County Fermanagh (Contae Fhear Manach) is one of the six counties of Northern Ireland, tucked away on the province's western corner. It's rural and thinly populated, with a population of 61,805 in 2011. The main reason to visit is for its extensive lakelands, which are linked by navigable waterways.
- 1 Enniskillen the principal town has a choice of castles: one functional, one palatial, and one in bits.
- 2 Belcoo on the Irish border is near Florence Court and Marble Arch Caves.
- 3 Belleek on the border is best known for its pottery.
- 4 Irvinestown near Necarne Castle and Castle Archdale is a good base for exploring Lower Lough Erne.
- 5 Lisnaskea is near Upper Lough Erne, with Crom Estate the highlight.
Fermanagh lies on sandstone and limestone so it's better drained and more fertile than much of Ireland, but it's very thinly populated. In legend the Fir Manach were settlers from Leinster, perhaps arriving in the 2nd century AD. It evolved into its own kingdom by the 11th century, and remained independent until 1607 as did Tyrone and Donegal. Then these last Irish kingdoms were crushed by the Nine Years' War, their rulers fled to the continent, and their lands were seized to be colonised by Scots and English.
The "Plantation" colonists were Protestant, bringing with them new farming methods and industries such as linen, and they were numerous in the east of Ulster. They were few in Fermanagh, which lacked transport and never developed much industry. Trade across the rest of Ireland was boosted by an ambitious network of canals, such as the Newry Canal to Lough Neagh. Ironically it was only in the 21st century that Fermanagh was connected, with the opening of the Shannon-Erne Waterway, so you can nowadays sail a small boat cross-country from Enniskillen to Limerick and Dublin.
Pressure for Irish independence mounted in the early 20th century but was furiously opposed by the Ulster Protestants, and so in 1921 it came to partition. 26 counties, including three historically in Ulster, joined the new "Free State" and later Republic of Ireland. County Fermanagh was among the other six that remained within the UK as Northern Ireland. But the border was a nonsense, dividing towns and sundering them from their hinterland - the area's railways were one casualty. Fermanagh forms a wedge between the three Ulster-but-republic counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. For 50 years it was a "hard" but not a hostile border, merely tedious to cross; then came "The Troubles" with long delays while documents and travellers were suspiciously checked, and vehicles were searched for guns or ammo. Some 112 people were killed in the county during The Troubles.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 enshrined an open, unpatrolled border, as trivial to cross as any county boundary. This looked doomed to be just another short-lived peace initiative when Omagh suffered a terrible bombing, but twenty years on the agreement has held. Strife-torn places in Ulster re-opened for business and re-launched themselves for tourism, and in Fermanagh the big practical and symbolic step was the completion of the Shannon-Erne Waterway. For several miles this forms the border, yet you can fish or boat along it at liberty. But since the UK left the European Union, those canal banks and reedy lake inlets have become the EU border, and there's anxiety about where this might lead.
See Belfast for long-distance travel options. The principal airports in Northern Ireland are Belfast International (BFS IATA) and George Best Belfast City (BHD IATA), both a two-hour drive away. City of Derry Airport (LDY IATA) is slightly closer, with a limited range of flights.
There are ferries from Great Britain to Belfast, Larne and Dublin.
Enniskillen has buses from Belfast, Dublin, Sligo and Donegal.
Enniskillen is the county transport hub, with buses from Belfast, Dublin, Sligo and Donegal, so anywhere along those transport corridors (such as Belcoo) has a reasonable service. Anywhere else has little or no public transport, you need your own wheels. Car hire in Enniskillen is possible but you'll do better to hire from your arrival airport. "Drive on the left!" they warn you, but have you seen the width of the back lanes hereabouts?
A network of national cycleways crosses the county, though they're mostly on road.
- Castles: choose from the sternly functional (Enniskillen Castle became a barracks), the tumbledown (such as Necarne and Archdale at Irvinestown), and the decorative (such as Castle Coole in Enniskillen), and make-overs such as Crom near Lisnaskea.
- Shabby abbeys: all the religious foundations were broken by the Dissolution circa 1540, but some continued as parish churches and graveyards. These include Aghalurcher near Lisnaskrea, and Devenish Island reached from Trory near Enniskillen.
- Karst and caves: southwest along the border near Belcoo is limestone country, with Burren Park above ground and Marble Arch Caves below.
- 1 Drummully "Polyp", also known as Colooney salient, is a pene-enclave: a portion of the Republic of Ireland almost cut off from the rest of that country, as it's surrounded by two arms of County Fermanagh. So its 100 inhabitants have to enter Northern Ireland to get anywhere, or ford a 110 m stretch of river. Likewise the east arm of Fermanagh ends in a claw with a pene-enclave almost surrounded by the Republic; it's much smaller and has a longer stretch of river from which to pick your fording point. None of this mattered while Fermanagh / Monaghan was simply a county boundary, but from 1921 it became a "hard" border when Ireland was partitioned, and during the "Troubles" from 1970 it became dangerous as it was difficult to patrol. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement it's again just been a trivial county line; but since 2021, anyone driving along the main road from Clones towards Cavan crosses the border of the European Union four times. Drummully is thus the most acute example of a problem that now hangs over all the border counties, and especially these two.
- What's on? Listen to Q Radio on 101.2 / 102.1 FM or read Fermanagh Herald or Impartial Reporter.
- Boating: trips and hire are mostly from Enniskillen and marinas on the lower lough. There's less on the upper lough, though its many islets make it more sheltered - the lower lough is open and aligned with the prevailing breeze, so the waves can really mount up.
- Gaelic games: Fermanagh GAA play football and hurling at Brewster Park in Enniskillen. There are about 20 GAA clubs across the county.
- Caves: beyond the show caves of Marble Arch lies an extensive system for suitably skilled cavers to explore. They're often flooded, all that rainfall has to go somewhere.
Pounds sterling (£) are official currency, but many retailers accept Euro notes though not coins.
- Bar meals and the better hotels are always your go-to.
- Watermill Restaurant is a highly-rated thatched establishment on Upper Lough Erne near Lisnaskrea.
- Just for a change, Dollakis in Enniskillen is Greek.
- Holy water: Near Belcoo is a holy well consecrated by St Patrick wherein are miracles yearly wrought upon devout persons by performing their stations with true devotion are often restored to sight and limb and of other distempers by virtue of ye said water and by ye grace of God - travel guide of 1718, possibly in need of updating.
- Enniskillen has the best choice of pubs.
- Sheelin Brewery is 5 km south of Enniskillen. No tours.
- Camp in style at Castle Archdale by Irvinestown.
- Fermanagh doesn't have chain hotels and the mainstay of local accommodation is B&B, but these mostly didn't open in 2020 or early 2021.
- Splurge places include Belle Isle and Knockninny near Lisnacrea, and Lusty Beg near Irvinestown.
- Your main hazard is always traffic, and never underestimate the local waters. Beyond that it's about protecting your valuables, eg in parked cars.
- Northeast to County Tyrone, where the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh depicts the emigrant experience.
- Northwest to County Donegal, with miles of scenic coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way.
- Southwest to County Leitrim and the upper reaches of the River Shannon.
- Further west to County Sligo, with the cloud-wreathed scarps, prehistoric sites and legends that inspired WB Yeats.
- South to County Cavan, the heart of the drumlin belt, with lakes studded with dozens of islets.