The Islands of Ireland: Wilde charms of Corrib

The southern section of Lough Corrib still has dozens of islands and was in fact once connected to Galway City by means of a canal
The Islands of Ireland: Wilde charms of Corrib
A private house on Inishanboe, Lough Corrib, Co Galway. As an indicator of the lough's importance, many Viking longboats have been found over the years in its waters, proving its navigability from Galway City.

Lough Corrib is so vast that its corrugated shores in counties Galway and Mayo resembles an inland sea. Geographic nomenclature should probably have called it a sea and been done with it. In two sections, the northern area comprises the majority of its at least reputed 1,200 islands (don't worry, they won't all appear in this column). 

A more conservative estimate puts the total at 365 but discounting mere rocks and islets exposed when the lough's level is low, the true figure is closer to about 150.

The southern section of Lough Corrib still has dozens of islands and was in fact once connected to Galway City by means of a canal built between 1848 and 1852. 

It measured about 1km in length and was officially opened by Lord Eglinton. As an indicator of the lough's importance, many Viking longboats have been found over the years in its waters, proving its navigability from Galway City.

From the centre point of the upper lough, the vibrant town of Oughterard is the hub for coarse angling, and specifically the townland of Baurisheen where parallel jetties point outwards like fingers. From here, myriad islands begin to reveal themselves on a northeast/ southwest axis. 

Apart from the virtually bald Roeillaun, the other islands have dense tree cover. And from this vantage point, about 20 can be picked out. Inishanboe (the Island of the Old Cow) is a minor exception to the rule as over 170 years' of occupation has seen just the perimeter of trees remaining through which a path including beech, holly and Scots pine winds along the circumference of the island. 

On an aerial view it appears like a monk's tonsure, though one crowned with a modern windmill which is large enough to be seen from shore. In the mid 19th century a distinguished visitor to this island was Oscar Wilde's father, William. The Co Roscommon-born surgeon was an accomplished writer in his own right, authoring books on diverse topics including 'The Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater', the life of Jonathan Swift, and the 'The Epidemics of Ireland'. 

The charms and mysteries of Lough Corrib appealed to Wilde's curiosity and he went on to pen a thoroughly researched tome on its islands including Granuaile's island fortress, Castle Kirk Island, and the medieval Christian site of Inchagoill.

Writing in 1867, Wilde observed that he "was not a little surprised to find that notwithstanding it's perfect accessibility, this interesting district was unknown to tourists, and the true character and history of its monuments were neither appreciated nor understood by its inhabitants".

What was true of 1867 is true of 2020, for apart from the plentiful anglers, there are scarce numbers exploring these stunning sylvan islands. Inishanboe, known locally as Walsh's Island, derives its name from the legend associated with Dermot of the Lakes who was an O'Flaherty chieftain. 

In a battle with the Joyces, his family got stranded on said island, until a milk-white cow was discovered there and gave nourishment to the family who had been under great distress. Wilde gives his view that "the legend is invested with an air of romance well worthy of the attention of the novelist".

Motoring by the island, it is quite an arresting site to view the house in all its glory. It has a number of associated buildings, one crenellated, and a greenhouse where vines were once propagated. Built in the 1850s, and looking none the worse for wear, the house now has a boathouse and stunning gardens. 

In 1855 a John Darcy lived there and the house, probably then visited by Wilde, was described by him as a "pretty cottage". At the turn of the 19th century, it was occupied by a justice of the peace, Edward William Aucketell Jones. 

The island continued to change hands, passing to a Thady Lydon who lived there with his wife and family. Aucketell Jones then returned to the island (recorded as Anketell) with his wife, a countess, and their family. And so on through the 20th century 'til the current owner.

How to get there: Inishshanboe is privately owned. Fishing boats can be hired for other island landings from Kevin Molloy, 2km from Oughterard: 087 960 4170 

Other:

Lough Corrib, Its Shores and Islands, William Wilde, Wentworth Press; www.oughterardheritage.org; anglingcharts.com

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