Europe > Britain and Ireland > Ireland > Northwest Ireland and Lakelands > County Cavan
County Cavan (Irish: Contae an Chabháin) is in Northwest Ireland and Lakelands. It's traditionally in the province of Ulster, but in 1921 was one of the three Ulster counties (the others being Donegal and Monaghan) assigned to the Republic of Ireland. It therefore has a long, and nowadays open and peaceful, border with the counties of Northern Ireland. Its main attraction is its scenery.
- 1 Cavan Town the county town is near Lough Oughter, studded with drumlin islets.
- 2 Virginia is on Lough Ramor, and Ballyjamesduff has the county museum.
- 3 Bailieborough has Castle Lough, and nearby Kingscourt has Dún na Rí Forest.
- 4 Belturbet at the head of the navigable River Erne is a quiet place for boating and angling.
- 5 Blacklion on the border is in limestone terrain, such as Cavan Burren Park.
This area is a post-glacial landscape of poor soils, drumlins (see below) and bogs: not much to fight over, and if you sent an army it would get stuck in something unpleasant. Until medieval times it was part of the kingdom of Bréifne, a buffer state between Ulster, Connacht and Leinster. Its Gaelic rulers the O'Rourke dynasty staunchly resisted Norman incursions but then warred among themselves, and their kingdom sundered into east and west. Once Elizabeth I of England subdued it, east Bréifne became County Cavan and part of Ulster, while west Bréifne became County Leitrim in Connacht.
Loyal English and Scots colonists were then settled in any potentially rebellious part of Ireland - which was pretty much all of it, but especially Ulster. They founded a series of "plantation" towns, such as Virginia in County Cavan, named for the late queen just in case the American colony and later US State of Virginia didn't suffice. With them came the Protestant church, improved agricultural methods (especially drainage projects) and industries such as linen, though these struggled against the poor soil and offered little protection when famine struck in the 1840s. Meanwhile railways and better roads came through, and Belfast became a metal-bashing second Glasgow, drawing people off the land hereabouts.
When Ireland achieved home rule as a prelude to independence in 1921, Ulster stood out against this, and the separate entity of Northern Ireland remained within the United Kingdom. The problem was that it had a Roman Catholic majority, who in a year or two would surely see the benefits of joining a vibrant young republic, and would vote Northern Ireland out of existence. The border was fixed to prevent this, so the Ulster counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal became part of the Republic, while the other six counties remained British. Within those six, the Protestant majority was ensured by gerrymandering electoral boundaries.
The border was a double blow for Cavan. Its hinterland and trade links to Enniskillen and Donegal were blighted. And the new republic was far from vibrant: it languished economically, and places on its Ulster fringes withered. The blight was especially felt in places like Belturbet and Blacklion in the northeast county. The border could be crossed, but the paperwork and hold-ups involved in shipping a truckload of cattle weren't worth it, you'd be tempted to smuggle. And when the "Troubles" resumed in the 1970s, that smuggling included weapons, explosives and wanted men. Potential investors shunned the area.
Ireland in the 1990s saw the "Celtic Tiger" years of economic boom. Much of this was squandered, but one tangible benefit was the creation of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, so that the lakes and rivers of Cavan became connected to the Irish navigable network. Tourism grew based on angling, boating and wildlife, and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 enshrined an open border with the UK. This agreement has stood up well for over 20 years but in 2021 is under strain through "Brexit". Can you fly into Belfast and hire a car and legally drive it to Cavan as before? . . . mmm, better check. What about the Waterway, which in many places forms the border? Blacklion has no wish to emulate Nicosia, with a European Union "hard" border through the middle of the community.
The county has no railway service. Cavan Town is the focus of bus routes; the main services are:
- - Expressway Bus 30 / X30 every hour or two from Dublin Busáras and Airport to Virginia, Cavan, Butlersbridge, Belturbet, Enniskillen, Ballyshannon and Donegal Town.
- - Bus 109X every hour or two from Dublin Busáras via Glasnevin, Finglas, Blanchardstown, Navan, Kells and Carnaross to Virginia and Cavan.
- - Bus 65 daily from Athlone via Ballymahon and Longford to Cavan, Clones and Monaghan.
