Secret Ireland: Leitrim & Roscommon
Pól Ó Conghaile gets back to nature and discovers Ireland’s very own Taj Mahal in the Lakelands.
The wilderness therapy
"When you pull back the nettles and rushes there's some amazing stuff in Leitrim," says Kevin Currid of Lough Allen Adventure Centre.
He's not kidding.
Participants on his wilderness therapy experiences not only pull nettles back -- they cook them and eat them too.
Paddling away from the rat race, they go on to learn lost arts such as fire making, navigation and shelter building, while camping on an island on the lake.
"We suggest leaving the mobile phones behind," Kevin says. "They complain at first, but they come back loving it."
I get a taste of the therapy when Eamonn Briel -- Leitrim's answer to Ray Mears -- shows me how to create fire by striking a flint off steel into a firelighter made of egg carton, wax and a larch cone.
After firing off the sparks, I bend down, blow into a little nest of strip wood and try to coax the flames up through the kindling.
It's a primal feeling -- man makes fire. Booyaka!
Afterwards, we tuck into a nettle, chorizo and onion stew, washed down with an earthy mug of tea drawn from dandelion roots. It's all surprisingly tasty.
Sure, you'll be caked in mud and stink of campfire.
But a trip into the great outdoors like this is fundamentally reinvigorating, you get to use cool knives and hatchets, and life is brought back to the basics -- shelter, warmth and food. Therapy is the word, all right.
Details From €60pp per day. Tel: 071 964 3292; loughallen adventure.com.
Love's little temple
The last thing I'm expecting to find in a corner of Carrick-on-Shannon, squeezed between a pair of pubs on Bridge Street, is a souvenir-sized version of the Taj Mahal.
But that's exactly what Costello Chapel is: a monument to love. The chapel was built by local merchant Edward Costello after the death of his wife, Mary, in 1877, and the couple continue to rest beneath glass panels today, their coffins on full view to the public.
It's an extraordinary attraction, more a tabernacle than a temple, and capable of holding six people at most at the same time.
The coffins themselves lie beneath a single stained-glass window, cracking with decay, as if vampires would emerge at any minute.
Details Free. 9am-6pm. See mycarrick.ie.
The Arigna Miner's Way
Coal mining was a back-breaking feature of the Arigna landscape for some 400 years, as the brilliant Arigna Mining Experience illustrates. Its legacy goes beyond the underground gashes and tunnels, too, spreading right across a network of paths in the surrounding mountains.
The Arigna Miner's Way is a 112km route tracing the old tracks from Arigna to Dowra, but there are plenty of shorter stretches, including an 8km route from the mining experience itself to Kilronan Castle.
It begins with a super panorama over Lough Allan, and proceeds downhill (mostly!) along the mountain, passing Keadue and Lough Meelagh, before hitting the hotel.
Kilronan is a luxury stop, so if you're looking to rest up while connecting with the old mining culture, try the Miner's Bar in Arigna. It's a spit-and-sawdust kind of place, and I step inside to find ex-miners chatting on barstools, and walls plastered in old paintings, photos and newspaper headlines from the heyday. "A commitment to hardship" reads one apt example.
Details €10/€6. See irishtrails.ie; arignaminingexperience.ie.
The forest canopy adventure
It's not every day you get to cycle a BMX through a forest canopy.
That's exactly what I find myself doing at Zipit, an aerial obstacle course threaded through the trees at Lough Key Forest Park. Clipping into the safety wire overhead, I sit up on to the saddle, take a deep breath and pedal down a boardwalk -- 10m in the air.
Zipit is a new addition to the brilliant suite of lakeside activities here, formed by two Irish families who got a brainwave while holidaying in France.
You'll find other aerial trekking courses in Ireland, but nothing of this scale, this integrated into a forest and using this harnessing safety system.
You pull on a harness and gloves and proceed to an initiation trail. After learning the ropes, you set off on a 1.3km series of trails, which are staggered according to age and ability and throw up obstacles from Tarzan ropes and a 150m zip line to the BMX ride. Get ready to sweat adrenaline.
