Lough Erne / Loch Éirne (“Lake of the Érnai”) comprises two scenically wide sections of the River Erne in County Fermanagh. (Photo – Jon Sullivan)
The lakeside is high and rocky in some parts. The lakes contain 154 islands and many coves, inlets and peninsulas – also called “islands” because of the highly convoluted shoreline and because many of them were islands prior to two extensive drainage schemes in the 1880s which dropped the water level by 1.5 metres.
Interestingly, County Fermanagh escaped the Great Famine better than any other county due to its many islands. The potato blight had difficulty travelling over water, compared to the easier transmission across the green hills and fields of most of Ireland. The Erne islands produced surprising amounts of potatoes, while the mainland was largely starving in comparison.
Enniskillen is situated on the short stretch of the river between the lakes.
MV Kestrel departs fromEnniskillen’s Round ‘O’ Quay for two-hour cruises of Lower Lough Erne, including a stop off at Devenish Island.
Lower Lough Erne
Lower Lough Erne extends westwards for 26 miles, almost to the Atlantic Ocean, gradually broadening to measure 12km / 7mi across its widest section. Navigation on windy days can be something of a challenge with waves of open-sea dimensions. Islands include Boa Island, Cleenishmeen Island, Crevinishaughy Island, Cruninish Island, Devenish Island, Ely Island, Goat Island, Horse Island, Inish Doney, Inish Fovar, Inish Lougher, Inish More, Inishmacsaint, Inishmakill, Lustybeg Island, Lustymore Island and White Island.
Devenish Island (Daimhinis – “Ox Island”) was the site of Lough Erne’s most important monastery, founded by Saint Molaise in the C6th on a pilgrim route to Croagh Patrick. It became a centre of scholarship, and although raided by Vikings in 837 AD and burned in 1157, it later flourished as the site of the parish church and St Mary’s Augustinian Priory.
Devenish Island (Photo by Titanic)
The Oratory of Saint Molaise / Mo-Laisse’s House, a surprisingly small church, dates from the late C12th or early C13th century.
The C12th Round Tower, 30m / 100ft tall and in perfect condition, is the islands most striking feature. It can be climbed using internal ladders, and has a sculptured Romanesque cornice of heads and ornament under the conical stone roof. The foundations of an earlier tower were found adjacent to the present structure. Nearby is a High Cross carved with spiral patterns and human heads.
Teampull Mór, the lower church, erected in the early C13th, was extended to the east in about 1300; later additions include a residential wing to the north and the Maguire Chapel to the south, with C17th heraldic slabs.
The hillside Augustinian Priory complex, with church, tower and small north cloister, dates from the mid-Ci5th and early C16th century. There is an intricately carved mid C15th High Cross in the priory’s graveyard.
There are several hundred architectural fragments on the site, among them over 40 stones from an otherwise lost, richly-decorated Romanesque church.
Some of the many loose stones, cross-slabs and sculptures are displayed and set in their historical context in the small Museum in the Visitors Centre.
Devenish Island can be reached by ferry from Trory.
Killadeas (from Cill Chéile Dé – “Church of the Culdee”) (pop. 90) is a small village near the shores of Lower Lough Erne.
The ‘Priory’ parish church cemetery contains several interesting stones, including a carved figure known as the Bishops Stone, a multiple bullaun stone slab, a holde stone and a pillar.
The Manor House Hotel is a converted and extended mid-C19th reconstruction of Captain J Irvine’s 1660 country manor, previously known as ‘Rockfield’, which remained part of the Irvine Estate until 1957. It was used as an Officer’s Mess and Headquarters for the American Forces during WWII, and now provides golf and water sports facilities as well as a private leisure club and swimming pool.
Irvinestown (pop. 1800) is a very typical Irish country town, with an equal number of churches and pubs and a strong GAA tradition.
Before the Plantation of Ulster, the area was known as Na Cearna, Anglicised as Necarne / Nakerny / Nakarney / Nakarna. The village was founded in 1618 by Sir Gerald Lowther and initially called Lowtherstown, changing name when it later passed to the Irvines of Dumfries. The most notable building in the town is a ruined C18th church.
The Lady of The Lake Festival, an annual 10 day carnival which begins on the first Friday following the 12th July, is the largest cross-community Festival to be held in Northern Ireland and is named after the mythical figure which is said to appear gliding over the waters of Lower Lough Erne, wearing a flowing blue gown and carrying a bunch of flowers. The Lady is said to be an omen of good times to come.
Necarne Castle – Ulster Lakeland Equestrian Park is an impressive facility set in 200 acres of rolling pastures and extensive woodland, ideal for both horse riding and walking. Hihly qualified instructors provide training for BHS stage exams, instructors and groom qualifications as well as working pupil training programmes and high level courses for specific equestrian disciplines. Packages can be arranged for weekend breaks or longer visits with accommodation in on-site apartments.
Lisnarick / Lisnarrick, historically known as Lisnarrog (from Lios na nDarog – “fort of the oaks”) (pop. 250) is a residential community with a pretty village green, complete with oak trees and a row of cottages at one side.
Gublusk Bay was a Royal Air Force base for Short Sunderland and PBY Catalina flying boats during WWII. The site is now the home of the Lough Erne Yacht Club, which hosts the Lough Erne Regatta, Ireland’s oldest event for racing under sail, dating from at least 1820.
White Island, situated in Castle Archdale Bay, was the location of an early monastic settlement, destroyed by Vikings in 837 AD.
