A Quiet Corner of Ireland

by frankbeswick

The hilly borderland between Cavan and Leitrim is an overlooked area of Erin that repays thoughtful walkers with some beautiful scenery and peaceful walking.

The road from the lowlands of Cavan to Sligo passes through a quiet area of borderland. This includes the hilly part of Cavan around Cuilcagh and then runs through County Leitrim, until it terminates at Sligo Town. There is some pleasant scenery on this road , as it runs through the oft-overlooked hills of Leitrim, past Lough MacNean. Just past this lough a road turns downwards towards Lough Allen, and this is one of the quietest routes that I have walked on. On a sunny day off from theological college I would pack a haversack with some food and set off for a quiet walk to Lough Allen. It is my memories of this area that I want to share with readers.

Image courtesy of Kate Nolan, copyright Keith Nolan photography

The Experience of North West Ireland.

County Cavan, a lowland county, projects North West into more hilly territory, a strip that runs along the border with Northern Ireland. Much of the border along this stretch runs through a pair of loughs, Upper and Lower Lough MacNean. Almost all of the lower lough is in the North, but the Upper Lough is evenly divided, and it contains some islands on its eight mile stretch. The isthmus between the two lakes contains a few drumlins, and these glacial features characterize the landscape in the region.  

The road that runs south of the Upper  Lough heads for Sligo twenty six miles away, and the theological college where I studied for a while [now closed and used for a succession of different purposes] stood by a broad headland projecting into the Upper Lough.Though in Cavan, we were but a hundred metres from County Leitrim, and my walking took me often into that county. 

Having come from a theological college in London, under the flight path for Heathrow Airport and near the Great West Road I had been starved of silence by the incessant rumblings of planes and traffic throughout the day and night. In North West Ireland I got silence in abundance. I would stroll down to the lough, sit by its gently wavy waters and think, with my eyes scanning over the islands to the low, green and soft  hills of County Fermanagh. 

The view south of the college was delightful. The bulk of Cuilcagh, through whose misty, peat-covered summit the border with Northern Ireland ran along an ill-defined route, stood powerfully. There were few dwellings on that mountain, and at night only occasional specks of light freckled its darkened slopes. There was also the Glenfarne Plateau, named from the village at its foot, lower than Cuilcagh and not technically a mountain, being but fourteen hundred feet, it was wild land on which few trod for any but necessity: a truly lonely place with few paths to its peaty summit. 

But besides panorama, the small sights matter. As Autumn fell on the land the hedges were spangled with spiders' webs. Webs of the veil web spider, they are constructed around plant stems and form a pyramid that sometimes appears diamond shaped. The hedges were full of them, and the dew glistened in myriad  crystal droplets along their skeins. Thinking of Scripture, one reflects "Not even Solomon in his glory was arrayed as one of these." In September the hedges held blackthorn berries: they look nice, but they dry your mouth to the point that you feel you have been chewing sandpaper. 

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Down to Lough Allen

The day was glistening bright and the sun was warm. It must have been April or May, as there was no rain, and in the year when I dwelt in Ireland it rained every day in March, either a shower or a full day's downpour. But that's Ireland, and we love it. 

The route is straight and uneventful, but that's part of the joy. I walked down with Cuilcagh on my left and the Glenfarne Plateau on my right. A few cottages stood silently besides the road, but the bulk of the route was small fields. I saw one person, a  farmer who waved from his field, but heard the sound of wild geese skeins as they flew towards the lough. I think that the farmer was glad of human contact in his lonely occupation. "Dia Duich" is the greeting [pronounced jia vich] to which the reply is "Dia duich le Pairig.  [God with you, the reply being God and Patrick with you.] 

Somewhere on the slopes of Cuilcagh above there is Shannon Pot, the limestone fissure from which bubbles the stream which will gather Ireland's waters to itself to become the mighty, gently flowing, but powerful Shannon that wends its way through a string of lakes down to its estuary dividing the counties Limerick and Clare.The pot is not on the road, but up the slopes, so it was on another day that I set out for it. Enjoy, but stay out of the water. Divers have descended,  but have been forced to retreat, as parts of a limestone chamber deep down seemed unstable and therefore unsafe.

This is not a high excitement route. Its joy is in its peace, which allows time for reflective walkers to ponder as they go. But there is beauty in the interplay of mountain, cloudscapes and sound. It is a boggy land, so there is little stone for the streams to flow over, and thus the sound is accessible only to an ear that is keen to listen, and that's part of the experience. The occasional lowing of cattle and the honking of wild geese play their part in the symphony. But the ever-changing cloudscapes of the North West of Ireland are the dancers that perform to the gentle symphony of cattle, birds and water.

The circular route back would have been too long, so I retrace my steps and am back in time for prayers and supper. I have seen the majesty of Lough Allen, but time has prevented a full exploration. I long to return and now that I am retired there is nought to stop me. Soon, hopefully!

View of Leitrim
View of Leitrim
Image courtesy of Aitor Munoz Munoz

Walking on Cuilcagh

Cuilcagh is a moody mountain. It broods above the valley from its dark, boggy heights, but underneath it is riddled with the limestone caves of Marble Arch, and the mysterious water flows from which the Shannon is born lie beyond the ken of humans. 

