Last Sunday I was walking the Glenfarne Sculpture Trail in Leitrim with another tour guide. We were chatting about approaches to visiting Ireland. Both of us have lived in other parts of the world and come to live in Ireland in middle-age. Why would you want to race around Ireland, packing in the maximum sights, traveling the length and breadth of the island at break neck speed? You could see just as much without a change of pillow every night by centering your holiday in one region.
This is the primary joy of slow travel. You get to savor as many types of site and sights but without the hectic fervor of a gallop. Slow travel is more of a canter. Slow travel allows for in depth exploration, the joy of serendipity as well as a relaxing and reviving vacation. The northwest of Ireland really lends itself to that sort of vacation experience. It’s a real holiday (holy day) and authentic experience of Ireland.
While many North American tourists look at a map and realise that Ireland is the size of Indiana, they don’t realise that in Fairy Ireland no road goes straight from A to B. You have to realise that most routes are as intricate, beautiful and surprising as a Celtic knot. So why would you try and dizzy yourself whirling around these ways when you could simply stop, look, stare, and soak up the spell of this country by taking a slow travel vacation.
John and I live in Northwest Ireland where the Slow Food and organic movements are well established. So, too, with both of us having seen much of what Ireland can offer the visit, we can recommend northwest Ireland as the best place for a slow travel experience. As John is quick to point out, in Sligo alone there are 3,000 ancient monuments. Sligo and Leitrim are the home to much of the action in Tuatha de Danaan lore. As one friend quipped, the pair of us could be a Come to the Sidhe Tourism Board! Without a doubt, the unspoiled environment and scenic beauty of northwest Ireland is very Fairy Ireland.
If the stones in this geological gem of Ireland could just speak! The limestone, sandstone, sedimentary rocks all can tell a story. It’s no little wonder that this region became the first international, cross-border global geopark. Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark takes in both built and natural heritage in counties Cavan and Fermanagh.
The place names of each townland are full of myth and legend. Tullydermot Falls, Co. Cavan in the photo right was one of the brief resting spots in the Flight of Grainne and Diarmuid. Diarmuid lost his life at Benwisken, Co. Sligo. Grainne, who returned to her husband Finn MacColl, is said to be buried on Sheebeg, Co. Leitrim.
The Tuatha de Danaan’s homeplace is in Co. Leitrim where they are said to have landed on Slieve Anieran. The Battle of Moytura where they were finally defeated is located on the Roscommon/Sligo boundary. What better place to contact the faerie than in Fairy Ireland homeland?
Northwest Ireland has stunning coastline that reveals the fossil record of this region. The whale backed drumlins march from the inland lakeland counties of Cavan, Leitrim and Fermanagh towards the Atlantic coast of Donegal and Sligo. The region offers thousands of ancient sites and monuments, relicts of Neolithic Ireland, peaceful roads to explore on footea or bicycle or by car. The region inspired poets and artists like William and Jack Yeats. It also educated literary giants like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.
Within a compact region that can easily be explored on day trips you can have the whole of the authentic Ireland vacation experience. To make it even more relaxing you won’t need to pack up everyday and sleep on a new pillow each night. You can breathe in the cleanest air in western Europe and sleep soundly after a day’s fairy hunting, communing with the land spirits, eating good food, and enjoying the genuine hospitality of this region’s locals.
The northwest of Ireland offers many byways, boreens and serendipitous left turns. It’s how we wound up setting here in the first place! Northwest Ireland definitely has the X Factor.
Bee Smith created Irish Blessings Tours to serve travellers to Ireland who want the unique and inspirational packaged for their group’s desires and needs. Bee seeks the source to manifest your dream Irish vacation according to your budget and time scale. She has a special interest in Fairy folklore, Celtic Spirituality and the Natural Heritage of northwestern Ireland and Northern Ireland. In 2011 Bee became one of the first trained tour guides that act at ambassadors for the UNESCO designated Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. Send her your dreams for your Ireland vacation package to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lovely Leitrim they call it on the welcome signs into the county and this small county promises some of the most unspoilt scenery in Ireland. For lovers of the beautiful Irish countryside Leitrim will never disappoint. For those of you who love Irish mythology you cannot miss visiting Slieve Anieran, or Iron Mountain, where the legendary Tuatha de Danaan first arrived in Ireland with their four gifts- Nuada’s sword, Lugh’s spear, Dagda’s cauldron and the stone of destiny.
So here are my top seven suggestions for things to see and do in Ireland.
1) Go fairy hunting on Slieve Anieran
This mountain ranges along the R207 between Drumshambo and Ballinagleragh with dramatic views of Lough Allen. Drive carefully over the minute track between Ballinamore and Ballinagleragh to the top of the mountain. The Leitrim Way will lead you up to a Mass Rock, where Catholics heard mass said during the days when practicing that faith was illegal.
