On the first weekend in May a sea of gold and green jerseys descended upon the Big Apple, as Gaelic Park hosted New York versus Leitrim. But when the dust has settled, bar stools emptied, and flights returned, those left behind might ponder what kind of place Leitrim is?
There’s a romance about Leitrim, its scenery, its heritage, its people. For those who leave, it can irresistibly draw you back. It was years before I made my way back from London into its arms but back I came along the lake road that weaves round Lough Gill, past Parkes castle to Dromahair. If you’re lucky you might meet the bearded wild goats that come down from the mountains to drink from the lake.
As I speak with Michael Gallagher and Paul Ferguson, who both spent time in the UK, I ask them what makes it special. They agree it is the unspoilt land ideal to rear a family. Michael in his 60’s a sheep farmer, in Kiltyclogher adds.
“We are like salmon, we all make our own way home in the end.”
In this, the year of The Gathering, Leitrim is a “must see” for tourists, some of whom are coming home for the first time.
First stop is one of Leitrim’s adopted sons writer John MacGahern of Amongst Women fame. The John McGahern International Seminar, 23rd to 25th May in the Bush Hotel Carrick on Shannon, named after a watering stop where travellers once tied weary animals.
Carrick on Shannon perched on the counties finest waterway, celebrates “Carrick 400’ festival this year, hosts many family friendly events to mark the towns formation.
A stroll round town gives you a flavor of the place. The Dock Theatre; an old courthouse; the Costello Chapel - the smallest chapel in Ireland and second smallest in the world. A labor of love of one man for his wife, she was buried under glass within the chapel until his death when he could join her.
Many a love story started at the iconic Ballroom of Romance in Glenfarne, inspiring William Trevor’s book and subsequent film. You imagine the bicycles parked outside in its heyday. The ballroom stars in the Glenfarne gala festival August 1st to 5th, with an itinerary including a climb up Thur Mountain, Fishing competitions, and heritage night. An unmissable sports day has log throwing, turf cutting, essential tannoy system and ‘tallest man on the field’ competition.
A few miles down the road is Glencar waterfall on the Sligo border and countryside that inspired Yeats poetry “to the waters and the wild…” is one of the jewels in the crown of Leitrim, which recently has been making a name in walking festivals and ecotourism. There is a proud tradition too of fresh water swimming lessons in lakes round these parts.
The Leitrim landscape is speckled with signs of resistance and heartbreak, the county ravaged by famine and emigration, with mass rocks and ruins. The hills gave birth to 1916 leader Sean Mac Diarmada, his statue overlooking Kiltyclogher, cottage lovingly nurtured by locals there to visit. Many Irish workhouses were erased for hospital buildings.
Prin Duignan, Manorhamilton historian recalls the “stigma” of the workhouse. He was however moved to research that assistance came from Native Americans in a poignant act of kindness. “Giving something from people who had nothing to give.”
The Cholera hospital still stands and heart rendering ‘paupers’ graveyard beside it under scenic hills, is in Duignans view the most visited place in Manorhamilton. The South Leitrim workhouse attic has been restored on hospital grounds in Carrick on Shannon.
The famine graveyards now memorial garden was part sponsored by the New York Leitrim society, and visitors are asked to bring a stone for a cairn that will be mounted, a symbol of healing.
Back talking with Michael and Paul they remind you that Leitrim has some of the best fishing in Ireland.
Paul Ferguson a fisherman, lights up telling you of the abundant wild salmon in Leitrim the first salmon of the year caught there, while a trout species traced back to the Ice age is unique to Lough Melvin. Local angling clubs he says are delighted to bring visitors out.
And for the future of Lovely Leitrim? Dark storm clouds forming, Paul and Michael make reference to what they see the biggest threat to Leitrim and Ireland from proposed gas mining or Fracking.
Paul says, “Leitrim hasn’t changed in the last 100 years and I am not going to go about changing it, and no one that loves the place and people would want that either”
You walk away and ponder the spirit that is Leitrim, wrapped up in its football, people, scenery and heritage knowing that this is exactly what so many think of Ireland, and maybe why we love it so much.