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There aren’t many people in Leitrim, but that just means the locals are friendlier. It’s one of Ireland’s smallest counties and has the lowest population – but also the longest waterway, the most peaceful atmosphere and some of the most welcoming pubs.
The best way to explore County Leitrim is in a boat. The Shannon and the Erne rivers were linked up in 1994 to create nearly 500 miles of waterway, through canals, rivers and lakes all around the county. It’s possible to cruise for days along the Shannon-Erne Waterway without backtracking and find riverside pubs and restaurants, tiny picturesque villages and spectacular mountain scenery. The waterway has 34 stone bridges and 16 locks along its navigation and there are marinas and mooring spots at very regular intervals.
Lough Allen dominates the centre of Leitrim while Lough Melvin to the north marks the border with the UK. Next to Lough Melvin is the Aghavoghil Bog, a peatland with some rare fauna and flora, although it can be hard to access.
County Leitrim was controlled by the O’Reilly clan in Dromahair until the arrival of the Norman invaders in the 13th century. Carrick Castle was captured by Robert the Bruce in his battles with the English. The county was earmarked for English and Scottish plantation settlers in the 16th century and Carrick-on-Shannon was established as the county town in 1607 by King James I, with other settlements springing up including the Parke's Castle.
But the planters struggled with Leitrim’s soil and during the Irish famines of the 19th century, County Leitrim was very badly affected, losing around a quarter of the population in 10 years to starvation and emigration. The county was put back on the map by Irish poet WB Yeats, who was a frequent visitor to Leitrim and was inspired by the Glencar Waterfall.
The Shannon-Erne Waterway is the biggest attraction in County Leitrim, with cruisers available to hire at Carrick-on-Shannon and other towns for a long trip. Those who prefer to sleep on dry land can still enjoy the water – Lough Allen is the place to go for kayaking and white water rafting in the nearby rivers. The abundance of trout and salmon make the county a haven for anglers. Hillwalking is another popular activity, from Ballinaglera, Ballinamore and along the Leitrim Way, while cyclists can find the Kingfisher Trail and the North West Trail in Manorhamilton. Golf courses can be found near the larger towns.
Artists have long had an affinity for Leitrim, from the poetry of Yeats to the traditional Irish music of Carrick-on-Shannon, which hosts several festivals a year celebrating music and literature. There are also several craft centres around the county, working in crystal, sculpture and organic materials. Carrick-on-Shannon is the place to find most major shops, although the port of Sligo just to the north-west of Leitrim may offer more choice for mainstream purchases.
They say they sell land by the gallon in Leitrim, and the Shannon-Erne Waterway is certain to be a highlight of any visit. The relaxed pace of life and warm welcome from locals means County Leitrim is a great holiday destination.