volunteered to cycle it an re-enact Tom Mangan’s feat.

Local people in Glin used Kevin Reidy’s replica in a charity fundraiser in the 1980s, pushing it from Dublin for display at Shannon Airport.

In this weather, I think I’d prefer to cross the Shannon on the ferry between Tarbert and Killimer. It beats paddling your own canoe, or peddling your own bicycle.

It is safer and wiser to cross the Shannon on the ferry between Tarbert and Killimer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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