Once in February we were enjoying a spell of crystal clear weather. The previous week the Atlantic-borne snow had suddenly smothered the West and it still lingered atop the summit. But the air was crystal and still, free of clouds, like a diamond in its stark clarity. I was walking down to Enniskillen, hitching lifts as I went. As I passed Lower Lough Macnean I looked over to the lowering bulk of Cuilcagh, to see that in the still, windless crystaline air that the whole mountain was mirrored in the lough, a picture of perfect symmetry, dark slopes over-topped with white snows perfectly reflected. But I had no camera, so this is a memory that I can only communicate in words for your imagination to work on. And here's the problem. There are so few pictures of this overlooked patch of Ireland that I have had to scour for what I can find. Sorry folks. Words will have to do.

Yet I have known Cuilcagh when the mist settled across the boggy summit. The mountain turned dangerous, as there are few landmarks in its featureless wilderness. Eventually we found a cottage high on the slopes, where an old woman and man dwelt, having reared their six children only for them to go to America. They welcomed company and we shared some tea with them ere they gave us directions down the hill. What I recall is that the old woman was still using a spinning wheel. For half an hour we were getting a glimpse of an older Ireland. It was memorable.  


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"Who'd want to live in Leitrim? It's misty and wet" an Irish woman asked me dumbfounded when I told her that I liked the county. She was one who had left school and headed straight for the ferry to England. Yet there is a charm to the region that ignited a fire in my soul which has never been quenched. My wife's mother's family are from Mayo, but her maiden name, O'Rourke, is  the clan whose origins were in that county. 

I have never been to the summit of the Glenfarne Plateau, which is also variously named the Ben [the mountain] or Englishman's Mountain, in memory of an Englishman who tried to bring employment to the area by sinking pits to mine the thin coal measures that still survive on the summit. The mountain differs from Cuilcagh as it is sandstone overlain by coal measures. They were ultimately unprofitable and closed, unable to compete with the mass produced coal from England and the Irish preference for peat fires. Yet I have walked the boggy slopes encircling the plateau, if you can call stumbling through tussocky grass and clambering over raised bogs walking. It was there that I espied a mountain hare, the only hare species in Ireland, shoot past me as if to assert its domination in terrain where men stumble. The summit  is genuinely wild land, a small mountain top wilderness of bog and heather. While I was there the farms were beset by a wild dog pack that had formed on the plateau and were killing sheep. We lost eight of our twenty five sheep  in one night. The farmers got together and went across the plateau on a wild dog hunt. I was not involved, but farming can be a hard business at times, and it should not be romanticized. 

The vixen who called her mate from the plantation above the college will now be gone, but her descendants will still be calling. The wild geese will still settle by the lough and make nests on the islets. The pike will lurk in the reeds; the blackthorn will still be purple on the stem; and the veil web spider will still bejewel the Autumn hedges. There is a longing on me to return. 

Updated: 05/31/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 05/16/2016

Thanks. There are some experiences that are jewels in the crown of memory.

SamThompson on 05/15/2016

Nice how you blend the destination with the story over your studies at the college. Great article!

frankbeswick on 10/04/2015

Cavan is a strangely shaped county, most of which is in the midlands, but has a thin strip projecting into the hillier lands. This strip is geographically more part of Leitrim than Cavan. It is the part of Leitrim that the O'Reilly clan took from the O'Rourke clan after the Normans killed the O'Rourke chief.

I love Leitrim, it is a place of enchanting mists, loughs and low hills. We were in Cavan, but only a hundred yards from Leitrim.

Veronica on 10/04/2015

I have never been to Cavan or Leitrim but would love to go. Just stepping foot in Ireland is enough to start unwinding and relaxing.

frankbeswick on 10/04/2015

I would have provided more pictures, but many of my photographs have been lost over the years, and when I sought pictures on the net, there are so few of this part of Ireland. Photographers take note.

blackspanielgallery on 10/03/2015

In addition to the scenery it is the peace from the solitude that is the great treasure here, and there is no need for pictures to convey this.

frankbeswick on 07/28/2015

Thanks. I love the West of Ireland, there is something special about it.

WriterArtist on 07/28/2015

@frankbeswick - I would definitely love to visit the parts of the Ireland that you have quoted. The beautiful scenery and the Natural surroundings are well preserved in Europe. Though I haven't visited many European countries, I have loved traveling to Switzerland. I was lucky to have visited it twice and it was as beautiful as ever. I believe, Ireland is also beautiful and the country is full of lakes and mountains.

I hope your trip to Ireland is very enjoyable as you are looking forward to a family reunion.

Veronica on 07/25/2015

I am visiting Belfast in the North next June to see the restored HMS Caroline, a WW1 ship which is being converted in to a floating war ship museum in time for the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. I can' wait. It's only 30 mins on the plane.

frankbeswick on 07/25/2015

If you ever visit Ireland, make sure that you visit the West of the country. Many of my ancestors came from the West, and it is a place that I love.

The natural scenery that you celebrate contains many beauftiful loughs [lakes] as Ireland, because of its geological structure, has far more lakes per square kilometre than England does. The mountains are mainly confined to the rim of the country, but while they are not high [none in the British Isles are high] they can be impressive. Donegal, which I visited on my last trip to Ireland, has some beautiful mountain and sea lough scenery. [Lough is pronounced lock.]

I am visiting County Mayo, in the West, in August to take my ninety five year old mother-in-law for a trip to her homeland to see relatives. It is only a short visit, just three days, but I am looking forward to it.

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