The Islands of Ireland: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

Owey Island, Co Donegal. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The underworld has always held a fascination for mankind. From the fabulous Cave of Swallows in Mexico featured on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth to the Lascaux Caves in France which has elaborate paintings of animals from 17,000 years ago.

Ireland has its fair share of cave systems, including Mitchelstown in Co Cork and Ailwee in Co Clare. However, there are others, some very inaccessible. But when did that ever stop anyone from exploring?

Like the neighbouring Gola Island, Owey Island or Uaigh (cave in Irish) in Co Donegal, is a magnet for climbers who cling to the pink granite walls like ants. A recent book for Collins Press by Alan Tees entitled Scrambles in Ulster and Connacht describes a lake under a lake on the island. “It is sufficiently large that the far side cannot be identified by torchlight but has been crossed by inflatable boat,” he writes.

Adventurer and author Iain Miller has recorded original and extraordinary footage of this netherworld [see website]. The surface lake called Poll a’ Chorra is small and the unnamed lake beneath is a freshwater lake not as you might think a small river or even trapped seawater. Footage of Miller descending the 50m from the surface of Owey to explore the lake recalls the expedition of the characters in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An opening in the jaws of the rock allows a descent into the depths.

The underground lake evokes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mythical river Alph, which ran “through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea” from his Romantic poem ‘Kubla Khan’. Underground lakes and rivers play a significant role in mythology including the infamous River Styx in Greek mythology over which you crossed to enter the underworld to the River Pishon which flowed from the Garden of Eden.

How did Miller feel in this under- explored world?

“It is so dark there is no way to tell if your eyes are open or closed,” he says. “It a bit like being submerged in breathable ink. All around you on the cavern walls and roof is bioluminescence. At the far eastern end of the lake is a circular pool, the Pool of Tranquility. This pool sits about 200m from the entrance to the sink and as such it is in complete darkness.”

Owey’s lake is original in that it is the only known underwater lake on an Irish island. There are probably more out there waiting to be discovered.

Access to Owey is from just west of Kincasslagh, birthplace of Daniel O’Donnell. The former island of Cruit, now attached to the mainland by a causeway, is the departure point for trips to Owey. Just a few kilometres to the south is Ireland’s second largest island, Arranmore — when you discount islands connected by causeways or bridges.

The island has been uninhabited since 1977 though if you visited in the summer you might not think so as a small number of the old granite dwellings have been restored. However, there is no electricity and no running water so the hardy souls who venture out for a break from the stresses of modern life don’t seem to mind roughing it. So distinct was Owey that a judge in 1927 declared it to be a republic in its own right.

In 1911, the island population peaked at 151 and a formerly sturdy schoolhouse bears witness to a sizeable number of children on the island. Now its roof is gone and its windows are empty.

It is a beautiful island though. Its eastern pastures and boreens contrast with the western bare granite beloved of the climbers. It has a tranquil air when not bombarded by storms. Last word to the mercurial Miller on the underground lake: “It is a mind-bending place to be in a small child’s inflatable dingy in complete darkness, 50m underground, 200m from the cavern entrance, on an uninhabited island and 5km from mainland Donegal.”

  • How to get there: Enquire in Cruit Golf Club
  • Other: Scrambles in Ulster and Connacht, Alan Tees, Collins Press.
  • For more info on Owey Island in Donegal, click here.

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