- - On Friday only, another Bus 65 runs from Galway via Tuam, Roscommon and Longford to Cavan.
- - Ulsterbus 270 twice a day from Belfast via Portadown, Armagh and Monaghan to Cavan.
- - Bus 166 once M-F from Dundalk via Inniskeen, Carrickmacross, Shercock and Cootehill to Cavan.
By road from Dublin follow M3 / N3, maybe 90 min to Cavan Town.
Virginia, Cavan Town and Belturbet are on the Dublin-Donegal transport corridor, with buses every hour or two, see above.
Anywhere else, you need your own wheels, and a car if you don't want to take all day about it. Distances by bike are not great in the south of the county, but the northeast is a lonely sparse area. Europcar have a rental base at the edge of Cavan Town, +353 49 436 1441.
Belturbet is at the head of the navigable river and canal system, so by boat you can potter down into Upper Lough Erne and Ballyconnell. Indeed those navigable waterways link all the way to Enniskillen, Limerick, Waterford and Dublin.
- Cavan County Museum is in Ballyjamesduff.
- Dun A Ri Forest Park is in Kingscourt.
- The Workhouse Museum is within the shell of a grim institution in Bawnboy, northwest of Belturbet.
- Upper Shannon: Ireland's great Mississippi arises at Shannon Pot, reached by a short hike from the car park on R206 above Corbeg in the northwest of the county. It flows southwest to enter County Leitrim at Dowra, then down into Lough Allen, see Drumshanbo. That lough is the upper limit of navigation on the Shannon.
- Drumlins, hundreds of them. They're little ridges or hillocks, slightly elongated, in groups aligned the same direction. They're typically 500 m long by 200 m wide and are composed of clay, gravel and boulders deposited beneath glaciers. They form a "basket of eggs" landscape, and when flooded by sea or lakes they form a scenic pattern of islands. They're found worldwide but especially in a broad belt from Clew Bay in County Mayo to Strangford Lough in County Down, and indeed their name is Irish: droimnín, "littlest ridge". Cavan is the centre of this drumlin belt and they define its landscape. Their sparse, boggy soil is unsuitable for arable farming or even forestry so they're mostly just rough grazing land, but as islets they create a platform for hermit's dwellings, forts and wildlife refuges. This particular drumlin belt was laid down in the Midlandian era 79,000 – 13,000 years ago, the second and final Ice Age to cover Ireland. Precisely how they formed is debateable: by simple deposition, by scouring away of surrounding material, by flood action? Study of modern glaciers suggests a mix, but in Cavan you'll have many a happy hour to contemplate the question.
- Limestone terrain by contrast forms the northwest of the county, around Blacklion. Admire it both above ground, as at Cavan Burren Park, and below in the Marble Arch Caves.
- Boating on the River Erne, linked by navigable waterways to the entire country.
- Gaelic games: Cavan GAA are the county team, playing Gaelic football and hurling at Breffni Park in Cavan Town. There are some 40 club teams across the county.
- Golf: there are courses in Belturbet and Cavan Town.
- Virginia Agricultural Show is in August.
- Bar food will often be your best bet.
- For fine dining head for the upscale hotel restaurants, see Sleep.
- Abbey Bar is next to the bus station in Cavan Town, and something of an institution.
- Terra in Baillieborough make Irish liqueurs. No tours.
- Not many campsites or caravan parks - local caravanners head east for the beaches of County Louth.
- Lots of B&Bs, but they didn't open in 2020.
- Splurge places are Farnham Estate near Cavan Town, Slieve Russell near Belturbet, Cabra Castle in Baillieborough and Virginia Park Lodge in Virginia.
- County Meath to the south has Kells, home of the sacred book now in TCD Library Dublin, Brú na Bóinne Archaeological Park, and the site of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne.
- Sligo to the northwest has a roaring Atlantic coastline, prehistoric monuments, and brooding cloud-capped scarps that inspired the poetry of WB Yeats.
- Cavan is historically part of Ulster, and has good transport links via Armagh to Belfast, a fascinating city with in-your-face history.
- Cavan is also close to upper and lower Lough Erne and Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Don't just rush through on your way to Donegal.