Our Cuilcagh Mountains

The Cuilcagh mountains in the north west of the county are the highest mountains in Co Cavan and rise over 2,000 feet above the level of the sea. By: Geraldine Lynch

Lewis Topographical Dictionary which was published in 1837 and includes entries on every county and parish in Ireland and includes a 5,047 description of county Cavan, and describes the north west of the county as such;

“the Leitrim mountains overlook its western confines while towards the north-west rises the bleak, barren, and lofty range of the Slieve Russell mountains. But the chief mountains are those which separate this county and province from Connaught, encircling Glangavlin, namely, the Lurganculliagh, the Cuilagh, Slievenakilla and the Mullahuna, the highest of which is 2185 feet about the level of the sea.”

The Shannon
The Shannon, the longest river in Ireland, rises under the Cuilcagh mountains. The Shannon starts its 250 mile journey to the Atlantic in a hole called the Lug-na-Sionna or Shannon Pot, in a boggy field on the west side of the Cuilcagh Mountains. Rivulets gush from the slopes into the dark circular pool 50 foot wide, overhung by lichen - covered trees.

The Shannon is named after Sionna, the daughter of Lodon who was the son of Ler, the great sea god. According to legend Sionna became seized with the desire for knowledge which at the time was the possession of man alone. She dwelt in the land under the wave and in that land was Connla’s Well, a mythical place which had nine Saved Streams running from it and nine Saved Hazels growing around the margin. These were the hazels of science, poetry and knowledge. In the well lived the salmon of knowledge, who received its wisdom by eating the nuts from the saved hazels, so whoever ate the salmon would become all-knowing. Sionna went to Connla’s well to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. As Sionna bent down to try and catch the fish, the salmon leaped and lashed its tail in a rage. The water of the well overflowed and swept Sionna into the ‘Land of the Mortals’ through a hole in the earth which was forever to be associated with her name and known as Lug-na-Sionna or the ‘Shannon Pot.”
The Shannon soon becomes a fair-sized stream. Within three miles of its source it is joined by the Owenmore, which drains the Cuilcagh Mountains and by the time it reaches Dowra, above five miles away, a wide stone bridge is needed to cross it.

Many stories abound about the fairies and their crocks of gold on the Cuilcagh.
One story is told about a local young man who had a dream about a crock of gold high up on the mountain. One night he left his home in search of the crock of goal. He had brought a spade with him and began to dig when suddenly he hit the crock of gold. As he did a hen flew out of the hole, and frightened at this he ran the whole way home. At home he became very ill and his parents sent for the priest who came and said prayers over him. The young man began to improve and in a few days he was fit and well again but he never found the crock of gold.
There is a place called the ‘gold digging’ in a river on the Cuilcagh mountains.

Swann, Linn and Barr
From the 17th to the 19th century, Swanlinbar produced iron from ore found in the Cuilcagh Mountains, hence the town’s Irish name, which means Iron Mill. But the smelting was fuelled by charcoal and once the wood from the surrounding forests was exhausted, the industry collapsed. The Mill’s founders, Messrs Swann, Linn and Barr, became immortalised in the English name of the town. Swanlinbar is situated at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Cuilcagh Mountains and in the town’s heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries was a spa resort and attracted many of the gentry from the surrounding districts who gathered there in the summer to sample its waters. As sea bathing became more popular during the middle of the 19th century, inland resorts such as Swanlinbar declined.

The Kingdom of Glan
The Kingdom of Glan, more properly known as Glangevlin or “the forked glen” is surrounded by the Cuilcagh Mountains and bordering the counties of Leitrim and Fermanagh.

It is believed that the earliest inhabitants arrived there around five thousand years ago when tribes such as the Tuatha de Danann, the Formorians, the Milesians and the Celts found their way up the rivers Erne and Shannon. Proof of this are the dolmens, ringed forts, caiseals, passage graves and lake dwellings. The numerous caves and underground passages provided a natural home for these early settlers. The ringed forts were built as a defence against the wolves and eagles during the Bronze Age and were used up to the twelfth century and even later.

Many of the wedge-tombs, court-tombs, passage graves and dolmens are to be found in the 200 forested acres of Burren, or ‘stony place’ at the top of the limestone hill south of Blacklion, overlooking the marshlands below.

Among them are a rocking stone estimated to weigh six tons and the Druid’s altar - a dolmen or portal grave with a massive capstone. There is also a tomb that is said to be the grave of a giant who collapsed and died after attempting two jumps across the nearby Giant’s Leap.
The forested Burren area can be reached on foot along the Cavan Way which generally follows the course of the River Shannon.

Lewis Topographical Dictionary (1837) described Glangevlin as such;
“the mountain district between the counties of Fermanagh and Leitrim is generally known as “the kingdom of Glan” but more properly called Glangevlin or the country of the MacGaurans. To this isolated district there is no public road, and only one difficult pass; in some places a trackway is seen by which the cattle are driven out to the fairs of the adjacent country. It is about 16 miles in length by 7 miles in breadth and is inhabited by McGaurans and Dolans.”

The Magaurans were an intellectual race and in the 13th century there were Bardic Schools at the foot of Cuilcagh. In the 18th century Aodh Mac Gabhrain wrote a famous poem called “Plearacha na Ruaireach” which was translated into English by Dean Swift. This Aodh may be the friend whom O’Carolan (the last of the wandering bards) mentions.

Lewis Topographical Dictionary Types of Soil gave a detailed account of the minerals that were to be found in the soil around the Cuilcagh Moutains. The sub-stratum aroundBallyconnell was described as mostly mountain limestone which dipped rapidly to the west and appeared to pass under the Slieve Russell range of mountains, which were composed of the new red sandstone formation with some curious amalgamations of greenstone.

The description goes on as follows;
“To the West of Swanlinbar rises the Bealbally mountains, through which the Gap of Beal, the only entrance to Glangevlin and beyond at the furthest extremity of the county, is Lurgancullagh, forming the boundary between Ulster and Connacht. The base of this mountain range is clay-slate, the upper part consists entirely of sandstone, and near the summit is a stratum of mountain coal, ten feet thick, in the centre of which is a vein of remarkably good coal, but only about eight inches in thickness.

The sandstone of these mountains, in many parts, forms perpendicular cliffs of great height; and the summit of Cuilcagh, which is entirely composed of it, resembles an immense pavement traversed in every direction by great fissures. Frequently at the distance of from 80 to 100 yards from the edge of the precipice are huge chasms, from twelve to twenty feet wide, extending from the surface of the mountain to the bottom of the sandstone. Some of the calcareous hills to the west of the valley of Swanlinbar rise to a height of 1500 feet and are overspread with large rolled masses of sandstone, so as to make the entire elevation appear at first sight as if composed of the same. Iron ore abounds among the mountains of this part of the county and was formerly worked. In the district of Glan is found pure native sulphur in great quantities particular near Legnagrove and Dowra.

Taken from Breffni Blue
April 2002