Updated: Sep 29
For several years I travelled through the county of Cavan in order to go to work and, like many people, didn’t take a second look at the places I was passing on a bi-weekly basis. Now I am retired, with plenty of time for exploring, I took a trip back to the Slieve Russell Hotel, a fabulous four star hotel with a spa, golf course and a beautiful walkway by a lake, through conifered woodland. It’s my go to spot for an overnight stay and I’d thoroughly recommend it all year round.
A couple of miles from the hotel is Drumlane Abbey and Round Tower, a historic monument dating back to the sixth century. It is a picturesque spot reminding me of my visit to Clonmacnoise as the ruins of the abbey also overlook a beautiful lake: Garfinny Lough. The waters were high, the recent weather having been more than just April showers! Still the sun had decided to shine for the half hour I was there and I was impressed with the round tower that, like many in Ireland, has lost its roof.
It does however have two impressive Romanesque windows and similar can be seen in the abbey itself, which was the victim of fire in the thirteenth century. The site is mainly a graveyard and I found it poignant to see the tombstones of centuries past eroding away and listing to one side due to the winds gusting across the lake, especially in the winter months. I find it interesting to make out the inscriptions on the older tombstones which are often more poetic, dare I say flamboyant, than the simplicity of modern ones.
The graveyard also has some impressive Celtic crosses and the daffodils around the walls and on some of the older graves were beautiful. A thoughtful touch and it would be lovely to see other cemeteries adopting this idea. Wild flowers bring such cheer to dull spring days and are easily maintained.
Leaving the shores of Lough Garfinney I drove further north to Castle Saunderson, which was also the victim of a fire on more than one occasion. Some might argue this is more of a stately home than a castle, but I enjoyed a walk around the grounds and learning about the history of the area and of the Sanderson family, a ‘u’ being added to the name later.
The land once belonged to the powerful O’Reilly clan, but British monarchs, keen to expand their power base, ‘planted’ loyal settlers in Ireland and a Scottish mercenary, Alexander Sanderson was granted the lands in 1618. He was succeeded by his son Robert who settled in the area and was granted more land by Oliver Cromwell.
Heavy fighting in the seventeenth century between those loyal to Catholic King James and Protestant William of Orange resulted in the castle being burnt to the ground for the first time in 1689. The vicinity was the scene of a bloody battle with King James’ troops being forced to choose to be slain by the sword or drown in the river over which the castle looks.
Today the view of the river from the castle is obscured by trees, but in the eighteenth century the grounds must have been magnificent as in 1828 the owner of the property was an MP for Cavan, Alexander Saunderson, who married a daughter of another wealthy family, Sarah. During the Great Famine Saunderson was said to have been a “kindly landlord” as he suspended rents, but following an accident Sarah seemed to have taken charge and the estate was passed down to her third eldest son who was a staunch Loyalist.
An advocate for Britain to retain rule in Ireland he spoke out against those like Charles Stuart Parnell who wished for Home Rule. Away from politics he was a generous, affable host and the bog gardens on the estate were regarded as one of the finest in Europe.
The last owner of Saunderson Castle was Edward’s grandson, Sandy Saunderson. He was a prisoner of war in World War II and, having studied law, worked at the Nuremburg War Trails. He dreamed of restoring the estate but it proved too costly and unfortunately the property was sold in 1977 and then was the victim of a second fire in 1990.
Saunderson Castle is now viewed as a symbol of cross border co-operation and there is an International Scout Centre yards from the ruins. Each year tens of thousands of scouts visit the centre to learn about peace and reconciliation. (Perhaps a few world leaders and politicians nowadays could do with a reminder!)
Walking away from the castle along the shores of the lake I stumbled across a small church, which I later learned was where the Saunderson family are buried. The entrance to the crypt can be clearly seen, but a heavy shower and a locked gate put pay to me exploring further.
Both Dunlane Abbey and Castle Sanderson are free to visit and I spent the morning exploring their grounds, soaking up some sun and a little rain. However, not having to spend a fortune and enjoying the good fresh air is a holiday bonus and I won’t listen to people complaining about the cost of going out when there is so much to see which is free and easily accessible. I certainly will be doing some more exploring of the Emerald Isle in the coming months, both near and far from home.
Please check out my other blogs concerning ruins and I've a few suggestions of free places to go in Britain and Ireland
Clonmacnoise is one of the most famous monasteries in Ireland and I visited a couple of years ago when the Ministry of Public Works deemed many places to be free of charge (thanks to Covid!). Read more about my visit via this link:
Other castles which are not much more than ruins are also free to enter at the time of writing and worth a look:
Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire has dungeons!
Newark Castle in Nottinghamshire is just one wall, but the walk along the river is lovely.
Saltaire in Yorkshire is a village and UNESCO heritage site which is very interesting and cost me the price of a pint in the local pub.
Then there is always the seaside or riverside walks:
Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk are unusual and the setting for my next novel.
The Suffolk coastline has many places of interest too.
The seaside town of Bundoran in County Donegal and the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast of Ireland have many areas which are free to visit and it’s always fun to paddle in the sea, but take heed of warning signs.
There are numerous lake walks in Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, but take a rain jacket!
If I can find places which are free to visit on my travels I am sure you can too. Enjoy exploring and stay safe.