2) Visit a Holy Well and Sweat House
Along the R207 at the foot of Slieve Anieran near the Lough Allen Adventure Centre is a sign leading to St. Aodh’s Holy Well. Holy wells are well maintained through out Ireland; holy wells are an atavism of the old Celtic spiritual reverence of nature, water in particular being regarded as sacred. Wells were venerated not just as having cures but also, coming underground, as being thin places or portals between this world and the spiritual world.
Leitrim and West Cavan are distinctive in having many examples of sweat houses. These were Irish country saunas. Turf was lit in the tiny stone structures and kept going for five house. The embers were raked and then wet rushes were put on top to create the steam. The Ballinagleragh Sweat House is interesting as there is a stream where you could plunge after your steam. Folklore says that they were used for arthritis, rheumatism and fever cures. But given Ireland’s climate why are they not wider spread throughout the island? Is this another gift that the Tuatha de Danaan brought with them and the tradition remained strong in the de Danaan homeplace?
3) The Costello Chapel in Carrick on Shannon
Reputedly the second smallest chapel in the world and certainly the smallest one in Ireland this minute place of worship was built as one Irishman’s Taj Mahal to a beloved wife. The gentleman who commissioned this chapel is laid to rest beside his wife, although outliving her by decades. A curiosity in terms of Victorian era monument making it is an interesting neo-Gothic piece of architecture.
The chapel is on the corner of Leitrim’s county town’s Main Street where it intersects Bridge Street, opposite the Market Yard where there is one of Ireland’s best Farmer’s Markets each Thursday.
4) Take to the Boats!
There is fine fishing in Lough Allen and the other lakes in the centre of the county. However, if angling is not your sport you can hire a narrowboat and putter along the Shannon Erne Waterway, exploring the stops along the network of canal locks until you enter Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. Ballinamore is a good base for narrowboat adventures.
But if you don’t have a week or even a weekend for slow travel you may fancy a shorter jaunt on the water. Carrick on Shannon’s Moon River Boat hosts many events during the high season. If you are a lover of Yeat’s poetry you may want to visit Parkes Castle and take a trip out to the Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, which inspired Yeats’ poem of that name.
5) Glencar Waterfalls and Lake
While on the subject of William Butler Lake’s it is worth mentioning another beauty spot that inspired his poem “The Stolen Child.” Up at the tip of North Leitrim close to the Sligo boundary is Glencar Waterfall. This peaceful spot is accessed from a turn off the N16 between Manorhamilton and Sligo. It is also a good fairy hunting spot so be sure to bring a little offering for the fairies and they may show themselves. Remember, they like chocolate! And shiny things like coins, but please do not toss coins into the the stream.
6) The Organic Centre
One comment I’ve heard about this garden is that it is always changing and evolving. A major training centre in Ireland promoting organic and sustainable living, the Organic Centre has polytunnels, orchard, willow nursery and woodland to explore. It’s distinctive grass roof and reed bed system shows that it walks its talk. Weekend courses are run year round and there is a shop where you can buy seeds, books and other useful garden equipment. A nursery provides vegetable, herb, shrub and flower plant stock, too.
7) The Séan Mac Diarmuida Memorial Cottage
Irish history lovers will not want to miss this historical monument to one of the 1916 signatories of Ireland’s Declaration of Independence. A native of Kiltyclogher, the family homeplace of Séan McDermott (or Mac Diarmuida) is now a small museum. You can find this by turning right off the N16 at the Rainbow Ballroom of Romance. There is a left hand turning posted on this road traveling through Glenfarne, one of Leitrim’s Seven Glens, towards Kiltyclogher. There is also a memorial in the centre of the village to their local hero.
There are many more things to see and do in Lovely Leitrim but these few pointers will put you on track to discover some of your own favourites no matter which part of the county you decide to explore.
You may have read about our Amazing Tribe of Fairy Cats. However, you have not yet been introduced to the little dog, which we latterly discovered is very much in tune with all things faerie. Little did we know that a Fairy Dog was about to be taken under the matronage of the Fairy Cat matriarch.
The little dog came in to our lives in quite a serendipitous way. And where there is whim and whimsy then you are getting closer to the fairies. He was found by a friend on a roundabout near Bundoran on New Year’s Day and he narrowly escaped being hit. This kindly person took him in once he ascertained with the Gardai that no one had reported him lost. Over the next three days it became clear that the puppy was profoundly deaf.
I can proudly say that I have real fairies for my closest neighbours. While the fairies dispersed throughout Ireland, I feel that the real fairies live close to their homeplace. Real fairies were originally the Tuatha de Danaan, a race of immortals that mixed with mortal inhabitants in Bronze Age Ireland. They shared their godlike qualities but, as is the way, conflict occurred. The Tuatha de Danaan, the children of the goddess Danu, won the first bout. But they were vanquished at the Second Battle of Moytura. The real fairy folk, the Tuatha de Danaan, headed back to the place where they had originally landed in Ireland. It was here that they they ‘went to ground’ and became the earth spirits that then dispersed throughout Ireland. But at their home place their presence is particularly potent.
Fairies don’t just come in the shape of the wee people. There are fairy cats, too. I should know because our own Zelda became the founding matriarch of the tribe of Fairy Cats. But let me give you a little bit of background. You might need to just temporarily suspend your disbelief in fairy cats.
