Lough Gill (Loch Gile), measuring about 8 km / 5 mi x 2 km / 1 mi, and extending over the County Sligo / County Leitrim border, the lake is frequented by many species of wildfowl and is very popular with birdwatchers.
Scenically surrounded by wooded slopes and dotted with over 20 small islands, Lough Gill is widely considered the most beautiful lake in Ireland. (Photo © Jolanta W. Wawrzycka)
Although the Lough Gill Drive circuit (25km) is lovely, most agree that the best way to enjoy the lake is by boat.
Lough Gill’s Islands
Inisfree / Innisfree, a diminutive green blob with an area of less than half an acre, is celebrated in WB Yeats’ most famous early poem, inspired by a moment of homesickness while walking along London’s Fleet St.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1890)
I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
In fact, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, this supposedly peaceful islet was where Conor MacTiernan murdered his brother chieftain Fergal MacCadane in 1124.
Church Island (Inis Mór), the largest island on Lough Gill, is the location of a ruined early Christian church, part of an abbey said to have been founded in the C6th by Saint Loman and burned in 1416. A cavity in a rock near the door, known as ‘Lady’s Bed’, was a traditional place of pilgrimage for pregnant women.
Cottage Island, also known to locals as Beezie’s Island, is the location of a ruined church that originally belonged to the Premonstratensians of Trinity Abbey on Lough Key in County Roscommon. A centuries-old cottage, now derelict, was home to Mrs. Beezie Clerkin (née Gallagher), ‘The Lady of the Lake’, who lived all her life on the island. She worked in her youth as a housemaid for the Wynne family at nearby Hazelwood House, and after her husband’s death in 1934 continued to live alone, regularly rowing the 6 mile round trip to Sligo town for her pension and provisions, until she died in an accidental fire at the age of 80 in 1949. Much loved by local people, and famous for her rapport with wild animals & birds, she was the last human inhabitant of any island on Lough Gill.
St. Angela’s College, overlooking the eastern end of Lough Gill, occupies the C19th mansion and grounds of Clogherevagh House, former residence of a branch of the Wynne family of Hazelwood. Founded by the Ursuline Order of nuns in 1950, it is now a constituent college of NUI Galway, providing both undergraduate and postgraduate level training in Nursing and Health Studies, Home Economics and Education.
Hazelwood House, a neo-Classical Georgian mansion designed c.1730 by Richard Cassels for Owen Wynne, variously High Sheriff of Counties Leitrim and Sligo, was long the home of his descendants, who dominated local economic and political life for almost 200 years. Sold to the Land Commission in the 1920s, the house has been put to various uses, including army accommodation, psychiatric hospital, and industrial centre. It is not open to the public.
Parke’s Castle, overlooking the western end of Lough Gill, has been magnificently restored by the OPW. It was erected c. 1654 by Captain Robert Parke, whose family occupied the edifice, then known as Newtown / Leitrim Castle, until it was abandoned at the end of the C18th. (Photo by John Darcy)
Excavations beneath the courtyard cobbles in 1972-73 revealed the base of the original Tower House of the Uí Ruairc / O’Rourke clan, regional chieftains for several centuries until ousted by Cromwellian forces. It was here that Brian O’Rourke entertained Francisco de Cuellar, the Spanish Armada officer shipwrecked in September 1588, who later wrote of his host: “Although this chief is a savage, he is a good Christian and an enemy of the heretics and is always at war with them.”
Brian O’Rourke was executed for high treason in London in 1591.
Colgagh Lough and Doon Lough are among a number of scenic lakes in the upland area north of Lough Gill, to which they may be linked via subterranean streams, as none of these small shallow bodies of water has any apparent outflow. Surrounded by reeds and farmland, these are good spots for birdwatching.
Keelogyboy and Castlegal mountains north of Lough Gill, and Slieve Killery and Slieve Daean to the south, offer splendid vistas of the lake and hilly surroundings.
Lough Gill’s Forest Parks
Lough Gill Forest, the broad ring of mainly coniferous woodlands surrounding the lake, comprises 12 former estate properties, now owned by Coillte and run mainly as recreation amenities. Rich in flora and fauna, it is a bio-diversity area within the Lough Gill Natural Heritage Area (NHA); parts are also Special Areas of Conservation (SACs).
Hazelwood demesne, previously known as Annagh, was part of the lands owned by the O’Connor-Sligo dynasty and later by the Wynne family. This is an EU Funded LIFE Project (Alluvial Woodland Restoration) site, proposed for a NeighbourWood scheme. The Hazelwood Nature and Sculpture Trail, a lakeside installation featuring carved wooden figures of fishermen, local characters, horses and snakes, has been described as “a dreamlike procession flitting across one’s line of vision to the shores of Lough Gill“.
Deerpark Forest, a pleasant amenity area, is the location of the Deerpark Court Tomb, regarded as the finest example in the north of Ireland of its kind. Court tombs are probably oldest Neolithic structures. The Deerpark Tomb sits on a ridge with views of mountains and the beautiful Lough Gill below. Three interlinking chambers, measuring a total of 30 metres, are made from weathered limestone slabs, some one metre tall. There is an entrance passage on the monument’s south side.
Dooney Rock Forest Park, on the south shore of Lough Gill, most comprises original native woodland. Nature trails lead to the top of Dooney Rock, an outcrop commanding stunning views of Inisfree and indeed the entire lake. This was the setting for one of WB Yeats’ most famous poems, The Fiddler of Dooney (1899).
Slish Wood, on a headland sloping down to the south shore of Lough Gill, was once an extensive oak forest, mostly felled during WWII; the remnants can still be seen among the conifers near the water’s edge. There are about six miles of lakeside paths and forest rails, plus a pleasant picnic site. The Cullentra People’s Millennium Forest forms part of the amenity area, one of the few places in Ireland where arbutus /strawberry trees grow wild. Slish Wood itself is clearly identifiable in the first verse of another of WB Yeats’ greatest poems, The Stolen Child (1889) –
“WHERE dips the rocky highland Of Sleuth Wood in the lake, There lies a leafy island Where flapping herons wake The drowsy water-rats; There we’ve hid our faery vats, Full of berries And of reddest stolen cherries. Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
Killery (Co. Sligo)
Killery is a scenic little lakeside mooring spot near Innisfree.
Killery church, of which only two sidewalls and a gable remain, was the scene of a terrible incident in 1346, when Ualgarg O’Rourke fled here for sanctuary while pursued by rival tribal chiefs, who set fire to the building and killed him as he attempted to escape the flames.
The Killery Straining String Stones, near the centre of the adjacent graveyard, comprise a circle of round / oval shaped stones, at the centre of which a single rectangular shaped stone protrudes upright from the ground, with pieces of thread or strings attached to it. Sufferers from for all sorts of aches, pains and sprains, or their deputies, remove a string from the stone and replace it with another, while reciting certain prayers; the removed string is then applied to the afflicted part as a supposedly infallible cure. Although the stones have only been in their current positions since the C18th, the ritual evidently has its roots in Pagan times.
The Killery Coat / Costume was worn by a human body found in 1824 at a depth of 6ft in a local bog, whose remains were so well preserved that an inquest was held. The RIA had a man dressed in the cloak, coat and trousers to enable a woodcut artist’s impression to be taken of them. Sir William Wilde describing the coat as “a sort of frock or tunic, … single breasted and [with] fourteen circular buttons ingeniously formed of the same material as the coat itself”. Probably C15th in origin, the clothing is preserved in the NMI.