Fermanagh: the overlooked Northern Irish county bursting with things to do | Travel
There is a moment in Ozark, the brilliant Netflix drama series about a dodgy accountant forced to launder money for a drug cartel, when the main character reveals a plan to relocate to the lakes in Missouri and invest in an area that has, as he puts it, “more shoreline than the entire coast of California”.
The notion is that the expansive shore is an overlooked and underdeveloped resource in which the primal human joy to be found in proximity to expanses of water could be better exploited. It echoes my own thoughts about Fermanagh, the most westerly county in Northern Ireland, where I was born and raised.
Sadly, I haven’t got any illicit profits to hide in dubious tourism schemes, and I am very conscious that overlooked and underdeveloped is exactly how many of my fellow natives like their county, so my recent trip back was just about enjoyment, reconnecting and getting our kids a change of scenery. And what scenery.
Fermanagh is dominated by water – that which falls all too regularly from the sky, as well as that which has for millennia settled in the lakes and rivers which cover a significant portion of the county. An old adage maintains that for six months of the year Lough Erne is in Fermanagh, but for the other six months Fermanagh is in Lough Erne.
Most of the shore outside the main town of Enniskillen remains as natural as it was when created in the last ice age. The exception is probably Killadeas, a small town six miles north of Enniskillen, where sheltered bays and rich farmland are home to some of the most exclusive properties in the county, and which is a perfect central base from which to explore. The beautiful Manor House Country Hotel sits on a hill above the lake, and a nine-hole golf course splits the deciduous woodland that runs down to Manor Marine’s harbour, caravan park and lakeside paths.
The hotel and the marina are owned separately but there is a symbiotic relationship that works, each attracting custom for the other. We were staying in one of Manor Marine’s 12 holiday cottages, on a complex overlooking the water, with a tennis court, pitch and putt, children’s playground, games room and shop – and the comfort of having a four-star hotel with beautiful bars a three-minute walk up the hill when the self-catering became too much of an effort.
In summer, the small bay in front of the cottages buzzes with activity. Cruisers hum, jet skis snarl, paddleboards and kayaks whisper. But of all the Swallows and Amazons attractions of the area – boats, fishing, uninhabited islands, ancient ruins – it was feeding cups of Cheerios to a family of ducks on our patio each morning that most captivated our five-year-old, Isla.
The next four days passed in a whirl, which is one of many paradoxical things about Fermanagh – time seems to fly even though many locals observe only a passing interest in the whole concept of the clock. The region is famous (or infamous until you get used to it) for observing “Fermanagh Time”, which is basically GMT + “Sure, what’s the rush?” Upon crossing the county border, visitors should be advised not to put their watches back or forward, but to take them off altogether. Ironically, it takes a bit of time to adapt to this laidback approach to life.
The list of attractions and diverse locations in such a sparsely populated and relatively remote region is staggering. Having only a long weekend, we decided to concentrate on the Lower Lough and Enniskillen, and hired a day-boat from Manor Marine, which was perfect for a family adventure, with small people able to take it in turns to steer and play captain.
History and myth coexist and overlap on Erne and its islands as much as anywhere in Ireland. There are stone statues, many-faced Gods, forgotten burial grounds, siege sites, watery war graves, and a general air of mystery and mystique. The islands and much of the foreshore are thickly wooded, with gaps in between filled with fields where cattle chomp the lush grass and squelch their way right down to the water to stare at passing boats. It’s a pastoral idyll, the air thick, the breeze gentle and the birdsong and gentle lapping of the waters capable of lowering the most uptight of shoulders. Rolling clouds change the skies, the light, the colours, the lake itself. I’ve seen it silver, golden, brown, black and blue.
We chugged along gently, the boat splitting the peaty water and churning it dirty cream in a rippled wake to either side, passing the manicured fairways of the five-star Lough Erne Golf Resort, which played host to the world’s most powerful people during the G8 Summit in 2013. We were headed for Devenish Island, which, were it in the Lake District or Loch Lomond, would need no introduction. It’s a remarkable site, and what could be more enticing for a child than a boat trip to an island with ruins, spooky gravestones, a huge round tower, and gory tales of monks and Viking raids? Only a dragon and a treehouse could improve it.
Enniskillen is about half an hour from Devenish by slow cruiser, and the refreshments are well worth the trip. Blakes of the Hollow is a much-loved traditional bar right in the middle of the island town. Don’t miss the excellent local gin, Boatyard – and the county now has its own craft beer, Inishmacsaint. For food, Franco’s Restaurant has for decades served up that magical, slippery elixir called “atmosphere” alongside its excellent fare.
Heading back up the lough, we passed under the shadow of the imposing school on the hill, formerly known as Portora Royal, alma mater of luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and motored back to the Manor facing a sunset over the water that would defy description by even those celebrated wordsmiths.
Next morning it was a lake swim and some paddleboarding. The water is silky and earthy, not bristly and tangy like the salt water of the sea or a chlorinated pool. Beneath the surface there is little visibility beyond the length of your arm, but what was clear was that the depth of these experiences will stay with the children into adulthood, just as they have with me.
I reminded them of this as we got changed back at the cottage, but they reminded me that I had promised them a visit to Tickety-Moo Ice Cream, a thriving family business just five minutes up the road. There, we watched the cows being milked and pampered from the viewing platform in their shed, and then ate the thick, delicious ice cream that in some wonderful alchemy had been made from produce that was sloshing around in udders just hours earlier.
And it struck me that, while I’ve lived away, timeless Fermanagh has moved with the times. When I left the county in the late 1990s, the idea that this rural backwater would, within a few decades, be hosting the G8 summit in a five-star golf resort and boasting of its own ice-cream, gin and beer brands was fanciful. Perhaps the money launderers and exploitative developers will arrive after all. Get there before them.