Leitrim is a beautiful place to live. Maybe it’s the mug of tea intimacy of the county, with its total population of 26,000 people or thereabouts; the sweet-natured farm animals reared outdoors in corner of the pasture contentment; the clean air quality and sodden softness of the sky in communion with abundant small lakes; or the moodiness that lifts and lightens with a shot of sun.
The visitor’s first encounter is often via the N4 – the main Dublin to Sligo road – where the Shannon River and Leitrim meet at Roosky. Here you’ll notice the river traffic, the cabin cruisers, the pleasure craft and riverfront commerce. Further on up the road there are boisterous and eye-catching Stag & Hen parties that pile off the train every weekend in Carrick-on-Shannon which are both a blessing and a curse. But the Dock and the Leitrim Design centre balance the equation and overall the town with one foot in Leitrim and the other in Roscommon has a pleasing continental feel.
Leitrim people themselves tend to go on holiday to get out of their Wellingtons, but visitors to the county arrive wearing their waterproofs and rubber boots. And thanks to a visionary act of restoration in the 1990’s, the Ballinamore to Ballyconnell canal was refurbished and renamed the Shannon-Erne Waterway. It has proven a successful marriage of navigations between the Shannon in the South and the Erne North of the border that not only enlivens and enriches Leitrim’s county town, Carrick-on-Shannon, it has the effect of invigorating onetime backwaters such as Dromod, Drumsna, Leitrim Village, Keshcarriagan and Ballinamore.
The rolling Quinn cement company trucks booting it along narrow byroads are no longer the force they were in the county. But you will still see the massive Masonite factory, followed by MBNA and Retail Parks on the outskirts of Carrick, making South Leitrim look to citizens in the North of the county especially like a canton of economic preferment.
Economically, and now politically annexed, North Leitrim begins around the smoothing iron imprint of Lough Allen, and a triangle of old fairday towns, Drumshabo, Dowra and Drumkeeran. I am old enough to remember the awful devastation and heartbreak of forced emigration of the 1980’s - and it beggars belief that the State could have so comprehensively failed its citizens again; but once more we have a county denuded of young and not so young families and a whole generation of people under thirty gone to America, Canada, Australia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates to find work.
A history of dire economic and social circumstances has of course been the great preserver of the county’s unspoilt beauty. And its small population has lately made it vulnerable to encroachment by shale gas fracking interests who consider Leitrim a wilderness ripe for plunder.
Though banned by Leitrim County Council the threat posed by shale gas fracking is still very real through exploratory bore holes in neighbouring Fermanagh, and the fact remains that large parts of Leitrim and Sligo are mapped for exploitation. The truly valuable asset of course is clean water, and by rights the dauby hillsides of Leitirm ought to be looked on as its vineyards with the country itself branded as the champagne region of clean natural spring water.
Leitrim is lucky in that it has over the past decades proved itself to be a special place to explore alternative ways of living: nurturing difference, ethnicity, and a fertile cultural cross-pollination of Leitrim designers, holistic hillbillies and haiku horticulturalists that makes North Leitrim especially feel like the creative frontier of the county offering music festivals in Drumshabo and Drumkeeran, healers and a Health Farm in Dromahair, a Sculpture Centre, Glens theatre and concert space in Manorhamilton and an Organic Centre in Rossinver, to name only a sample of what’s afoot down its lesser known leafy green byways.
Despite these and a load of other countywide initiatives people are still experiencing a scarcity of time, neighbourliness and communal fellowship. In this respect Leitrim reflects in miniature dilemmas faced by the whole of Ireland: we have to regrow the economy yet recognize and cherish the importance of what we have inherited; old buildings, townscapes, field monuments and a fiercely varied yet fragile ecology of wild plants and creatures.
Equally, we have decisions to make about how we balance environmental concerns with rapid transport system and energy needs; how heavily we traffic tourism-income-rich waterways and accommodate access to the countryside while respecting the rights of landowners; how we embed housing in the existing rural fabric, and how we value and boost established communities. The elements are all there but it will take vision and courage and imagination to be leaders in creating new forms of community and culture based on such intangibles as memory, creativity and self-reliance without, as one Leitrim oldtimer put it, ‘trying to go back to a way we never were’.
© Brian Leyden, July 2014
l Brian Leyden is the author of the best-selling memoir about life in Ireland west of the Shannon, The Home Place. His other books include Departures, a collection of short stories; and the novel, Death and Plenty. He scripted the RTE documentary, No Meadows in Manhattan, which won a Jacobs’ Award; and he won the RTE Radio 1 Francis McManus Award in 1988 for The Last Mining Village. He has written extensively about his native area for RTE Radio 1’s Sunday Miscellany, and in the documentaries Even the Walls Were Sweatin’ and The Closing of the Gaiety Cinema in Carrick-on-Shannon. He has been Writer in Residence in both Leitrim (2000) and Sligo Libraries (2010). His most recent work is a screenplay, co-written with Director Johnny Gogan. The feature film Black Ice premiered at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013, before going on release in cinemas throughout Ireland.