Northwest Ireland and Lakelands is the tourist name for the Border Region of Ireland, more poetically defined as "NUTS-3 IE041". It's not a unit of government, it's just a grouping of counties for statistical and planning purposes, namely Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan and Sligo, with a population in 2016 of 392,837. It's all within the Republic of Ireland, and historically mostly within Ulster, though Sligo and Leitrim were part of Connacht.
In the centre of the drumlin belt, dotted with lake islets.
With mountains and rugged coasts, and Malin Head the northern tip of all of Ireland.
The quiet county at the head of the navigable River Shannon.
Also in drumlin country, with early Christian remains.
This has the prehistoric sites and dramatic crags that inspired the poetry of WB Yeats.
- 1 Carrick-on-Shannon is the main centre for boating on the Shannon.
- 2 Cavan Town is near island-studded lakes.
- 3 Donegal Town has several ancient buildings, but the abbey was blown to tiny smithereens.
- 4 Letterkenny is the hub for exploring County Donegal.
- 5 Monaghan famously declared a Bolshevik Soviet in 1919 - within the Lunatic Asylum.
- 6 Sligo is surrounded by dramatic scenery and ancient sites.
- 1 Arranmore and 2 Tory Island have accommodation and ferries from the Donegal mainland.
- 3 Inishtrahull 10 km north of Malin Head is the most northerly speck of dry land in Ireland, though the Tor Rocks lie another 1 km further north. It's nowadays uninhabited, and the landing beach is exposed so boat trips seldom visit.
"Don't mention the Border!"- it's no coincidence that this region looks a bit like Croatia on the map, with a chunk missing where its heartlands ought to be. When Ireland became independent in 1921, six of the nine counties of Ulster remained within the United Kingdom while three - Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal - became part of the Republic. So what was decried as a partition of Ireland was especially a partition of Ulster, with a "hard" border blighting trade and transport on both sides. Monaghan and Cavan lost their links to Belfast but at least their road to Dublin lay open. Donegal was doubly detached, with only a 9 km strip of territory joining it to the Republic, otherwise you had one border crossing to reach Derry and Belfast and two for Dublin. It was a major inconvenience at best, dangerous at worst during the late 20th century Troubles.
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought peace, enshrined an open border, and allowed Ulster to re-launch itself as a tourist destination. The Enterprise Train plies back and forth between Dublin and Belfast, the Shannon-Erne waterway was built to connect the navigable River Shannon at Carrick with Enniskillen and the lakes of Fermanagh, and a daily bus brings the students of Monaghan and Cavan to Ulster University in Coleraine. The county town of Donegal, Lifford, is effectively just the outskirts of Strabane in Omagh. The border was actively downplayed, for tourist and other purposes, so this region needed a different identity. What it has in abundance is lakes, so "Northwest and Lakelands" is what it became.
By air, Dublin (DUB IATA) is a good choice, for its range of flights and good onward transport. With a rental car, you'll reach this region in a couple of hours. Belfast has two airports, and is more convenient for Donegal, Monaghan and Leitrim.
The only railway across the region is from Dublin Connolly via Carrick, Boyle and Ballymote to Sligo, with five trains a day. For Donegal you can take the train from Belfast to Derry then the bus.
Buses from central Dublin run via the airport to Carrick and Sligo. Buses from Belfast run via Armagh to Monaghan and Cavan, and buses from Derry run to Donegal.
You need your own wheels to get anywhere in this scattered region. The only rail connection within it is Sligo - Ballymote: that leaves you some miles from the prehistoric sites that are the main reason to visit Ballymote, but bike-on-train would work.
See individual counties for bus routes, which radiate from the largest towns. Inter-city buses can convey you between towns but are too sparse for sightseeing along the way. Those main routes are Derry-Letterkenny-Donegal-Ballyshannon-Sligo-Galway, Dublin-Cavan-Enniskillen-Donegal, Enniskillen-Manorhamilton-Sligo-Enniscrone-Ballina, and Cavan-Monaghan-Belfast. Sligo also has an hourly service to Strandhill and Rosses Point.
Ferries ply from the Donegal mainland to Arranmore, Gola Island and Tory Island.
- Lough Gill and Glencar Lough are in scenic valleys on the Sligo / Leitrim border. The "Lake Isle of Inisfree" is about the least interesting islet of the many here, whereas Beezie's Island has a curious history.
- Carrickmore outside Sligo and Carrowkeel near Ballymote are the best of the many prehistoric sites.
- Drumlins create the "basket of eggs" countryside of Cavan and Monaghan, while limestone creates the "Cavan Burren" riddled with caves.
- Carrick has possibly Ireland's smallest church, and its most completely destroyed castle that anyone can still actually see.
- All the main towns have museums, but Donegal has the best, at Carndonagh, Newmills near Letterkenny, and Glencolmcille.
- Hill-walking: lots, of modest height, the most dramatic being the scarp of Ben Bulben (526 m) above Sligo.
- Boating: a remarkable network of navigable waterways links across the country from Dublin, and upriver from Limerick and Athlone. The head of navigation on the Shannon is just above Carrick, from where a new canal stretches to Lough Erne and Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. One missing link is the Ulster Canal, but work is under way to re-open it, maybe in 2024.
- Surfing: Sligo and Donegal have beaches exposed to the Atlantic, plus others that are sheltered enough for kiddy-bathing.
- Gaelic games: Sligo, Cavan and Leitrim GAA all play in their county towns, while Donegal GAA play in Ballybofin. Monaghan GAA play in Clones and host matches of Ulster GAA, whose home stadium is derelict.
- The Wild Atlantic Way is the name for the motoring route that hugs the west coast from Donegal through Sligo and all the way south to Cork.
- Seafood is a staple, especially in Sligo and Donegal.
- The upmarket hotels have the best dining, with several outstanding in Counties Donegal and Cavan. Otherwise pub grup is your best bet.
- As with the rest of Ireland, every town and village (and many a quiet country road) has a pub, where you can drink the best of beers and spirits, often manufactured in the locality.
- There are distilleries near Sligo, Dungloe and Glencolmcille in Donegal, Drumshanbo in Leitrim, and Carrickmacross in Monaghan. Plus maybe a dozen breweries.
- The hills seldom exceed 500 m altitude but can be cold, wet and windy even at the height of summer, and mist can descend suddenly.
- Beware Atlantic waves and currents, and tides on the causeways such as to Coney Island.
- But the main hazards are man-made, especially traffic.
- East is Northern Ireland: Derry and Belfast are fascinating cities, and the coast of County Antrim has Bushmills, Giant's Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede Bridge.
- Southwest is County Mayo, resembling Donegal with its bleak hills, bogs and scattered islands.
- South you enter County Galway via its low-lying pastoral east: don't overlook the likes of Tuam and Athenry on the road to Galway city.