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Ireland's Lake District
William Wordsworth put Cumbria on the literary and tourist map, defining that region as the Lake District. Ireland has a Lake District, too, although none of its literary heroes or heroines have waxed eloquent about the lakes to such an extent that the branding has stuck. So, too, is the issue of whether Fermanagh in Northern Ireland is the Lakeland county, or Cavan, with its claim to have a lake for every day in the year.
What is perfectly true is that these border counties, with Fermanagh in Northern Ireland and Cavan in the Republic of Ireland have a wealth of lakes, small and large, as well as the Shannon-Erne Waterway. These counties abound in cruiser, narrow boats, kayaks, currachs and canoes!
It only seems polite to start with Lough Erne. There is both an upper and lower Lough Erne and the more southerly one is counter intuitively the upper lough. The name Erne is derived from Eriu, the goddess whose name evolved into Erin, the Gaelic name for Ireland. The Lough Erne Golf resort hosted the G8 summit in 2013, with world leaders looking out on a serene spectacle of water and mountains.
There are many islands in the loughs. In medieval times this waterway was the prefered travel route and many monastic sites were created along its shores and upon its islands. Devenish Island was a monastic settlement founded by St. Molaise. From Easter until September boats cruise for tours of the island, which include the best example of a round tower in Ireland. These tours start from Enniskillen, itself the only island town in the UK. In Enniskillen there is a certain pride if you can say that your were born 'between the bridges' on the actual island part of the town.
Close to the Waterways Ireland national headquarters in Enniskillen, a community group took it upon themselves to hand build a currach, a traditional boat that would have plied its way up and down the Erne for time immemorial. 'Row the Erne' does charity work, but apart from getting people out on the Erne, the building of the craft cements cross-community relationships.
The Shannon-Erne Waterway was part of an ambitious scheme first thought of in the 18th century; the aim was to connect the great lakes of Ireland - the largest, Lough Neagh, to the Shannon via the Erne. While that grand plan never bore fruit, today you can travel from Lower Lough Erne, down to Upper Lough Erne and enter the connecting canal that links Fermanagh with county Cavan. You can travel through Cavan towns like Ballyconnell through a system of locks, all the way to county Leitrim, where you can berth your cruiser in Leitrim village. Here is the link with the River Shannon.
Lough Erne rises in Co. Cavan at Beaghy Lough,near Stradone. However, this is not the only international lake. Lough MacNean (which also has an upper and lower identity) straddles the Fermanagh and Cavan borders, with a bridge crossing between the upper and lower reaches, forming the international boundary. Lough MacNean is particularly known for hosting summer swimming classes in Belcoo. Generations of children have learned to swim here in classes instigated by the redoubtable wife of the Church of Island canon of Blacklion, over the border in Cavan. Belcoo, on the northern side of the bridge, is well known for Christmas 'Polar Bear' swims to raise funds for charity.
County Cavan has a unique geological feature that forms the odd 'fingers' and tributaries of Lough Oughter. The county has the largest 'ribbed morraine' on the planet, although it is only visible from the air. It is this geological formation, transverse ridges run across the central Cavan valley, that creates a unique lakeland landscape around Lough Oughter. Lough Oughter spills into these folds creating one of the finest canoe trails in Ireland.
Unsurprisingly, anglers are drawn to the counties, and competitions abound. Yet, while I was walking along the Enniskillen jetty this summer, I spotted many cruisers relaxing in the sunshine, reading and sipping tea.
It is indisputable. There is something about a lake that is very soothing to the spirit. Whether you emulate the patience of a heron with your fishing rod, paddle down the byways of Lough Oughter, cruise along the many islands and on toward the mighty Shannon, Ireland's Lake District gives Wordworth's daffodils a run for their money.
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