Details €15 (age seven-11), €20 (age 12-14), €25 (age 15+). Tel: 051 858008; zipit.ie.
The Shannon's source
Leitrim may have the shortest coastline in Ireland, but its lakes are second to none.
Driving around Lough Allen, I pass holy wells at Ballinaglera, Drumshanbo's Sliabh an Iarainn centre and fishermen casting off at Spencer Harbour, before meandering towards the Shannon Pot.
Lying near Dowra at the northern end of the lake, this little pool is said to be the source of the River Shannon, formed when Sionnan of the Tuatha De Danaan attempted to eat its salmon of knowledge.
When Sionnan approached, legend says, the Shannon Pot sprang up to overwhelm her, bursting its willowy banks and bearing her south towards the Atlantic Ocean.
"Another explanation is much simpler," as Aiveen Cooper writes in her book, 'River Shannon' (Collins Press; €19.99). "It attributes the name to the Irish for 'Old River', or Sean Abhainn."
Details See discoverireland.ie/ Leitrim.
As winter warmers go, a slow-cooked daube of beef, gooey with gravy and flanked by crusty cubes of garlic potatoes, root vegetables and tangy red onion (€11), takes some beating. It's the kind of lunch that will either put you to sleep or set you up for the afternoon.
I'm eating at Conor and Ronan Maher's Oarsman pub in Carrick-on-Shannon, where most of the ingredients are sourced within 60km of the table.
The room is encouragingly full at 1pm on a Thursday, too, despite most of the cruising community being in hibernation.
In truth, you could come in here at any time of the year and find rich comfort. A big stove, lashings of dark wood, smiling staff and fresh flowers on the tables all add to the atmosphere, and other humdingers on the menu range from sautéed king prawns with Carraig na Breac smoked bacon to breaded haddock fillets battered in Galway Hooker ale.
Details Tel: 071 962 1733; theoarsman.com.
The overnight suggestion
Frances McDonagh speeds up her stone driveway with exciting news. Bridie the hen has just had a chick. She whisks me off to see it, an ink-black creature hiding beneath its mother's wing in the coop. Buttercup, her Dalmatian, bounds along beside us.
Welcome to Lough Key House, where Frances not only keeps hens, dogs, horses, donkeys, sheep and guinea fowl, but also grows her own salads and makes her own jams.
The results are on the breakfast menu, from a farm-egg omelette to pancakes covered in crispy bacon and acacia honey.
If the 200-year-old house itself seems familiar, it's because Frances was last year visited by John and Francis Brennan for an episode of their makeover show, 'At Your Service'. "I only had a trickle of customers before that," she tells me. The Brennan brothers advised her to do dinner on Saturday nights, and to cater for groups, both of which have helped boost business.
The interiors are busily furnished, with antique writing desks and old-fashioned bath tubs complemented by quirky details like sweet jars in the rooms. PVC windows are a jarring inheritance from a previous owner, though they do keep the place warm.
Pick of the six rooms are to the front of the house.
Details B&B from €42.50pps. Tel: 071 966 2161; loughkeyhouse.com.
Footsteps to the Famine
Moseying around Carrick-on-Shannon, I notice a curious trail of footprints in the pavement. The bare feet of a mother and child are encased in bronze plaques which can be followed all the way to a famine graveyard and restored workhouse attic at St Patrick's Hospital.
I get to the bottom of the mystery in the town's heritage centre.
Tell Helen or Noeleen here that you're following the trail, and they'll meet you at the end of it with a key to the old workhouse. Proceed up several flights of stairs and a door opens into a sparse vision of whitewashed walls, rough floorboards and the odd clothes peg -- a men's dorm straight from the 1840s.
Some 1,896 people died at the fever hospital here during the Famine, and those who lived slept on straw, separated from their families, and watched the population of Leitrim plummet by 41,000 in just 10 years.
A video installation by Alanna O'Kelly makes for stark viewing, too.
Details St George's Church; €5/€3. Tel: 071 962 1757.