Dan McCarthy: Cherry Island is a treasure trove of history

Dan McCarthy: Cherry Island is a treasure trove of history

The shallow lake of Lough Ennell is 5km south of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, accompanied by a lake of around the same size north of the town, Lough Owel.

The shallowness of the lakes afforded them a suitability for the construction of crannógs, of which many examples are evident in both lakes. Crannógs are predominant in the northern half of the country where the vast majority of Ireland’s lakes can be found.

There were at least 22 crannógs on the 9km by 4km Lough Ennel, which was subject to a drainage scheme in the 1950s. That hydro activity saw several of the crannógs merge with the shoreline.

The main feature on Lough Ennell is Cro Inis, otherwise known as Cormorant Island otherwise the eponymous Malachy’s Island named for King Malachy who succeeded Brian Boru in 1014.

An ancient roadway called Slí Assail passes through the two lakes on its way to Tara, Co Meath, which was the hub for five major roadways in the first century AD, spreading to all major points of the compass. The region was a hive of activity with successive chieftains competing for territory.

Crannógs were often built to keep prisoners or to store wealth and frequently used to mark boundaries between spheres of influence. Cherry Island, just about 50m from the shore of Lough Ennell, lies on the boundary between Gaddaghanstown and Robinstown.

It was an island in its own right before being fortified. There is a circular stone cashel whose interior is significantly higher than water level. The construction is quite elaborate and was carried out by a chieftain who was able to command such resources as were needed to construct the island defence. It even had its own stone boat harbour, or ‘naust’.

The National Monuments service updated the record for Cherry Island in 2017 and a contribution from Caimin O’Brien stated: “This island cashel may be a place named in the twelfth-century hagiography, Colmáin maic Lúacháin, where there are mentions of such places as Dun na Cairrge (‘the fort of the rock’) or Inis na Cairrge, (‘the island of the rock’) both being royal seats of Onchu and Colman, successive kings of Fir Tulach.”

Crannógs often had an associated ringfort on the nearby shore and sure enough in Cherry Island’s case there is just such a one, Dún na Carraige, which has been linked to the Fir Tulach members of the much larger Uí Néill dynasty.

The neighbouring crannóg of Goose Island is also thought to be part of the Fir Tulach empire.

A Viking hoard of silver ingots was discovered on the nearby Dysart Island also under Dún na Carraige ownership. This hoard is not Scandinavian in origin but is though to have been place on Dysart Island due to Viking influence.

Dan McCarthy: Cherry Island is a treasure trove of history

The crannógs were mostly constructed in the late Bronze Age and iron Age but were also in use in the early medieval period and even much later than this.

Cherry Island yielded a hoard of 16th century coins and gold artefacts.

Apart from the hugely significant hoards found there, no other evidence of dwelling was found on this island in its excavation, which might have been expected.

In a PhD for NUI Maynooth, Aidan O’Sullivan wrote: “Intriguingly, there was no evidence for occupation material — bone, artefacts, or even charcoal (although this may have been eroded away by the lake).”

This reinforces the theory that Cherry Island was built solely as a repository for wealth. Various writers have suggested that the island was the location of an early medieval royal fort. Other islands on the lake had corresponding status.

North of Cherry Island lie Rushy Island and an island which should bring out the Huckleberry Finn in every adventurer, Schoolboy Island.

How to get there:

Kayak from the shore of Lough Ennell, Mullingar, Co Westmeath

Other: Antiquities of Rural Ireland, Muiris Ó Suilleabhaín et al, Wordwell; archaeology.ie; cora.ucc.ie; ‘The Social and Ideological role of Crannógs in Early Medieval Ireland’, Aidan O’Sullivan, NUI Maynooth

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