Islands of Ireland: The lady of the lake

A musician in Co Donegal lived on Inishfree for around 20 years up to recently.

Islands of Ireland: The lady of the lake

The prospect of living alone on an island has crossed many people’s minds but few get the opportunity to live the dream.

First, you have to find an island with reasonable living accommodation. Second, you have to ensure an adequate source of supplies, food especially, and transport to the mainland in the event of difficulty. Third, you will need some sort of human contact or you will probably lose your marbles.

Few have managed the achievement successfully for a period of years.

A musician in Co Donegal lived on Inishfree for around 20 years up to recently. And an elderly man once eked out a living on the minute Inishaghoo near Achill Island in Co Mayo. The former stuntman for Charlie’s Angels, Pascal Whelan, lived alone on Omey Island, Co Galway for a number of years.

There are others, of course, but hardly any as redoubtable as Elizabeth Gallagher (née Clerkin), known as Beezie. In time, Cottage Island came to be known as Beezie’s Island or Gallagher’s Island, but no maps describe it thus.

Perhaps Beezie was inspired by WB Yeats who wrote ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree’ about a small wooded island 3km east on Lough Gill and thereby immortalising it in the process:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow

Beezie was born on the island in the 1860s before spending her young adulthood in service to the Wynne family of Hazelwood House. She later returned to see out her days in peace and tranquility on the island. She lived in harmony with nature and had a reputation as an animal love. One visitor reported swans eating from her hand in her own kitchen.

When her husband, a cattle dealer, died she continued to live on the island. When she got older she would walk to the jetty in front of her house every Friday and climb into her small boat and row 8km into Sligo to collect her pension.

Beezie’s Island, lies in the western part of Lough Gill just down the Garavogue River from Sligo town. The lake has about 20 islands including the largest, Chapel Island, as well as Fairy’s Island, Monk’s Island, Swam Island and Wolf’s Island.

In an article in 1944 The Irish Press reported: “Alone now and nearer 80 than 70, Mrs Clerkin keeps nine goats rather than nine bean rows and supplies hot water to picnic parties”.

And the picnickers were regular enough, arriving by boat from Sligo to pick primroses, heather and blackberries. Taking excursions to the then Cottage Island was a long-established tradition long. The Sligo Champion in 1898 reported on a party of 120 workers from the Irish Railway Clearing House visiting Sligo. “When Gallagher’s Island was reached, a disembarkation took place, and soon Mrs Gallagher’s picturesque cottage was cleared of every drop of buttermilk in it, and there was also a clearance of lemonade and soda water”.

In the severe winter of 1947 Beezie was cut off by the frozen lake and had to be rescued by locals who dragged her boat with her in it to the safety of the shore. Her dog and cat had died and she hadn’t eaten in two days, reported The Western People.

“There were only a few sticks lighting in the hearth. Members of the Garda Síochána and others who took part in the rescue did so at considerable risk,” wrote the paper. The first thing she asked for was “a pinch of snuff”, said The Sligo Champion. However, when the weather improved back she went.

In 1948 The Irish Press returned on the occasion of Beezie’s 75th birthday and found her “seated before a wood fire, a colourful figure in her knitted red skirt and green cardigan”.

Clearly, no worse for her experience in the big freeze. Sadly, Beezie died when her house was engulfed in flames not long after this. An amazing character. Not many people can say they have an island named after them.

There is a small church ruin on Beezie’s island which had connections to the White Canons of the Premonstratensian order (modern day Norbertines) which in the twelfth century had a church on Trinity Island, Lough Key, Co Roscommon.

    How to get there: For tours on Lough Gill — roseofinnisfree.com. sligokayaktours.com

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