The C12th church ruin near the shore has a reconstructed Romanesque doorway. Eight quartzite carvings, probably sculpted between 800 AD and 1000, are built into the north side of the south wall, including a Sheela na Gig, a frowning face / mask, and six figures wearing the long tunics of churchmen. Helen Hickey has identified these as three pairs of caryatids. The second figure is similar to a representation of a seated Christ in the Book of Kells, supporting Hickey’s view that the carvings supported an Ambro (wooden lectern or pulpit used by clergy to proclaim the Gospel). One popular theory is that the figures illustrate an episode in the life of Saint Patrick, when he healed a local king.
White Island is accessed by ferry from the Castle Archdale Country Park marina.
Crevenish Castle, built c.1608 by Thomas Blennerhasset, was the 1641 Rebellion headquarters of Lady Deborah Blennerhasset’s husband, Captain Rory Maguire, who was executed at Tyburn Hill in London with his brother Cornelius, 2nd Baron Enniskillen. The ruined stronghold is adjacent to Crevenish Castle Holiday Park and Jetty, which has an exclusive facility for landing and launching boats.
KeshKesh (from An Cheis – “the wicker bridge“) (pop. 1000), just a mile from Lower Lough Erne, is unusual in that it was not built round a parish church or chapel. Situated on the Kesh River, navigable as far as the attractive marina in the middle of the village, it is a popular tourist resort. Scenic roads offers stunning views of the lake.A carnival takes place over two mid-August weekends every year, run by locals for locals, and attracting a small but appreciative crowd for a “duck derby”, vintage car rally, tug-of-war competition and various evening functions, usually based in or around the Mayfly Inn.
Boa Island, roughly 8 km (5 mi) long and relatively narrow, is the largest island in Lough Erne, traversed by the A47 road and joined by bridges to the mainland at each end.
Boa Island was originally named Inis Badhbha after Badb / Badhbh, one of a trio of Celtic goddesses of war. She sometimes took the form of a wolf, but is most often depicted as a Carrion crow (as seen on the shoulder of the dead Cúchulainn sculpture in Dublin’s GPO).
The island’s principal feature of interest is the Caldragh Cemetery, near Pettigo. Thought to date from the early Christian period (400-800AD), this graveyard contains two remarkable hand carved anthropomorphic stone statues, usually protected from the rain by a fabric canopy.
(Photo by Jon Sullivan)
The Boa Island Bilateral Figure is one of the most enigmatic stone figure in Ireland. Measuring 73cm / 29in in height and 45cm / 18in in width, it is often called a Janus figure due to its resemblance to the two-headed Roman god. Like Janus, it has one face looking forward and the other backwards; one possibly female, and one clearly male, with a penis. Given the name of the island, this could very well be a likeness of Badhbh.
The Lustyman / Lustymore Island Figure / Idol, discovered in situ in 1939 and moved onto Boa Island, is shorter, narrower, more weathered and almost certainly older than the Boa Island Figure. The positioning of its hands suggests that it may be a Sheela na Gig.
Although widely considered to represent pagan deities, the reasons behind the creation of these figures are unknown. They have been compared to the Tandragee Idol in Armagh City‘s St Patrick’s Cathedral and another two-faced figure from Holzgerlingen, Germany, suggesting that they date from around the British Iron Age. It is quite possible that they were part of a pre-Christian religious site, or may have been used by a Christian society that still practised some pagan rites.
Boa Island has been immortalised twice in verse. Derry-born Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney published his tribute January God in 1972. Francis Harvey, born in Enniskillen, published his collection of poems called The Boa Island Janus in 1996.
Rossharbour House, an attractive two-storey house with a pretty garden and a private jetty on Lower Lough Erne, is available for self-catering holiday rental.
Castle Caldwell Forest Park & Islands
Castle Caldwell Park, located on a small peninsula at the northwestern “narrow part” of Lower Lough Erne, is a National Nature Reserve known for its beautiful setting and great views over the lake.
Run by the RSPB, it attracts many bird watchers and other wildlife enthusiasts. Species include: breeding garden, grasshopper, sedge and willow warblers, siskin, tufted duck, red-breasted merganser, heron, Sandwich terns on islands, pine martens, badgers, otters and red squirrels.
Castle Caldwell itself was built by the Blennerhassett family between 1612 and 1619, during the Ulster Plantation. It was probably originally called Hassett’s Fort.
In the 1660’s the estate was first rented and then purchased by James Caldwell, an Enniskillen merchant, originally from Prestwick in Ayrshire, who was granted a baronetcy in 1683. His descendants resided in the castle for 200 years. A series of C18th renovations resulted in what some call “a paste board Gothic facade“ which others find “delightful”.
A Mr Bloomfield apparently married a Caldwell woman in the early 1800s. In 1849 the castle was inherited “from his father” by John Caldwell Bloomfield, described as an amateur mineralogist. He discovered that a vivid white coating on the outside of some of the tenants’ cottages was the result of clay deposits on the estate which were of unusually high quality and contained all of the necessary raw materials (feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale) to make ceramics.
Having persuaded the government to build a rail spur to the nearby village of Belleek, he went into partnership with a financier and a designer to open the famous pottery factory of the same name in 1857.
Caol Uisce, on Lower Lough Erne close to Belleek, was the site of a royal castle built by Gilbert Costello in 1212.
Camlin Tower was built in the 1830s as part of Camlin Castle and owned by the Tredennick family, sadly the castle was demolished as the Erne Hydro Scheme decided in their wisdom or lack of it, that the castle would be below the high water level of the dam. Thankfully Camlin Tower still remains and is now know as a Land Mark Property centrally located between Belleek and Ballyshannon.