Islands of Ireland: Moonlit horseman of Lough Gur

Garret Island is impenetrable under a canopy of trees growing at every conceivable angle. When the Irish Examiner visited recently there was a feeling of a lost city to this small but fascinating place in the monument-rich Lough Gur, Co Limerick.

After some poking about, the gable wall of a castle revealed itself and then lo and behold, an entranceway. And then ... that was it! The rest was enveloped in foliage so dense that it would cover the height of three men.

The castle, now in ruins evidently, is named for Gearóid or Garret Fitzgerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond. It had been constructed by the time of his birth in 1533 but three years later was occupied by the English. In 1536, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Lord Leonard Grey, occupied the castle on the pretext of a dispute over the earl of Desmond title.

Lough Gur
Lough Gur

The lord deputy wrote of the Geraldines as “situate in an island of fresh water, which is a stronghold, and in no less reputation in these parts than Maynooth, the chief seat of the Earls of Kildare”.

The castle was later handed back to the Fitzgeralds who were loyal to the crown. However, rebellion was always in the air, and the population rose up to resist English rule and to preserve the Gaelic way of life: Brehon law, bardic poetry and the Irish language. The Desmond rebellions saw thousands killed in a savage repression and a scorched earth policy meant famine trailed in the wake of the slaughter prior to the plantation of Munster with English settlers. The Earl of Desmond, Garret, having failed to act against the rebels, fell out of favour with Queen Elizabeth and he was a marked man. He was eventually killed by her forces in 1583 and his head dispatched to London.

The Desmond castle was later held by the so-called ‘Súgán Earl’ who was nephew to Garret Fitzgerald — the title was unofficial, hence ‘Earl of Straw’. From 1597 to 1599 he controlled the lake hinterland and especially the road from Kilmallock to Limerick.

Queen Elizabeth’s terminator-in-chief, George Carew, later to subdue and massacre 300 members of the Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare sept at Dursey Island, Co Cork, was under instructions to capture or kill the Sugan Earl. This earl’s fortress at Lough Gur was under constant attack from Carew’s men stationed at nearby Kilmallock. He was eventually captured and sent to the Tower of London where he died.

An earlier occupancy on Garret Island centuries earlier was linked to a dwelling of Gerald FitzGerald, or Gearóid Iarla (Earl Gerald), the third earl of Desmond.

A legend developed around his exploits. He was held prisoner on the island but every seven years he rode across the lake on a white horse shod with silver shoes.

When the shoes were worn away Gearoid would rid Ireland of the last English garrison, so the story went.

Now Garret’s ride by Loch Gur’s side/ Is legend far and wide/ And Garret’s name and mythic fame/ Is heard with awe and fear/ For whoever will pass his way Must cross the great divide

~ went a popular ballad.

A US anthropologist Evans Wentz wrote of the myth that: “Geároid lives there in the under-lake world to this day, awaiting the time of his normal return to the world of men. But once in every seven years, on clear moonlight nights, he emerges temporarily, when the Lough Gur peasantry sees him as a phantom mounted on a phantom white horse, leading a phantom or fairy cavalcade across the lake and land.”

Garret Island is the only natural island on Lough Gur. Over the centuries, the water level has risen and fallen and it is possible a causeway on the southern end linked the island to the lake shore. There are three crannógs there: Bolin Island is clearly distinguishable near today’s heritage centre and appears to have its own causeway; Crock Island and Church Island are enveloped with foliage at the lake side.

  • How to get there: Lough Gur is north of Bruff on the R512. Kayak trips available with kilfinaneoec.com
  • Other: loughgur.com; Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, 1958, Part I; Evans-Wentz, WY The Fairy-faith in Celtic Countries. London: Frowde, 1911

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