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Cavan: Land of lakes and mysteries

Cavan has a rugged charm, with pristine waters and pure local produce, discovers Paul Connolly

One of Ireland's loveliest counties is tucked just to our south, an delightful gem waiting to be explored.

County Cavan nestles along the flanks of Fermanagh, its charms perhaps not always fully appreciated.

“An Cabhan” is an old Irish word meaning “The Hollow” – and as so often in folklore, it really does say a lot about the place.

People, produce, lakes, mountains and a certain serenity are what Cavan yields to the inquiring visitor. It has a marvellous series of waterways which extends south from the Fermanagh lakeland, but are less busy, more calming and perhaps more mysterious.

There is of course, more to this land-locked county than water. Its hills and mountains are alive with rhyme and history, and none more so than mystical The Cavan Burren, part of the Marble Arch Caves Geopark which is in turn a UNESCO-endorsed global geopark.

The Cavan Burren – the name suggests the karst topography similar to Co Clare's The Burren,  shrouds a lovely limestone plateau set around 800 feet just south of Blacklion.

It's been described “relict' landscape, a surviving remnant, almost sacred, strewn with glacial features from the last ice age, and with a dry valley that pre-dates even that epoch.

Almost unbelievably, looking back, the area's magical rocks, fauna and Neolithic tombs went unrecognised by all but locals for many years.  The planting of a coniferous forest in the 1950s and Northern Ireland-related political instability didn't help, but neither fully explain the disinterest. Whatever the reason, the inertia has now gone: the powers that be have no recognised its beauty and importance.

Time stands still here: fossils peek from limestone, mosses drip dew from ancient burial tombs, when the wind in the lower valleys you can almost imagine yourself in a prehistoric time-warp.

These limestone fossils are, incredibly,  the coral of a tropical sea of 350 million years ago.

Due to its unique loveliness, The Burren is now the subject of much interest. The views across five counties are breath-taking.  Money has been spent and much care lavished on its development. There is now a lovely visitor's centre, accessible trails, and rumours of a future smuggler's trail link across the hills to nearby Fermanagh. In time, it will become one of Cavan's best-known assets.

Down from the mountain, we pushed on into Cavan's lakeland, and had the luxury of spending a morning with Cavan Canoe Centre, run by canoeist and farmer Sean Thornton.

The lakes had expanded by millions of gallons thanks to recent heavy rain, now ended. They rose beyond the usual waters' edge and a lakes soaked in a deep blue from the sky.

We chose a boat trip to Cloughoughter Castle, a round tower keep and the last outpost in the region to fall to Cromwell's armies in 1653.  Our guides regaled us with tales of local history and derring-do. And they spoke with pride of the sensitive environment regulations that keep the waters pristine for lake denizens like pike.

Cavan is known as fishing country,  and rightly so, its well-stocked waters have been attracting in particular German, French and English anglers for decades, but there's so much more that lakeland offers, and the Cavan Canoe is a fine example. Canoeists can lose themselves for days amidst its islands and byways.

If Cavan's land and water is pure, its produce must be too. And this is a county with some of the finest in Ireland.

The land and the produce shape our chefs, and Cavan has perhaps the finest to emerge from Ireland in the shape of Neven Maguire, whose MacNean House and Bistro just yards from the Fermanagh border at Blacklion serves up some of the finest cuisine in these islands.

The celebrity chef himself is a tour de force, with an eye for detail, a passion for quality and a deep love of his native county and his people. He makes food that is of and from the earth of the region, using its seasons and flavours with creative energy.

Sitting in the lovely rooms of MacNean, Neven is engaging but modest; passionate about quality, and with an easy charm that belies a sharp business brain. He could have upped sticks and built an empire in Dublin but remains deeply committed to his native county.

“What makes Cavan for me,” he says, “is the people and the community. It's all about working together and supporting each other.

“For me as a chef, you're only as good as the produce you use. Everything comes in from about an hour to an hour and a half away from the restaurant. It's local and seasonal.”

As well as rooms and restaurant and its own vegetable garden, MacNean now has a cookery school where students can learn the secrets of fine dining.

Incidentally, if you're passing through hungry and haven't a booking at MacNean, stop off at the Customs House country inn across the bridge in Belcoo, Fermanagh for a lovely, friendly lunch with rooms to stay.

Another fine dining stop-off for the visitor could be The Olde Post Inn at Cloverhill, a lovely relaxed restaurant dating from the early 1800s that combines Cavan's easy-going charm with good food and great hospitality.  If you're staying at the Slieve Russell Hotel, that grand dame of the Cavan hotel scene, the Old Post is within easy striking distance and well worth the visit.

The Slieve Russell is an institution, set in acres of beautiful Cavan countryside, and lavished with every care, attention and facility modern visitors could care for. You could spend hours on its grounds and its golf courses; the gym and pool and much more.

The rooms are cavernous; dressed in a sumptuous way that lends a guilty-but-you-deserve-it feeling of decadence to each night's sleep.

History may not be everyone's thing, but a new exhibit at Cavan County Museum is a winner with adults and kids. It's the largest World War One trenches exhibition in the British Isles and is a brilliant way to lose an afternoon and experience form (almost) real life in the trenches.

It's a major initiative and one that is leading many in the south to confront historical shibboleths about hidden family histories and the role of Irish men in service of the Crown all those years ago.

In some ways it sums up this lovely county: enticing, mysterious and deeper than you think.

Factfile:

Paul Connolly was a guest of This Is Cavan, staying at the Slieve Russell hotel.

You'll find more information from these websites:

www.thisiscavan.ie

www.slieverussell.ie

www.theoldepostinn.com

www.macneanrestaurant.com

www.cavanmuseum.ie

www.cavancanoeing.com

www.cavanburren.ie

www.customshouseinn.com

Newly-developed Cavan Burren Park near Blacklion is one of many new geo-tourism sites in Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo by the Border Uplands Project under the EU INTERREG IVA Programme.

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