It’s time to be surprised by Leitrim’s diverse delights, from the trails of the Shannon-Erne Blueway to a fabulous forest park, writes Des O’Driscoll.
Have you ever seen a hen with an AK47? It’s not a sight you’d normally associate with Leitrim, a county better known for its... well actually, and no offence meant, but a lot of people in the deep south would struggle to come up with too many reference points for the county.
In fact, an unscientific straw poll suggests many inhabitants of Munster would even struggle to find Leitrim on a map.
The most we got was a few mumbles about John McGahern, the River Shannon, and winter floods. None of it convincing.
So, just to be sure: Leitrim is a smallish county bordered to the north by Fermanagh, and Longford to the south.
It does have a bit of a sea view, but that 1½ mile sliver offers the smallest coastline of any non-inland county.
Not that you’ll want for water. Throw a stone from any spot in the county and there’s a good chance it’ll land in one of the hundreds of lakes, rivers, canals, etc, that ensure any map of the county is riddled with blue ink.
Those waterways are also part of the reason why a Cork family like ours has ventured way beyond our traditional limits of an annual trip to Kerry or Dublin.
The recently-launched Shannon-Erne Blueway is a 70km series of trails running from Leitrim village to Belturbet in Co Cavan, linking with the Erne system at Crom in Co Fermanagh.
It offers all sorts of options for cycling, walking, paddling, etc.
But back to the hen.
She’s one of many such brides-to-be who’ve discovered Carrick-on-Shannon as a destination for the traditional pre-nuptial breakout.
There were several the weekend we were there. Gangs of girls all elevated on heels so high that if the river did burst its banks, they’d probably be safe enough.
Before the drinking begins, a few of them make it the three miles down the road to sedate Leitrim village and the indoor shooting and archery range of Eileen and Seamus Gibbons.
Hence the AK47, as part of a selection of replica guns that fire BB pellets.
Seamus is Leitrim through-and-through. His shooting range and bike hire business sits on the site of a village shop that had been in his family since the early part of the last century.
A realisation of where we’re from brings mention of a nearby plaque to mark the most famous journey of all by a Corkman to Leitrim.
How, after onslaughts by English forces in West Cork in the 17th century, O’Sullivan Beare went on his epic midwinter march northwards with 1,000 of his followers.
After battles, harsh weather and starvation, only 35 of them made it to the Leitrim stronghold of the O’Rourkes. Being reminded of this tale kind of put our gripes about the lack of services on the M8 into perspective.
We were even more thankful for modern comforts when Seamus showed us the battery-assisted bikes he rents.
‘Twice the distance, half the effort’ is the slogan, and they’re particularly handy for the less fit, or for people who want to drag a child in a trailer behind.
All kitted out, we opt for a local route that largely runs along a car-free path next to a picturesque canal.
Even with the child-laden trailer behind, it’s fairly effortless cycling as the silent motor does most of the work and allows us to take in the beautiful views.
Room with a view
Our accommodation for the weekend was a canal-side bungalow at Leitrim Quay.
Perfectly located and fully kitted-out, the big bonus of these holiday rentals is that they come with their own jetty and a 23ft cruiser for each house.
Even the most dedicated landlubber will be ship-shape after the short orientation session.
Then you can easily wind your way at a leisurely pace down to Carrick, or explore some of the islands on the Shannon — it really is one of the best holiday experiences in Ireland.
Another way of travelling on the waterways is offered by Stephen Wrynne, and his Canadian-style canoes.
Stephen, like so many tourism operators we met in the area, had had a career elsewhere, but took redundancy and returned to his home county to combine the canoeing enterprise with a bit of part-time farming.
These canoe trips really are a lovely way to get a feel for the area, and are enhanced by Stephen’s knowledge of local history and lore.
Heading for Marble Arch Caves near the the Fermanagh-Cavan county line, there were two standout differences from the last time I visited this area.
One was the quality of the roads on the southern side of the border, part of the peace dividend. The other was that there was no longer any sense of a border.
No more tension or checkpoints bristling with armour and aerials. Everything just feels so refreshingly normal.
The caves themselves are incredible.
A tour of over an hour begins with a 10-minute boat ride on the underground stream that helped form them.
You also get a real sense of geological time when you hear that in the 100 years since the caves were discovered, the two-metre long stalactites have barely added an extra millimetre to their length.
Key to fun
Our final stop was at Lough Key Forest Park — technically in Co Roscommon — and we regretted not having enough time to make the most of this amazing facility. It has over 800 acres of park, lakes and woodland. Think Muckross, but with way more to do.
Our chosen method of travel for a look around the park was a Segway. These upright machines are surprisingly easy to get the hang of, and you can trundle around the trails at a nice pace.
Another highlight in Lough Key was the Boda Borg questing centre. A Swedish idea developed in the 1990s, it offers serious fun through series of puzzles contained in individual rooms.
Use teamwork and communication to crack the puzzle and you get to move on to the next one. Serious family fun.
As we headed south again after a hugely enjoyable weekend, the conversation turned to previous family holidays, including an idyllic trip to Spain.
“But it wasn’t as good as Leitrim,” piped up a voice from the back seat. Out of the mouths of babes...
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