Most of my regular readers probably know by this time that I live in the homeplace of Fairy Ireland. This is because we live within view of Slieve Anierin (Iron Mountain) in Leitrim where the Tuatha de Danaan, the original fairy race of Ireland, first set land fall in Ireland.
In the Ireland -land of mists and rainbows, holy wells and magical woods you enter the realm of fairy.
They are known by many names - ’thin places’, thresholds between the worlds, fairy portals, liminal spaces. Ireland has many power places that draw on how whisper thin is the division between ‘our world’ and the fairy world. Some people refer to the Good Folk as the Little People or leprechauns who have a rather jolly reputation. Fairies (or faeries) are earth elementals. They were originally the Tuatha de Danaan, the mythic people who lived in Old Ireland who, after being defeated by the invading Milesians at the Second Battle of Moytura, went to ground (or underground).
They are often referred to as the sidhe, pronounced shee. Everyone has probably heard and shuddered just to be reminded of the legend of the banshee, but really the word is just a transliteration of the Irish word for fairy woman.
The Tuatha de Danaan first appeared on Slieve Anieran on the Cavan/Leitrim border. After they were defeated the legend shows that they headed back to this part of Erin to their original homeplace. Being earth elementals it makes this part of Ireland particularly fertile fairy hunting ground.
The photo I’ve posted was taken in the Cavan Burren Forest, which is a part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which is the first international, cross-border park in the world to earn this UNESCO designation.
The Geopark is in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and County Fermanagh in the Republic of Ireland. The Cavan Burren Forest has many examples of Bronze Age and Iron Age megaliths, cairns, dolmens, portal tombs and wedge tombs.
Burren means stony place in Irish. The Cavan Burren has been had human occupation since the first hunter gatheers left evidence of their flint tools on the shore of Lough MacNean. The geology of the landscape – limesetone, sandstone, mudstone and other sedimentary rock makes for a wildishly beautiful scenery. Those early ancestors made amazing burials. Amidst the lush and biodiverse flora and fauna you are likely to sense those ‘earth elementals’ or fairies.
The Calf Hut dolmen is an example of how people have adapted and worked with the landscape. Landscape is never standing still. It’s a work in constant progress. This dolmen started out as a portal tomb with the entrance at what some would consider ‘the back’ of it. A farmer adapted this collapsed tomb as a shelter for when his cow calved. ‘Hence the name ‘calf hut.’
Walking around the Cavan Burren Forest, the sense of the ancients brushing up against us in our modern day is palpable.
And yet no other corner of this land
offers in shape and colour all I need
for sight to torch the mind with living light.
John Hewitt, 1907-1987, “The Glens”
I am blessed to live in the loveliest of places. The light here in this corner of the land of Ireland Is, as Hewitt writes, a living light that invites the experience of delight.
It is, I think, a place that will remain largely untouched by the rollercoaster of progress. It offers me its shape- the rolling hills and drumlins- and the colour – ever changing – for the insight I long to receive and express.
In folk tales of Ireland it is told that the magical people called the Tuatha de Danaan arrived on the mountain where I look out at each morning from our small cottage living room window. Slieve Anierin, or Iron Mountain, is a magical landscape, especially in the early morning when the mist rises from the earth as the sun moves to bless the land with warmth.
The Tuatha de Danaan were called the Shining Ones and the exemplify the living light in the land. As the legend tells us, after being defeated at Moytura they literally went to ground and live in the fairy forts and raths that are scattered over the Irish landscape. The legacy of their magical light which is heart felt is especially strong in this part of the world.
The purpose of taking a vacation, or holiday (holy day) as we call it in Ireland, is to connect with a sense of wholeness. A vacation or holiday offers the possibility to see the beauty within yourself. It occurs on a day when you feel whole and the shape and colours of your life are reflected all around you. I
The part of Ireland has the pervasive spirit of those Beautiful People the Tuatha de Danaan who were driven underground. That is a metaphor that resonates with many a person’s life story. Many people find that they lock away their own light. If you decide to have a wholistic holiday or vacation, the attitude one journeys with can become infused by the living light of this place, and inspire you with delight. Delight is a great souvenir.
The ability to see the living light requires that you receive your sight. The eye of the heart looks onto Creation and is said most aptly by American poet e.e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping green spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes.
e.e. cummings is looking through the experience of the living light. This moves from inside out. I requires a certain kind of stillness of mind and a certain kind of willingness to be colourful.
I invite you to come to this corner of Ireland so that it might offer you what you need. What we all need in these changing times is a kind of certainty. There can be certainty experienced within the journey to who we are as the wonder tale that is a living light.
This storyteller will tell you that this living light is all around you waiting for you to see it and feel it and be it. Some places invite your awareness of this living light more than others. Such is the corner of this island of Ireland where I live in awe of the amazing shapes and colours; all that is needed is for me to have the sight and allow that living light to touch my mind and delight my heart.