Ireland’s least populous county is an off-radar antidote to crowded staycations. The middle-of-nowhereness of it all is perfect for slow, off-season travel
You could fit the entire population of Co Leitrim into one side of Croke Park.
Just 32,000 souls, give or take, live around the towns, farms, lakes, mountains and rivers of this beautiful, elusive county. Maybe that’s one reason the rest of us know so little about it. It feels like Ireland’s Lost World.
The thought struck me as I paddled through the ‘Shamazon’ a few years ago — as some locals call parts of the canal near Drumshanbo, with its tunnels of trees silencing the outside world. It strikes me again on this visit, as I venture across the floating boardwalk on Acres Lake.
“There are so many backroads in Leitrim,” says Eileen Gibbons of Electric Bike Trails, as we pedal together along a section of the Shannon Blueway. We set out in fair weather, and end up dashing through a torrential downpour. In that moment, it feels like the Shamazon rainforest.
Drumshanbo is a name better-known these days, thanks to a brand spearheading Ireland’s gin boom. Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin is produced in the town, and a new visitor experience and café opened in the old Lairds jam factory during the pandemic —The Shed Distillery.
“Nothing’s done by chance,” says guide Shane Cronogue. “Nothing’s done just to look pretty; there’s a rhyme and reason to everything here.”
A slickly produced tour moves from glistening stills to whiskey tasters and a testing lab, bigging up the “tabernacle of botanicals” that infuse the gin, from Chinese gunpowder tea to local meadowsweet. It ends with a cocktail under a glass roof in the Honey Badger Bar. One reason the distillery is based in Drumshanbo is that the parents of PJ Rigney, who dreamt up the brand, went on an early date in the town.
“Going to school here, I never would have thought you could have a distillery in Drumshanbo,” Deputy Manager Michael Cassidy tells me. Yet here it is, and it’s producing whiskey and vodka too. The animal on the gin’s blue, apothecary-style bottles, by the way, is a jackalope — a mysterious rabbit/antelope hybrid said to have been conceived in a lightening storm. “Maybe after a few whiskeys you’ll see them bouncing around the place,” he winks.
That cheeky mix of legend and landscape is a perfect fit for Leitrim. It reminds me of the fairies of Sheemore and Sheebeg, or the dobhar-chú — a monstrous, half-dog/ half-otter said to haunt Glenade Lake. I’m travelling in the off-season, and the county feels both wild and peaceful. Waterfalls like Poll an Easa, Glencar and Fowley’s Falls churn a powerful, peaty brown as they thunder down from the hills, and my imagination is free to drift as I drive, wondering what stories lie behind names like Arroo Mountain, or Sliabh an Iarainn (The Iron Mountain).
“The Ha’penny bridge in Dublin came out of that mountain,” says Michael Glancy, a taxi driver who takes me for a tour. “At least, that’s what they taught us in school.”
One of my favourite pieces of travel writing is an article on Leitrim by author DBC Pierre, who was 40 before he even knew the county existed. After his first visit, he was so impressed, he moved there for several years. “It was a landscape from a dream, unmanicured, informal, raffish and intimate in its beauty, changing textures all the time,” he writes. “If Kew Gardens were the grand salon of a mansion, this would be its teenager’s bedroom.”
To me, it feels like old and new Ireland squeezed into the same patchwork of fields and towns. One moment, I marvel at mosaic-tiled shopfronts like Geraghty’s in Carrick-on-Shannon, or pass the husks of old ballrooms like the Mayflower near Drumshanbo, or Glenfarne’s Rainbow Ballroom of Romance (now home to a showband experience). The next, I’m torn between a choice of Drumshanbo vodka gravlax and deep-fried Leitrim Hill goat’s cheese at The Red Bank Restaurant. On Saturday night, you could find yourself dodging rowdy stag parties in Carrick. On Sunday, it feels like I am the only outsider in the pub.
But all the while, it is laid-back; nobody I meet is rushing or pushing things on me. At Osta, a tasty café in Manorhamilton’s W8 Centre, I chat to a waitress who has moved from Montana and is doing up a remote cottage with her husband. She’s not the first blow-in drawn to the romantic, middle-of-nowhereness of it all.
Tina Pommer is another. Originally from Germany, she’s a forager and dog whisperer (“I help people with dog problems, or maybe I should say dogs with people problems”), and we meet for a nature walk by Fowley’s Falls. Here, a dipper pops into the pummelling water as we forage, smelling the roots of wood sorrel and spotting some late meadowsweet.
“It’s giving us a glimpse of the kind of rainforest we might have if we didn’t cut the lawns,” Tina laughs, before we repair to the nearby Organic Centre for a glass of apple juice fresh from the press.
“I have German friends, and it was in their schoolbooks that Glencar and Glenade were very typical, glacial U-shaped valleys,” says Nuala McNulty, who owns Tawnylust Lodge and meets me for a short hike on the Arroo trail with her partner, Paul.
The drive from Manorhamilton to Kinlough, near Leitrim’s tiny, 4km coastline (yes, it has one) is a symphony of late autumn leaves, rippled lakes, and views as far as Donegal Bay and Classiebawn. ‘Arroo’ comes from ‘Aradh’, the Irish term for ridged hill or ladder, I learn, as we are bombarded by hail, blinded by sun and wowed by rainbows, all within minutes.
Paul and Nuala met at the Ballroom of Romance, I learn, as we head next for the dramatic, free-standing tower that is Eagle’s Rock. Paul is another blow-in, a Dub coming from Ireland’s most populous county to its least.
“You learn to live by a different rhythm in Leitrim,” he says.
You learn to travel that way too.
The Organic Centre in Rossinver is a charity and social enterprise open to visitors, as well as for courses and workshops. The gardens, café and sustainable shop are a lovely pit stop near Lough Melvin. theorganiccentre.ie
The Bush Hotel is a cosy three-star at the heart of Carrick-on Shannon, and Lough Rynn is the castle hotel where Brian O’Driscoll and Amy Huberman had their wedding reception. Ard Nahoo and Tawnylust Lodge offer eco-friendly stays near Manorhamilton. enjoyleitrim.com
In Carrick, Conor and Ronan Maher’s Oarsman is one of Ireland’s great gastro pubs, and The Red Bank is a warm space working wonders with Irish ingredients. In Manorhamilton, plan pit stops at Osta at W8 and the Wild Rose Bakery.
Pól was a guest of Leitrim Tourism