Blacklion safari

An Irishman’s Diary on the hidden charms of Cavan and Fermanagh

“The ‘Shannon Pot’ – reputed birthplace of the great river. This is of course a well-known attraction, albeit one I had never managed to see before. And until then, I was still labouring under the misapprehension that the Shannon does indeed originate there, ie in Cavan. But – this just in – I can now reveal that the river actually rises in Northern Ireland.”

“The ‘Shannon Pot’ – reputed birthplace of the great river. This is of course a well-known attraction, albeit one I had never managed to see before. And until then, I was still labouring under the misapprehension that the Shannon does indeed originate there, ie in Cavan. But – this just in – I can now reveal that the river actually rises in Northern Ireland.”

Fri, May 16, 2014, 01:00

To suggest that it was Neven Maguire who put Blacklion on the map would be an injustice to the cartographers of the Ordnance Survey, who delineated that part of darkest Cavan almost two centuries ago.

Even so, I made my own expedition up there recently, armed only with a gift voucher for the celebrated MacNean Restaurant, where the aforementioned Maguire holds court. And although food was the main excuse for it, the whole trip was a voyage of discovery.

I’ll come back to the wonders of the chef’s tasting menu some other time, when I’m better qualified to describe them. But as well as dispensing high-class food and hospitality, the MacNean staff are also zealots for the cause of local tourism.

Thus, before we left, we were urged by the front-of-house lady not to miss a visit to the nearby “Cavan Burren”. “The what?” I said. She assured me I’d heard correctly. Was it like the Clare Burren, I wondered. “Even better!” she said.

The Cavan Burren is indeed a limestone plateau, like the Clare one, although it looks very different, having more greenery and none of the paved fields. It is, however, littered with ice-age boulders, rock art, and ancient grave markers.

The area has been described as a “multilayered palimpsest” (I was nearly sure we’d had one of those for dessert the night before) of natural and human history. And I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t alone in my prior ignorance of its existence.

The official website says its importance is only “now beginning to be recognised”. So it’s also only now being developed for visitors, with walking paths provided in an area that can still otherwise be described, without exaggeration, as unspoiled.

A bonus of this new Burren, as we discovered on the way back, is the dramatic views across the Loughs MacNean, upper and lower – another contender for the title “Killarney of the North”.

After that, still in the neighbourhood of Blacklion, we visited the “Shannon Pot” – reputed birthplace of the great river. This is of course a well-known attraction, albeit one I had never managed to see before. And until then, I was still labouring under the misapprehension that the Shannon does indeed originate there, ie in Cavan. But – this just in – I can now reveal that the river actually rises in Northern Ireland. According to the information display at the Shannon Pot, recent water-tracing experiments show that the pool is fed by several sources from Cuilcagh Mountain, “the farthest of which is a stream that sinks into the Pigeon Pots, over 10km away in Fermanagh!”

Even now, I’m still trying to absorb the political implications of this news. Among other things, it means that the Shannon rises somewhat nearer the source of another of Fermanagh’s natural wonders, the McConnell family of Bellanaleck, famous in Irish music and journalism circles.

Their members included the late, much-missed Sean of this newspaper; Cathal, of the Boys of the Lough; and Cormac, with whom I had the misfortune of sharing a bill once at a literary event. My mistake was to speak after him, because he delivered his talk, unscripted but unhesitating, with a combination of professorial authority and the wit of a stand-up comedian. It was depressing enough to have to follow him even before he rounded it off with a pitch-perfect song that lifted the audience’s hearts while causing mine to sink.

But it was of a fourth McConnell brother that the Shannon revelation particularly reminded me – Mickey, composer of the classic ballad, Only Our Rivers Run Free. Written in 1965, the song is a lament for Ireland, using images of impossibility from nature (“When apples still grow in November, when blossom remains on each tree/When leaves are still green, it’s then that our land will be free”) to express the frustration of the disenfranchised.

As to its central motif, the political subversiveness of Irish rivers, the writer can hardly have realised then the full truth of his words – that Ireland’s main waterway was engaged in a secret rising, just down the road. Anyway, still reeling from the news that the Shannon is a cross-border body of water, I followed its path, roughly, into Fermanagh, en route to visiting the Marble Arch caves.

These are now proclaimed, along with the wonders of the neighbouring jurisdiction, as part of an “international geo-park”. But I’ve already run out of space describing the unsuspected delights of Northwest Cavan. Like Neven Maguire’s tasting menu, the Fermanagh caves will have to wait another day.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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