IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.
In this edition, explore the Lake Country of County Cavan. With its countless lakes and rivers that are so loved by fishermen, Cavan also has a wonderful wealth of heritage sites to match its scenic beauty.
We visited the ancient stone row of Shantemon last Friday. The land was shrouded in thick mist and countless spiders had woven a intricate tapestry of webs across every branch and tree.
It was the perfect atmosphere to visit a 3,000 year old place of ritual and ceremony that is soaked in legend and folklore.
The stone row at Shantemon consists of five stones aligned north-west – south east. They are graded in height, with the smallest at the north-western end (approximately 50cm [0.64 feet] tall) and the tallest at the south-east (approximately 2m [6.6 feet] tall).
Though there is a significant number in Ulster, stone rows and alignments are more common in the south-west of Ireland, particularly in counties Cork and Kerry. They generally date to the Bronze Age, between 1700 – 800 BC, and are occasionally found in association with stone circles.
They may have had an astronomical function, as, like the example at Shantemon, they tend to be sited on prominent slopes or hilltops, though unfortunately the true purpose for these enigmatic monuments remains unknown.
Similar monuments are found across Britain as well as parts of Scandinavia, Brittany and northern France.
This site is imbued with folklore and tales of the legendary warrior Fionn MacCumhaill. It is said that the four tall stones are Fionn’s fingers and the low stone his thumb, indeed the site is signposted Shantemon is less than a 15 minute drive from Cavan Town.
To find Shantemon Stone Row from Cavan, take the R188 north through Drumalee Cross, and continue on this road for about 10 minutes, turning right at Coratober (the third right turn after you go under the N3). When you reach the crossroads, turn left and continue on this road until you see a small carpark on the left at 54.02054, -7.29423.
Park here, opposite you will see a sign pointing up a track to Finn’s Fingers with interpretation of the ‘Castletara Millennium Trail’. Walk along the track for about 350m, where you will see a smaller, rougher track disappearing into the gorse on your right. Follow this track to the stone row.
Lough Oughter (from the Irish ‘Loch Uachtar’ meaning ‘The Upper Lake’) is a beautiful patchwork of water separated by small islands and drumlins. It is a much loved spot for fishermen, but it is also home to a wonderful array of archaeological and historical gems.
Perhaps most famous of these is the stunning Clogh Oughter Castle. The castle was originally constructed in the early 13th century – around 1220 by William Gorm de Lacy, son of Hugh de Lacy (of Trim Castle) and Rose O’Connor (daughter of Rory O’Connor, King of Connacht).
He chose to build his castle on Lough Oughter to dominate the region and overshadow the local O’Reilly clan. When the de Lacy family fell foul of the Crown, Clogh Oughter Castle was captured by William Marshal’s forces who allied with the O’Reilly’s.
The O’Reilly’s controlled the castle for the next four centuries, until the turbulent years of the 17th century.
The castle became a prison for a number of years, it was also the place where Owen Roe O’Neill died in 1649. He had been the key figure of the Confederate Wars of 1641, and won a vital victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646, where he routed a Scottish Covenanter army under the command of General Monro.
There are conflicting stories surrounding his death at Clogh Oughter, some say he died from an illness or as the result of infections of an old wound, others that he was poisoned by a priest.
Local tradition suggests that he was buried nearby at the church on Trinity Island. Clogh Oughter Castle was the very last Irish stronghold to fall to Cromwell’s forces.
It was bombarded by cannon until the garrison finally surrendered. Archaeological excavations in the late 1980s revealed some grisly evidence of the siege, as the remains of some of the victims were discovered.
One poor soul was found buried where he fell under a pile of rubble from the bombardment.
The castle is accessible by boat, apparently boats can be hired locally in Killeshandra (though unfortunately I arrived too late in the day to find one). You can find a great viewing point for the castle by parking at 54.01687, -7.45851, and then walking through the forest track to the shore.
Another monument on the shores of Lough Oughter that is well worth a look is the Gartnanoul Court Tomb.
Set within the lovely Killykeen Forest Park, this ancient tomb was constructed over 5,000 years ago. You’ll find the tomb at 54.0148, -7.49200. To get there travel north from Killashandra on the R201, after a series of sharp bends on the road take the right turn onto the L1509. Continue down this small road and stay right, you’ll come to a large sign for the Coillte Forest Park, go past this and continue on the track for a couple of hundred metres until you see a small lay-by on the right. Park here and follow the track
One of the most impressive places I have visited so far this year is the wonderful Cavan Burren. This remarkable upland limestone plateau is part of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark. The Cavan Burren has a visitor information point, leading to a number of superb walks along well-made paths and boardwalks offering stunning views over the landscape.
Here you will encounter an array of megalithic tombs, including the ‘Giant’s Grave’, a large and well-preserved wedge tomb that dates to around 2,500 BC.
The tomb has two burial chambers, and interestingly it has a large amount of cup and ring rock art. It is believed to be aligned with the rising sun at the winter solstice.
The remains of other monuments, including a small promontory fort and later 18th- and 19th-century settlement, means that the Cavan Burren is an absolutely perfect blend of breathtaking scenery and heritage.
You’ll find the Cavan Burren well-signposted from the village of Blacklion at co- ordinates 54.26519, -7.88745, it is free to access and I highly recommend a trip.
Nearby you can visit the source of the River Shannon at the Shannon Pot. This deep pool is formed by the confluence of a number of underground streams.
In legend, the Shannon was formed when Síonnan (a granddaughter of the God of the Sea, Manannán Mac Lír), travelled to the Shannon Pot to catch the Salmon of Knowledge.
The salmon didn’t take kindly to this and in outrage it caused the waters of the pool to spring up and overwhelm her, drawing her down into the depths of the pool. Once unleashed, the waters of the pool continued to flow and created the mighty river that still bears the doomed Síonnan’s name.
Recent water-tracing experiments have shown that several of the streams that sink on Cuilcagh Mountain flow underground to join the Shannon Pot, the furthest of these is a stream that sinks into the Pigeon Pots in County Fermanagh, making that arguably the true geographical source of the River Shannon.
The Shannon Pot is well signposted from the Cavan Burren. You can find it at co-ordinates 54.23693, -7.92216. There really is a true wealth of heritage to discover in County Cavan, and towns like Belturbet, Cavan and the superb Cavan County Museum are also fascinating places to visit. Cavan certainly has lots to offer!
Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.
You can also download audioguides from my website abartaheritage.ie, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.